“As gritty as this game is about to be today,” Coltrane Curtis, one of the founders of Fightball, told me before tipoff, “it’s super sexy and polished at the same time.”
We’re at SIR Studios, Hell’s Kitchen, New York City, a.k.a. Fightball’s Springfield College. A custom 40-foot court, finished in glossy black, not unlike the Barclays Center’s playing surface, is framed by two baskets and high school–style metal bleachers running along one side. It’s a miniature playground run, essentially, placed carefully inside a nightclub with two open bars, moonlighting models circulating with small plates of hors d’oeuvres, an upstairs VIP section, DJ Clark Kent spinning tracks from G-Unit and Clipse and Mase and I think you get the picture.
Fightball is a single-elimination tournament consisting of eight-minute games of one-on-one that are divided into four-minute halves and played on a 40-foot long court with an eight-second shot clock. It seems like a crazy idea, but crazy in the way that you definitely want to see it in action first, you know, just to make sure.
“This game is very different from the traditional game,” Jonas Hallberg, another founder, said. “You need to be able to dominate on both ends of the floor, you need to have the condition, the stamina, and the will to overpower your opponent. We wanted to find those guys that have that heart and also the skills to dominate on the court.”
The players are familiar with each other, many having played in AAU and pro-am leagues with and against each other for years. The most notable Fightballer is Chris Smith, brother of Knicks shooting guard J.R. Smith. Then there’s Philadelphia by way of Division II Wilmington University streetballer Mike “Keyes” Keyes, and Brooklyn’s Marvin “Child Abuser” Roberts,1 who played at Florida International under Isiah Thomas. The Bronx’s Mike “Get2It” Tuitt averaged nine points and 4.5 assists in 2011-12, his senior year at Hampton University, while Ron Yates spent the last five seasons playing in Switzerland, France, and Finland. William “Beast” McFarlan from Queens, the oldest Fightballer at 38 years of age, spent four years at Division II’s St. Thomas Aquinas and played two seasons in Argentina. Harlem’s Allan “Shep” Sheppard went from St. Francis College of the Northeast Conference to stints in Iceland, Ecuador, and Chile, and Gerald “G Colds” Colds matriculated from St. Raymond’s High School in the Bronx to Drexel University.
Roberts’s distinctive nickname was coined by Joe Pope, the voice of New York City streetball. Pope was MC’ing a pro-am in which the teenage Roberts was making his debut. Roberts dominated several matchups, including one with ex–Pittsburgh Panther Carl Krauser, and had taken to exclaiming, “These guys are all babies!” after made baskets. Pope announced, “You must not like kids.” Thus was born the Child Abuser.
The minds behind Fightball — Hallberg and Curtis along with Liron Reznik — all have backgrounds in advertising and publicity, with résumés that include various makes of European luxury vehicles and bottle service–y brands of imported spirits. They met — and this is a tale that almost makes one believe that the New York City of the fables and sitcoms still exists somewhere — because they all lived in the same apartment building. Ideas were exchanged; those ideas coalesced into a larger idea for a one-on-one style of basketball tournament.
“It’s basically to celebrate that core essence of what basketball is about,” Hallberg said.
The difficulty with distilling basketball down to its core essence, though, is that the essence of basketball isn’t really a distillable element; it arises from the complex chemistry between players, and the movement of those players and the ball. And all within a framework that works best when legislated as a piece of performance art rather than a writ of law.
After the first round of games, Roberts, Tuitt, McFarlan, and Smith had advanced. It was immediately clear that Smith was the most skilled player of the evening, and he dispatched Colds, 17-13, in wire-to-wire fashion, deploying a series of nifty turnaround fadeaways. Smith’s display is, in a way, an answer in the negative to the “Could Kentucky Beat [Team X]?” sports fan-fic construction. Even the worst NBA players — and last season Smith played a grand total of two minutes in the NBA, during which he took no shots and scored zero everythings — are uncommonly good basketball players.
Sitting in the back row of bleachers, I struck up a conversation with a person who turned out to be a prospective investor in Fightball. “Everything expensive, they did right,” he told me, listing the player intro videos, the court, the signage, the club space, and the various promotional materials in particular. As for the basketball, he wanted to see more dunks. “Maybe lower the baskets to nine and a half and widen the court so guys have more angles to the rim.” Another twentysomething guy near us suggested, “Put Plexiglas walls around the court so there’s no out of bounds.”
The semifinals saw a noticeable uptick in competitive vigor as the $10,000 grand prize2 loomed a mere 16 minutes away. The $10,000 is, real talk, legit life-changing money; plus, the holidays are coming up. From here on out, Fightball would live up to its name.
Each player earned $1,000 to participate, with an additional $1,000 awarded to the owner of the night’s best dunk.
Fight 1: William “Beast” McFarlan vs. Marvin “Child Abuser” Roberts. Beast’s play style certainly fit his nickname. Probably the strongest player in the tournament, McFarlan’s go-to offensive move was to swing his off arm out like a curtain wall and back down his opponent from the half-court line. When he got close enough to the basket, he’d fling up a hook shot that looked like what happens when a fat guy sits on a seesaw. On defense, McFarlan’s strategy was to foul dudes liberally and blatantly. With the score nip and tuck — as far as one could tell, what with the scoreboard perpetually malfunctioning — Roberts got by McFarlan on a drive. McFarlan responded by grabbing Roberts about the shoulders and neck and swinging him down to the ground in a heap. A reflexive “OHHHH” erupted from the gathered crowd, and each player’s respective contingent of supporters rushed the court. When it was over, we all just kind of accepted that Beast had advanced to the finals, score unknown.
Fight 2: Chris Smith vs. Mike “Get2It” Tuitt. With his superior handle and overall skills, Smith took a 10-6 lead into halftime. The physicality kicked up in the second half, with Tuitt pushing Smith in the chest whenever Smith rose up for a shot. Then Smith delivered a hard, chopping foul to Tuitt, who fell to the court. Each player’s supporters surged onto the floor. Dudes are hanging over the bar separating the first row of bleachers and the court, gesticulating. There’s a lot of angry pointing. Hallberg and Curtis appear in the scrum, talking to people, calming the situation down.
This goes on for several minutes. I am standing at the top row of the bleachers, furiously scribbling notes, when I see Rembert Browne sitting one row down. We dap, hug, and exchange looks that I think reflected the absurd carnival of life that was Fightball.
The court clears. Tuitt comes back to win the game, setting up a Tuitt vs. Beast final.
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Then Jadakiss appears — the real, non-holographic Jadakiss — and, as if directly out of a dream, performs “We Gonna Make It.”
“How cool was that?” Reznik said afterward. “I’m glad people appreciated that.”
Mere seconds after Jadakiss leaves the court, and well before the final game commences, Fight 3 pops off, cause unknown. Some drinks were thrown and a gentleman was shoved. Said gentleman rounds on the person who pushed him and throws a punch, the momentum of which causes him to lose his footing in a puddle of spilled beverage — down he went, punch sputtering out in midair. Security eventually restored order, the gentleman was escorted out, and there followed some extremely halfhearted Swiffering of the court.
Now, the Fightball finals. Beast McFarlan vs. Get2It Tuitt. The players can taste the money. The first half is a brickfest, with Beast using his clear strength advantage to bully Tuitt on both ends of the floor. Neither guy can score, though, and they go to halftime with Beast leading 4-3 (I think).
At the end of halftime, though, the scoreboard inexplicably reads 4-4. Beast and his backers surround the ref, gesturing up at the scoreboard. Hallberg and Curtis are locked in serious discussion at the scorer’s table. There is mass confusion. This goes on for several minutes. Finally Pope, exasperated, announces that the score is indeed 4-3, McFarlan.
In the second half, Beast continued with his, thus far, quite successful strategy of backing an opponent down from half court. With time running out and Beast (according to the scoreboard) leading 11-9, Tuitt drains a 2-pointer as Pope counts down the final seconds. The crowd explodes. We’re going to overtime.
People rush the court again while Bobby Shmurda blasts out of the house speakers. I look across the court and one of several middle-aged, banker-looking dudes standing along the far sideline is doing the Shmoney dance.
In overtime, Tuitt hits on a strategy that ends up swinging the game. He gives cursory resistance to Beast’s post-ups, allowing him deep paint position. When McFarlan levers up that hideous Frankenstein hook shot, Tuitt boxes out strong, corrals the rebound, and zooms past his slower opponent into the open court for the layup. Tuitt does this twice in a row in the final minute of overtime and goes ahead 13-11. Game.
Tuitt is deservedly and joyously mobbed. Hallberg and Curtis appear bearing one of those giant sandwich-board checks that only turns up when something truly momentous has happened.
Before the tournament, as players lay on the floor stretching and waiters lounged against the walls checking their phones, I asked Fightball’s founders what their ultimate goal is. What’s the dream outcome? Their next step is to take Fightball on the road, kind of a one-on-one version of the And1 Mixtape Tour, but international. Eventually they want Fightball to be a sport that its athletes can make a living from, something that basketball proper accomplished only after roughly 70 years of existence.
“Let’s not even say ‘dream,’” Curtis said. “I think this is a destiny that can actually happen.”