As any March Madness fan will attest, single elimination basketball tournaments are unpredictable by nature. And last Saturday’s Red Bull King of the Rock, the one-on-one extravaganza on the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary grounds, featuring 64 players from 19 different countries competing for a $20,000 prize, cranks this up several notches. To say the least, there are variables to negotiate.
Games are played after sundown. The weather is cold enough that long sleeves, stocking caps, and hoodies are essential (kudos to the Golden State Warriors cheerleaders, who braved the elements in their typical unis while entertaining the crowd). Periodic winds made jumpers a dicey proposition. And the tournament is conducted in the same yard formerly used by inmates. Fair to say, the warden wasn’t concerned about a pristine playing surface. The uneven pavement is littered with cracks, rocks and weeds.
Plus bird crap. Tons and tons of bird crap.
“It doesn’t get any more streetball than this,” said Los Angeles Clippers All-Star forward Blake Griffin, who hosted the festivities. “Guys talk about Prison ball. This is Prison Ball at it’s finest. The atmosphere, you just look up and see Alcatraz. There’s no escaping this, so it’s pretty awesome.”
Awesome and non-stop. With four games going simultaneously on two courts, KOTR is a veritable orgy of halfcourt roundball, the action too fast and furious to attempt predicting the outcome. There were shocking exits, none more so than the second round goodbye for Hugh ‘Baby Shaq’ Jones (D.C.). True to his nickname, Baby Shaq methodically uses his size and handle to bulldoze towards the hoop for either a layup or a foul. Terry McQueen (Raleigh) was helpless guarding him, one foul away from disqualification with two minutes remaining. Suddenly, the ref swallowed his whistle, and Baby Shaq grew visibly flustered. A couple of long jumpers dropped for McQueen, and the throne was officially vacant.
“I did everything I was supposed to,” fumed Jones afterward. “The referee just stopped reffing.”
But the night’s biggest surprise was probably Tarron “The Beast” Williams who emerged Alcatraz’s new King. The victory was a long-time coming for ‘The Beast,’ who failed to qualify for the 2010 KOTR, then couldn’t participate in the next two due to injury. He’s 36 years old, which Williams says is “almost 50” in street ball years. Finally on board after winning the East LA entry, Williams’s ascent featured similar adversity.
A Final Four match against fellow American Santwon Latunde went into overtime after the exhausted competitors managed just five points each. Williams quickly pulled ahead, but also suffered leg cramps severe enough to require assistance from the trainers. Already playing on a never-repaired torn meniscus from 2011, The Beast battled in the finals through gritted teeth, living up to a nickname bestowed upon him by former NBA All-Star Baron Davis after a contest spent destroying opponents down low. That same formula secured a thoroughly one-sided thrashing over the physically outmatched Sergio de la Fuente of Spain.
By his own admission, Williams entered KOTR under the radar, but never lacked confidence.
“I didn’t feel like no underdog because everybody knows what I’m capable of and I played to my potential,” said Williams afterward, trophy in hand. “LA guys know my potential and know how I play. The rest of the guys didn’t know nothing about me. It was a surprise for a lot of them.”
Having played overseas, in the ABA and on the SlamBall circuit, cashing a $20,000 check is key for The Beast – his twin boys are in for a memorable Christmas – but repping LA is just as sweet.
“It’s huge,” smiled Williams. “There’s a lot of ball players in LA and for me to be able to come home with the title, it feels good.”
“This is how we all started playing basketball,” noted Griffin. “One-on-one in the driveway, in the park, whatever it is. It’s fun to me. You can see how much guys really care, because when they lose, they’re pissed. And they should be, because that’s what it’s about.”