As you already know at the VBL, our motto is “the game never stops”.
Day 1 – Get to Shanghai
The day after our season came to an end, Sunday August 13, we quickly switched into high gear with a mission in all our hearts. We prepared the team visas, and scooped up all the special edition VBL merchandise for our Chinese friends, including the exclusive release of the team “VBL vs The World” T-Hoodies. No longer was it just a motto throughout the tournament but instead a way to live by for us abroad.
It was starting. Everyone had planned to meet at the airport at midnight for our 1:30 departure for Shanghai.
Big Man Larry Sanders found out his Visa had expired one week prior and Davie had the dates mixed up. We called him at home an hour away, he pivoted, grabbed his gym bag and rushed on his way to an impossible mission for flight departing in 90 minutes, whew. He barely made it as they were closing down the checkout counter when he arrived. We couldn’t leave without our boy.
The team was united at last and we began lift off to Shanghai for our 14 hour flight. Quickly the team bonding began with stories of the 2017 season, and lessons from our basketball triumphs and losses.
But hold up, let’s take a minute to talk about this team. The people assembled for this special mission consisted of the best players from the 2017 VBL season. Let me introduce you to the starting five…
The captain of the team, Van Girard II, aka All Fades, soon to be a father of two, is from Los Angeles and most recently played his first professional season in Mexico.
Second starting guard, Ryan Nitz, aka The Mercenary, was Rookie of The Year and played his first professional season in Italy’s third division.
At the three, Tristan Wilson, aka King Hustle, is a four time reigning MVP, and a native from Chicago who spends most of his time coaching the youth down in Long Beach.
At the four, Davie Champagnie, aka Pop Champagne, is our six year VBL veteran who played his first pro season in Spain last year.
Our big man in the middle, Marcus Fuggins, aka The Devourer. He’s defensive player of the year who works full time at 24 hour fitness and is also a part time comedian. Trust us, he’ll make you laugh on and off the court.
Then, coming off the bench we have a lot of star power with NBA veteran Keith Closs who now lives in Shanghai coaching the youth.
We have superstar actor and model Chris Staples, not only known as the best dunker in the world, but he’s a lights out shooter and all around great player.
We have Ramez Micheal, aka Meezzy, who recently graduated college and brings his great energy and defensive stops off the bench.
Then, last but not least, we have young CEO Nick Ansom, aka Organicko, player, coach, nutritionist and GM of this all star basketball team (the most compatible and well rounded basketball family VBL ever put together), and founder of VBL.
We came on this mission and we took the steps necessary to get there, praying, eating healthy, going to bed early, and staying focused on the grand prize of $100,000.
Even though we were rival teams during the VBL season, we genuinely cared for each other as a whole, understanding one another and bonding quickly into a new brotherhood.
Family and winning were the two most important words in our heads. We put our egos aside and started playing for each other, playing on all sides, and doing the intangibles on defense. A recipe we believe are the key ingredients to a win.
We were quick to drop our suitcases and have a quick meal. Then, we were out the door to discover the neighborhood…
About a mile away from the hotel we found a cool gated park located near the subway. Admission was 2 yen, which is equivalent to 5 cents, so we already knew we had to get our money’s worth.
We invited our long time VBL friend, Bang Lee and his Space Ball team from Japan to join us for a friendly scrimmage on the court. We played a series of three games to fifteen, by twos and threes and an eighteen second shot clock, following the jump 10 rule format. The Japanese team was outsized by our bigs, and did not have enough muscle for our guards. Quick games 15-4, 15-2, 15-3, we ran them off the court.
Up next was Brazil who wanted a piece of the action. However, it was the same scenario with an easy win of 15-4, knocking them off the court. We were loose and feeling at home and the highlights started flowing with alley oops from Van to Nitz to start it off, Nitz to staples for the game breaker!
Once sunset hit we stretched and took a few photos with local fans before heading back to our hotel, the Wyndham, for the official opening dinner.
All of the teams were staying at one hotel, so our post travel pick up game had our competitors buzzing about our wins at the park. It was finally time to enjoy some good traditional Chinese cuisine and get acquainted with our competition. The 10 course meal did not disappoint with a lot of new culinary discoveries for me and the guys.
*Note: The local 10 course meal was just a little too foreign for T Will’s taste, along with a variety of food allergies, leaving him only one option, chicken. He had a good sense of humor about it, and was out the door with “Meezy” to KFC before dessert was even served.
Everyone was exhausted now it was time was some serious rest.
Day 2 – Opening Day vs. Russia
After a restful night, we enjoyed a Chinese breakfast buffet where once again the attention and talk seemed to be towards us as players. I took a moment to chat with the Nigerian team and our good friends from the Philippines, Mike Swift. This is when it hit us that this love of the game that we all share had brought the entire world together for an historical tournament.
After a quick chill it was time or our first official practice at Rucker Park, 30 minutes to the east of our hotel inside a big supermarket with five full size court basketball courts.
This looked nothing like the real Rucker Park in NY, but go figure that this billionaire Chinese man is well on his way to build a dozen facilities across the country. Here players are allowed to smoke and drink inside the gym, courtside, and it is wild!!
20 minutes of shooting around and light warm up we then walked through our sets: Horns and flat with 4 different shot options. “T Will” then took us through the 2 out of bound plays stack1 and stack2. We stretched it out and took it back to the hotel for a quick refresh nap.
We were facing Russia that night with some serious shooters and a lot of bigs on their side.
The official ceremony began at 7pm, where they introduced the 20 national teams represented and “VBL”, the only team not represented by a country. Some fans were confused as to where this VBL team represented on the world map. After the intro, a projection of fire and ice 3D sublimation at center court, samurai dancers started synchronize dancing! Chinese rappers came out extra hyped and got the fans on their feet.
From there Giannis “The Greek Freak” Antetokounmpo did the honorary Tip Off as the #1 Chinese team took on Spain. Led by billionaire player “king“, a lot of the calls went in their favor and got a fairly easy win in first round.
That night, we were at the main event at 9.30pm and we did not disappoint with a 6-0 start led by Van and Nitz. Won the first round 15-6 and Russia didn’t let out for Round 2. They surprised us with a couple of long range 3s to bring them back to 9-7with 3min left. The referees were on the edge and gave us 4 technical fouls that led to free throws. One was on chris running away quiet from the call, one for me raising my arms at the ref after the call, it was just complete madness. After a time out we got level headed with the squad and finished with two stops to end 13-10. We won. (2-0)
Day 3 – Discovery Day
On our third day in Shanghai was a time for discovery, so our good friend and team assistant, Kai Gao, took us on a tour of his home town.
We traveled by subway where we ended at the black market train station “Xianggang”. As we made our way through the “fake market” underground world we handed out VBL balls to some deserving kids, and we all managed to come out with some fresh traditional silk suits, made 4XL.
From the market, we walked down to the Bund, a promenade that runs along the Huangpu River. Inspiring a beautiful juxtaposition of the old and new world. Overlooking mind blowing futuristic skyscrapers on one side of the bank with traditional colonial buildings on the other side, some dating back to the early 1800s. The Bund is a notorious place for taking photos, and we did exactly that, with hundreds of Chinese fans, as we made our way down the riverbank soaking in the sights. (dévourer and king hustle were crowd favorites). The team then cruised across the river on what seemed like a several centuries old, ferry boat, where we discovered a small but amazing playground on the water. We had a little shoot around and dunk session before heading back. In an eventful manor we had to mob the local way, this time by city yellow bikes through the city. After an eventful eight hour excursion we finally arrived back to the hotel, ready for a big meal at the buffet and for a full night’s rest in our plush accommodations.
Day 4 – Game 2 vs. Italy
We woke up sore from our adventures, and after some yoga we headed down to buffet before going off to practice at the park. We were the first ones to arrive besides a lady whom quickly squeegeed the rain water off the court. I admire this great dedication to see someone maintaining a park court so well, even though I was shocked when she said she could not put up any nets up. As a result we decided to make our contribution part of the “Build courts, Not Walls” Campaign and facilitated some nets for this new found home court.
We shot around until 2 pm, and then had some down time at the hotel before the inagural tip off at 4pm.
We played the first game against Italy, who we had the ironic pleasure of squeezing onto a bus with us for a thirty minute ride to the Rucker Park stadium, where the JUMP10 was held.
We had plenty of time to get acquainted with our opposition, and was cool to see how much some of these guys knew about VBL. We didn’t want take the friendship too far and stayed focus on the game at task but one thing for sure is they were fans and ready to loose.
We started the game by taking a souvenir picture for them to remember us by. As you could have guessed it was a quick game 15-5 / 15-9. The Italian’s were outsized by our bigs and couldn’t keep up with our the pace. Our team all got a piece of the action, including myself with a shake and bake to the line and 2 easy free throws. The mercenary, Ryan Nitz, hit some long range threes and dominated with some monster dunks.
Day 5 – WIN OR GO HOME
We were ranked #2 out of the 24 teams after the Jump10 ranking system behind Canada. I had spent a bit of time scouting them, and they had lot size and talent with all Pro Players, but they didn’t seem to have much chemistry as a team.
Every meal at the buffet the “Devourer” led the charge as we demolished the buffet. Our motto was take it all and “ leave nothing on the table”. We had a lot to choose from with waffles, bacon, amazing hash brown, soups, fruits, yogurt…the buffet was loaded. “Organicko” couldn’t get his hands on anything organic so he opted for mostly sticking to the salad bar, with eggs, rice, and the occasional waffle. While rest of the team enjoyed performing on high animal protein centered meals.
Up next, a tradition now, we walked through a practice and shot around at the park. The mythical creature, Keith Closs and his pack of Marlboro joined us and as he even brought the loving boom box to come along. The vibes were good, everyone was positive spirit, singing, feeling blessed, it was a confident moment for all believing we were going win this whole thing.
First up, we jumped up on Australia’s throats with 8-0 start led by Nitz who was on fire!! (15-6/15-7). Australia was good and had upset the last years champs, Mexico. We were now ranked #1 going into the final 4 draft which led us to playing Brazil, instead of China.
They seemed intimidated, having played them at the park earlier this week really helped the mental approach from us to them. We were in their heads from before the tip off, locking up and making it hard to find the rim.
Chris Staples came in with five minutes left in the game and Van through a lob off the steal for a shutdown dunk that got everyone in the crowd off their feet!
It was great momentum because next up was the dunk contest where chris was facing 3 other of the best in the world, Justin Darlington from Canada, Lipek from Poland, and Smoove from Ukraine. To their advantage they got to rest up all week at the hotel and didn’t have to compete in the tournament but Chris had a whole squad on his side! He did not disappoint landing all his dunks but his highlight of it all was when he pulled up in a motorcycle and all of us jumped into our Chinese silk suits and he 360’d between the legs and over the bike with authority. It was a moment, so much so that instead of the whole squad getting hyped we just bowed at him! Our brother Lipek also had an amazing performance but we couldn’t let him win that one, he was coming home with us to Venice.
It was now onto the championship with Canada, last years finalists who beat the drew league round 1 last year. Their team had a lot of talent with some D league and top division pros but they couldn’t match our hearts and desire. We were a family and no one was going to break this!
It was a scrappy game with a lot of 50/50 balls coming in our advantage. “Devourer” quickly got in foul trouble so Boss Closs and Meezy had to step in with some big defensive stops. 13-9, we beat the clock on that one.
One last period to go and this was it. Our captain Van took control of this one after a time out with the game tied and 10 seconds left, 8 seconds on the shot clock. Plan was to run flat and run a pick and roll with “devourer” letting him make the best decision, which he did!! Shake, hesitation, pump fake, getting the defense off their feet, and 3 pointer…shit goes up… moment of silence .. all net!!
The crowd went WILD! They threw a desperation shot with 1 sec left but the whole team was already on the floor rushing him with sweaty hugs and cheers followed by 100 cameras on us. Come to find out there was 500 million live viewers on the stream!
It was surreal, confetti falling from the sky, champions gear, gold champ rings. It was an amazing moment of joy all of our hoop dream wishes came true. The glory of hard work and dedication had all paid off!
After some interviews from the press, autograph signing and selfie sessions with the fans, we hoped back on the bus with some of our new found friends. It was a party, DJ All Fades on the 1s and 2s singing and screaming the whole way back to the hotel!
And now was time to party, Andy had reserved a whole section of the #1 nightclub in Shanghai and as we walked in fashionably late at 2am. It was high five’s all around’s from all the other teams, shoutouts from the DJ’s. You know Davie had to pop champagne one time, and we shared a few shots and cheered the night away with our rivals and new found friends.
The morning was hard to wake up for the guys with injuries from Chris, Van and Davie but come to find out in the lobby was awaiting a briefcase of $100,000 in cash plus an extra 5k for Chris and 5k for Ryan for winning the MVP. Glorious moments , money smelled stronger than french cheese and the guys were in heaven now. Devourer had lot debts, Davie was on his last dime, Ryan needed help his mom with medical bills… so really everyone really needed the cash. It was just the cherry on the cake of glory…
We came on a mission together and we made it greater than we could have ever dreamed, sharing real moments of friendships, and geniune care for one another. It was the perfect team the VBL dream team!
On Sunday August 20th,2017, history was made in Shanghai, China. The VBL team came on a mission across the world to represent the United States and Venice Beach and took home undefeated the grand cash prize
20 international teams were selected to participate in the competition was fierce but Veniceball organization represented in style and already looking forward to defend their title next year!
Photos and Videos Jeremy Renault