From pick-up games to the TBT: Underdawgs playing for wins, money

Antwan Long is one of three players who was on the original Jackson Underdawgs team in 2016 who’s on the team this year.

His former high school teammates at Liberty – Anthony Sampson and Tavius Johnson – are the other two originals competing this year.

This year’s team features alumni from South Side like Jaylen Barford – who played NCAA Division I ball at Arkansas. It also features other West Tennessee talent like Brownsville’s Jarvis Varnado (Troy University) and Humboldt’s Desonta Bradford (East Tennessee State University) and a number of other guys from Memphis and others who’ve played Division I ball at places like Wofford and Louisville.

“It’s definitely grown since that first year, but after trying to win The Basketball Tournament championship, the goal is to represent Jackson and West Tennessee well,” Long said during an interview Monday.

Three others involved with the team that first year are with the team again this year – coaches Dexter Williams and Terrell Green and manager Darius Deberry.

Long graduated from Liberty in 2008 and played college ball at Lambuth. After graduating in 2012, he and a few former teammates from Liberty were playing in tournaments locally.

They’d also meet a few players who were alumni of South Side in those tournaments like Jeremy Weddle.

“It got to the point where if both them and us were in a tournament, you could pretty much count on the championship game being us vs. them,” Long said. “And then one day we were talking, and they said to us that they’d played against us, watched us, respect us and like the way we played and if there was a way for us to play together, let’s see what would happen.”

One of the players in the group got the rest to thinking about branching out and going to bigger tournaments in cities like Nashville or Atlanta, where the tournaments had decent payouts for the winners.

“So we started going to those tournaments and competing there – because we love the game of basketball and competing and winning money for playing basketball isn’t a bad deal either,” Long said.

But then they heard about the TBT.

“We had a group text going, and someone said something about hearing about this tournament that paid half a million dollars,” Long said. “I thought it was a scam because no one would pay that much to a basketball tournament winner.

“But sure enough, a few weeks later, someone found the semifinals of that tournament or the championship on TV and texted the rest of us and told us to get to a TV and watch this.”

It was then the Underdawgs were unofficially born as the group of Liberty and South Side alumni began working for their first shot at the TBT.

But after playing a few scrimmages and in a couple tournaments, Long figured out they needed a coach.

“It’s not that we necessarily needed someone to make us better and teach us the game because we all already know what we’re doing when we’re on the court,” Long said. “But we needed one or two guys over on the side guiding the ship and watching what’s going on that maybe we can’t see while we’re in the middle of it.

“Plus the TBT required us to have a coach. But who better to ask to coach us than the one who coached most of us? That’s when we called Coach Williams.”

Williams, who was coaching at Milan High at the time, agreed to join the team along with Green, who was his assistant at Liberty and continued to coach there until he became the head coach. Williams is now coaching at Trinity Christian with Long as his assistant, and Green was recently named the new coach for the girls’ varsity team at Humboldt.

The Underdawgs made an immediate impact in 2016. They were the lowest-seeded team in the entire tournament, which meant they opened against the top seed, which was made of a group of alumni players from Kentucky.

“Do you know how many more people paid attention to this team from Jackson, Tennessee, after we beat the team from Kentucky compared to before we beat them?” Long said. “We were all getting pulled to the side from different people, telling us how much they enjoy watching us play and how hard we play.

“And that really meant a lot to us because no one at the TBT knew then where Jackson was. And a lot of people at the tournament each year still don’t. So we want to make a good impression about our team that we play the game hard and don’t take any plays off. And I think we accomplish that every year, whether we’re one-and-done or we make a run.”

The deepest run they’ve made is winning the region championship and making it to the quarterfinals.

“It’s a really competitive tournament with very little room for error,” Long said. “Because we like to think we’re good.

“But think about teams from Kentucky or Wake Forest or Louisville. We’re about to play a region tournament at Freedom Hall in Louisville, and one of the teams there is a team of Louisville alumni. The winner of this tournament gets a million dollars. There are some good teams coming for that money.”

Long said the players appreciate how much support they get from people back home in Jackson when they play on one of the cable channels in the ESPN network.

“We’ll hear after a game about people watching and seeing what we did or we’ll hear before we go about how they’re pulling for us, and that’s great,” Long said. “When we first started this, it was just to go and win basketball games, but knowing we’ve got people back home watching and pulling for us makes the experience even more special.”

The Underdawgs open play in Louisville on July 25.

Brandon Shields,