The Red Bull Reign Tournament will bring some of Chicago’s best ball players to Seward Park on July 26.
While each participant will bring his own individual talent to the three-on-three showcase, it’s the stories of these players that are just as compelling and deserving of attention as what they will show on the court.
Brian Centella is no stranger to the game of basketball, three-on-three competition or Red Bull tournaments, having competed twice in the Midnight Run and once in the King of the Rock.
Centella will man the Heart Squad, teaming up with players he’s won several three-on-three tournaments with. Their familiarity with each other and the competitive spirit of an underdog makes the Heart Squad a tough matchup for any team hoping to advance to the championship game.
SLAM caught up with Centella to learn more about his hoops journey and his expectations for the Red Bull Reign Tournament.
Team: Heart Squad
– Brian Centella
– Rick Kolve
– Mike Ernst
– Jimmy Ernst
SLAM: Tell us a little bit about your background and your relationship with the game.
Brian Centella: I grew up in Grayslake, IL. I went to Grayslake High School, had a real nice high school playing career. I ended up playing at Loras College (IA). It’s a Division III school. I had a real nice career there, basically started all four years. Multiple all-conference, all-region, scored over a thousand points, like eighth all-time in school history in assists. We were two-time conference champs while I was there, played in the Division III NCAA tournament twice.
After college, I basically kept playing. I had to go back for my fifth year to do my student teaching. I was coaching there and I just kept playing. I’ve been working and everything, but basketball has just stayed a really important part of my life. I played in a bunch of really good leagues in and around Chicago. I’ve played on some semi-pro teams in the IBA and BBL. I played on a couple of teams sponsored by Red Bull, the Midnight Run, individual tournaments like the Red Bull King of the Rock—I won the Chicago Red Bull King of the Rock Tournament a couple of years ago.
I still coach basketball. I still obviously play a lot. It’s been a huge part of my life and kind of helps define who I am as a person.
SLAM: How was your experience in the Midnight Run and how did you start hearing about the Red Bull-sponsored tournaments?
BC: I participated in it twice; this past year and two years ago when they first had it. I kind of heard about it just through people. I had participated in another Red Bull event, the Red Bull King of the Rock. I won the Chicago one, so I got reached out to by people and got asked about my interest in the Midnight Run. It was a huge tryout. They had like 100 guys from the city. I tried out, made the first cut when they cut it down to 35 guys. I came back, made the second cut and made the team.
We went out to Brooklyn and my first year playing, we won the tournament out there. This year, the same thing. I tried out and made the team. The tryout is usually in the summer and the tournament is in the winter at the Barclays Center. In between that time period, I fractured my foot. So when I went out there this winter, I wasn’t ready yet. It had been seven weeks since I had fractured it. I was just cleared to start running around. I kind of pushed it and I probably wasn’t ready. Since then, I had to get surgery on my ankle. I’m just coming back, just gaining strength in it and getting it 100 percent. So I’m really excited about this Red Bull tournament. It’s going to be my first big event since I had surgery on my ankle. So I couldn’t be more excited to play in it.
SLAM: Where are some of the places you currently hoop at?
BC: Right this second, I’m in a league at Gordon Tech High School at what’s called Broadway Armory. It’s a really competitive men’s league, a lot of former college players. I’ve been playing in that as a way to get back in shape, get my legs under me. I’ve also been doing a lot of workouts at the high school that I teach at, just individual workouts, getting shots up with some of my players and other guys that like to play. There’s a couple of college kids that come in and work out with us and we just try to get better. Prior to the ankle surgery, I played a season for the Lake County Stars of the IBA. I just try to play wherever, anywhere the best pickup was. Any leagues where I know there’s good competition is typically where you’re going to find me at.
SLAM: Talk a little about the teammates you’ll be competing with.
BC: It’s a group of guys that I’ve played a ton of three-on-three tournaments with. I think one advantage my team will have is that we play a lot of three-on-three tournaments. The format and the style of play, it’s outside—it’s not going to be new to us, where I feel there may be some teams that aren’t used to that style of play. I’ve probably played in and won 20 [three-on-three] tournaments with these guys.
SLAM: Challenges of three-on-three?
BC: It’s still basketball, but there are a lot of differences. The halfcourt game changes things. The physicality increases, being outside changes things. One thing that always kind of helps my team is we’re all similar size. We have a lot of power guards that allow us to switch almost every screen, which is an advantage. What you’ll see in three-on-three is trying to create mismatches. If a small guard is guarding me, I’m going to try and find my way by the basket, get the ball and score. We do that by causing the team to switch, either by screen and roll, back screen to try and create that mismatch.
Teams struggle to do that against us because we’re all so similar as far as our size and how we defend. Also, the three-on-three style, individually, plays into my hands and compliments my game perfectly. I’m kind of a power guard, 6-3, I’m strong. If you’re a smaller guy trying to guard me, I’m going to post you up. If you’re a bigger guard trying to guard me, I’m going to take you outside, shoot or shake you up off the dribble and get by you. I’m a tough guard in that setting because there’s limited help in the three-on-three game.
SLAM: Expectations for Red Bull Reign?
BC: I think something that gets my team excited is we typically go into these tournaments as not being seen as the favorites. We were Division III players, we’re from the suburbs. So people may see us and not give us the same amount of credit as they would other teams. We’ve been playing enough where most people know us, but there’s still people that may know us, but haven’t played against us and they think, “Oh, maybe they’re overrated.”
Personally, any time I get a chance to play in a tournament like this where you just get to prove yourself, it doesn’t really matter what the prize is to me. It’s just that thrill and excitement of going in there and trying to win the tournament. More often than not, you’re going to find us in the mix at the end of the night. You’re still going to see us; that’s just how it is. We’ve been fortunate to have a lot of success at all different types of tournaments.