by Irv Soonachan

The Red Bull King of the Rock one-on-one championships were played Saturday night on what was supposed to have been a proving ground for the 64 players — the seagull-soiled former prison yard of Alcatraz that announcer Bobbito Garcia called “the most bizarre basketball arena in the world.” But somewhere amid the cold temperatures, constant mist, and the experience of dressing to play in the notorious prison’s infirmary, they proved something different: That no matter where the players were from, their love of the game was a powerful bond.

Only family and friends of the players were allowed onto the island to watch, but when Isaiah “Clutch” Bowman of Los Angeles hit the winning shot – a running floater off the backboard as time wound down in the final match – he was mobbed by friends and former opponents alike, who were either ecstatic because of Bowman’s electric performance or because his basket meant that a boat would soon pull up to carry everyone back to warmth in San Francisco.

Host Rajon Rondo, PA announcers Garcia and Kevin Calabro, NBA mega-agent Bill Duffy, and several hundred others were on hand to watch the sometimes heated competition, in which even the eventual finalists had to fight hard in nearly every five-minute game.

In the second round Bowman faced Christian Yeung, who had beaten him in the final game of the Los Angeles qualifying event, and in the semifinals the point guard faced 6’11” David Vik, who played for Kelvin Sampson at Washington State before launching a 15-year pro career.

But Bowman was never at a loss for confidence. “My coaches always told me the fourth quarter is my time” he said. “They call me ‘Clutch,’ and they’ve called me ‘Mr. Fourth Quarter.’ I know how to take over at the end of the game.” And this was  moments before the Championship match.

Bowman’s quickness frustrated Vik in a see-saw battle, which ended with a fortunate non-call for Bowman when he swiped Vik’s arm to quash his final shot attempt.

Bowman was also helped by San Francisco qualifying event champion Aaron Weissman, who despite giving up a foot in height forced Vik to work hard in the quarterfinals. They scrapped to the bitter end of one of the night’s best games, a battle of two efficient scorers that ended 14-12. Afterwards, a tired-looking Vik plopped down into a folding chair and was drinking a Red Bull when asked if he felt 37 years old.

“No,” responded Vik, who celebrated a birthday this summer. “38.”

The other finalist, Gary Smith of Phoenix, survived a stiff first-round challenge from former collegiate player T.J. Mann, who a week after flying to California from his home in Philadelphia to qualify, flew out again for a grueling first-round match that left him scraped and bruised — bloodying the Alcatraz yard for perhaps the first time in decades.

Smith’s hard work on the boards helped him survive Mann and all other comers until Bowman. But Smith had one last chance at the end, when the referees called off the celebration and put two seconds on the clock for Smith. Smith wasn’t able to get a good shot and the crowd converged on Bowman again, this time a little more calmly.

Players who shined in their local qualifying events but lost at the Rock might have been jealous of Bowman claiming the $10,000 prize, but instead were busy shaking hands and patting each other on the back.

“One of the great things about this event is the camaraderie and guys getting to know each other,” said Nathan Schuett, who was runner up at the San Francisco event but eliminated early on Alcatraz. “It takes you back to high school. It’s really a bonding thing, having experiences like getting ready in the Alcatraz hospital.”

A few hours after arriving at a menacing facility built to house the most violent people in America, 64 basketball players competing for a cash reward had turned it into a love-fest. And that was probably the biggest upset of the night.

Game notes:
More on the event can be found here.

Fox Sports recorded a special on the Tournament which will air in the next few weeks on the West Coast and in Arizona.

The event occurred on Yom Kippur, forcing Jewish competitors to choose between the Day of Atonement and the palace of penitence.

The only way to get to the courts was to cut directly through the cell blocks – giving some people pause as they walked through the incredibly dank former home of people like Al Capone and “Machine Gun” Kelly.