How two Colorado basketball players emerged as the faces of SlamBall
A few months ago, Gage Smith had a job mowing grass at a golf course in Nebraska, and Ty McGee was working in marketing in Denver. For the former college basketball players, a normal life, and reality and bills, had arrived.
Then SlamBall called, changing the trajectories of two Coloradans who are now the faces of a pro league on national TV.
“I was the under-the-radar guy, always, so I saw SlamBall as a great opportunity coming out of college,” Smith said. “After the tryout, I truly believed this is the sport I was supposed to do from the beginning. I love basketball, but SlamBall’s my sport. I want to make this into a career, and I think it could be big for me and my family.”
McGee’s all-in as well. He found out about the tryout a week beforehand, and “took a leap of faith” by quitting his job to move to Las Vegas and attempt to be one of the 56 draftees among approximately 200 prospects.
Both players bet on themselves, and it’s paid off in a big way as they’ve become stars of Slamball’s return to American televisions.
Smith, an Elizabeth product and the league’s likely MVP, recorded the sport’s first-ever triple-double amid a dominating season, while McGee, a D’Evelyn graduate, set a single-game record with 45 points and is a frontrunner for offensive player of the year.
Their emergence has put them at the center of a sport attempting to revive and expand upon its grassroots popularity after 15 years away from its domestic audience.
SlamBall initially captivated viewers in the early 2000s with high-flying dunks and physicality, combining basketball with trampolines and elements of football and hockey. After fading into a late-night television curiosity, it’s taken up a six-week residency at Cox Pavilion in Las Vegas that’s been broadcast live on ESPN.
“The sport has never had the sense of immediacy that it does now, and from beginning of this re-launch, the vision for this is that it would be live, bettable and engageable,” explained SlamBall CEO and founder Mason Gordon. “All the millions of people who sought out SlamBall on late-night cable TV (from 2002-08) and fell in love with it, they considered it a real sport, which it was, and they considered it a real league, which it wasn’t.
“We would get all the teams together, play all the games and then broadcast the games three months later. That’s no way to build a sport — you need that live immediacy in order to create long-term affinity for the sport on top of the nostalgia that’s already there… Gage and Ty, as stars in this league, are already helping us do that.”
Smith, 22, finished playing basketball this spring at Concordia University in Nebraska, where he earned all-league honors as one of the top rebounders in program history. McGee, 27, played hoops at Colorado Christian and Regis University before graduating in 2018, and in the half-decade since had been staying in shape playing pick-up basketball and 7-on-7 football.
Both burst onto the SlamBall scene quickly, earning player of the week honors in the inaugural week of action. That’s not a surprise to Gordon, who said the league is targeting recently graduated college basketball/football players who aren’t NBA or NFL prospects.
“The biggest comp I can point to is Connor McGregor, who was a lightly regarded boxing prospect in Ireland who had no pathway to be a viable pro,” Gordon said. “But you put him in the Octagon, he became a nuclear bomb. SlamBall is the same way — you have guys who are a hexagonal peg trying to fit into a square hole with pro basketball or pro football, but they fit SlamBall like a glove. Gage and Ty are a great example of this.”
Smith, a third-round pick by the MOB, has keyed his team’s undefeated season heading into this week’s playoffs. Considered a “stopper,” he leads the league in faceoff percentage, steals, loose ball recoveries and stops. McGee was a second-round pick by the Wrath, and the “gunner” leads the league at 25.85 points per game.
Their success and quick acclimation in SlamBall can be traced back to their childhood days on the trampoline.
In Littleton, McGee and his friends pulled up a hoop to the edge of their tramp to jam on. In Elizabeth, Smith routinely played SlamBall on the rim attached to the family tramp with his brother, emulating the sport’s windmills and 360-degree, between-the-legs dunks that lived on the internet years after the competition ceased.
“I grew up on the tramp, and you can really tell Gage did too,” McGee said. “He’s built for this sport and so am I. Seeing Gage literally take off and doing crazy stuff, it only inspires me to keep going and try to do even crazier stuff. I sat down with Gage (recently) and just told him how happy I was for him and that he needed to keep going. We’ve got to hold it down. We could really do something special with this and put on for the city.”
For a sport that started in a Los Angeles warehouse in 2000 on a court made from particle board and leftover gymnastics equipment, SlamBall, with its viral video-game aesthetic, is making a bid to springboard this year’s summer league into long-term success.
The league has a long list of significant investors highlighted by IA Sports Ventures and Eberg Capital and also includes David Blitzer of Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, Fanatics CEO Michael Rubin, VaynerMedia founder Gary Vaynerchuk, Philadelphia 76ers/New Jersey Devils co-owner David Adelman and NBA player Blake Griffin.
And the league is taking care of its players amid the re-start. SlamBall provides its players with housing, a rental car and a $500 weekly food allowance on top of their salary, which ranges from $1,750 to $4,000 a week depending on a player’s draft status.
All of which foretells a long-term plan. Gordon says next season’s schedule is still up in the air, but one possibility is a tour model that would feature SlamBall “majors.” Gordon says he has numerous American cities interested in hosting what would likely be a 10-day event (Denver isn’t among them) and a dozen international cities have also been in conversations with the league.
Eventually, Gordon sees SlamBall setting down roots with teams in specific cities.
“Regionalizing teams seems like a really interesting lane for us to explore, and we’ve had a lot of interest from top investors about that,” Gordon said. “I think we’re only at 7%, 8% of what this sport is going to be in three, four years’ time. We have so much blue sky we can grow into.”
McGee and Smith are seeing the same vision.
While the former vowed “to keep going to grow right along with this sport,” the latter understands the chance in front of him to become “one of the greatest SlamBall players of all time,” as MOB coach Brendan Kirsch believes.
Stan “Shakes” Fletcher, the sport’s all-time leading scorer, whom Gordon says is “the most creative guy to ever play,” is currently considered the SlamBall GOAT. But if SlamBall takes flight as Gordon and his investors hope, Smith has the skills (and now the platform) to surpass Shakes in status.
“Back in the early days, Stan was teaching us inside of 15 minutes of him starting the sport, which is kind of amazing,” Gordon said. “That showed us there were a set of athletes out there who needed this platform and who were put on this earth for this platform, and we used to say that Stan is from a planet that already had SlamBall. He showed up and just started doing his thing he’d always known how to do.
“Gage is very much cut in that same mold, and might be from the same planet.”
Smith is ready for his SlamBall superstardom. So ready, he’s already making plans for the next generation of players.
“In three, four, five years, I hope to be the (Steph) Curry of the sport, one of the faces of the sport around this country and internationally, and just motivate other guys to get into the sport,” Smith said. “In 10 years down the road, I hope to coach my kids in an AAU SlamBall league, something like that. I want to be around the sport for the rest of my life. And I’m ready to help make all that happen with my play, to keep SlamBall rising.”
Gage Smith’s MOB are 16-0 heading into the playoffs as a heavy championship favorite; Ty McGee’s Wrath are the No. 3 seed.
Tuesday, Aug. 15 — Playoff Game 1, Game 2: ESPN, Cox Pavilion, Las Vegas, 9 p.m. MT
Thursday, Aug. 17 — Playoff Game 3, Game 4, Game 5: ESPN, Cox Pavilion, Las Vegas, 9 p.m. MT
Sign up for Newsletters and AlertsNewsTuesday, Aug. 15Thursday, Aug. 17