There came a time during Jimmer Fredette's senior season at BYU, when the frenzy surrounding his games got so crazy, that he had to find an escape route just to leave the Cougars' home arena.
"My wife had to drive her car under the arena, pick me up, and I drove out a secret tunnel," said Fredette, who won the Wooden Award during his final season in Provo, Utah, in 2011.
"But people figured out where the secret tunnel was, and when we started going out, they would all hit our car and cheer us on. That's when you knew it was getting big."
Fredette's celebrity now is not quite at that same level, but he anticipates a slice of that rock-star reception when he leads Team Fredette in The Basketball Tournament, a winner-take-all event with a $2 million prize awaiting the victor. Fredette scored 69 points in two wins in Atlanta this weekend, as his team advanced to the semifinals in Baltimore on Thursday.
He said BYU fans have traveled as far as China, where he plays for the Shanghai Sharks, to see him play. Many were in attendance in Atlanta, too.
Fredette, the No. 10 pick in the 2011 draft, is not the only former NBA player or college standout on a TBT roster hoping to collect the cash prize. More than 50 former NBA players entered TBT, now in its fifth year, and more than half of those players will participate in the Super 16 this weekend.
Fredette is among those hoping to capitalize on the exposure to catch the attention of NBA personnel. Multiple scouts will be in attendance in Atlanta, according to TBT organizers.
"We have 33 players with NBA experience playing in our Super 16, many of which are on their way back into the NBA," said TBT founder Jon Mugar. "In addition to them, we have several others playing at a NBA level. Our teams are the most cohesive and organized they've ever been. Everyone knows what it takes to win TBT at this point, and every single team is convinced they're going to."
Greg Oden, the No. 1 pick in the 2007 draft, was a late addition to Scarlet & Gray and will play with former Ohio State teammates. Hakim Warrick, who won a national championship with Syracuse in 2003, plays for Boeheim's Army with several other Syracuse alumni. Former Gonzaga guard Jeremy Pargo also bounced around the league for a few years. He's with Overseas Elite, the three-time TBT defending champions. Former Utah Jazz reserve Jeremy Evans, James Michael McAdoo, who won two titles with the Warriors after leaving North Carolina, and Donald Sloan, a starter for the Brooklyn Nets three years ago, play for Eberlein Drive.
But Fredette is the headliner. He averaged 28.9 points per game during his senior year at BYU. After a lukewarm, five-year stint in the NBA, Fredette left for China, where he now reportedly makes $1.8 million per year. Last year, he scored 73 points in a game.
"They've received me really, really well," he said. "I've been very fortunate. I've been in Shanghai. People there just love basketball. They've embraced the culture. They just really, really love you. They see the long-range shots and different type of scoring. Plus, there are 1.5 billion people in China. I probably have more fans in China than I do over here, just by sheer numbers. They continue to support me and follow me."
Fredette, 29, views TBT as an opportunity to play in front of an American audience and showcase some of the new wrinkles to his game, and perhaps convince an NBA squad to give him another shot.
"For sure, I think one thing is getting into the lane," he said. "I have a lot of moves getting into the lane and getting my shot off against bigger, longer defenders -- floaters, runners. That's only gonna help my game. Defensively, I feel like I've grown, as well."
Another chance, however, is far from a guarantee.
"You don't want to say never, in terms of someone getting back in the league, but it's going to be an uphill battle for him," said one Western Conference scout. "He can score his ass off, but a team would have to allow him to play that way."
Players in Atlanta harbor dreams of playing in the NBA, but they're also realistic. They've played at a variety of levels all over the world. They know the obstacles they face as older athletes searching for opportunities in the ever-evolving NBA. That's why they're mostly here for the joy of playing and the possibility of a cash prize.
Ronnie Brewer was a first-round pick out of Arkansas in 2006 and averaged 13.7 PPG with the Utah Jazz during the 2008-09 season. He decided to play with Team Arkansas to represent the state he loves. Before his team was eliminated, he also wondered if the TBT could lead to a second chapter in the NBA.
"Once you make it into the league, you feel like everyone is gonna have a 20-year career," said Brewer, 33, who most recently played for the Santa Cruz Warriors in the G League. "That's not necessarily the case. You would notice that more and more of the people you got drafted with weren't in the league anymore."
Byron Mullens, a first-round draft pick out of Ohio State in 2009, will play with Scarlet & Gray. He hasn't played in the NBA since 2014, and after competing in the Summer League in July, he's seeking another trip back to the next level.
Mullens said he never expected the challenges he encountered as a 20-year-old in the league. He'd grown up in poverty, living in shelters and foster homes. Although he didn't throw his money away, the cash attracted a crowd.
"You just gotta keep your circle tight," Mullens said. "In college, I probably had 10 people in my circle. Now I'm 29, going on 30, and I have one."
Mullens believes he has matured after a stretch overseas and can still contribute in the NBA.
"I took a lot of stuff for granted," said Mullens. "I was young, thought I was on top of the world. This is my second coming. This is kinda like my comeback."
Fredette said he's not counting on an NBA return. He's excited to have a good time with old friends, including former teammate Brandon Davies, and play in front of BYU fans. If Team Fredette wins the championship in Baltimore on Aug. 3, the players have decided to share the money evenly.
But he also wants to show an American audience the new Jimmer Fredette. And this could be his last opportunity to prove he's worthy of an NBA deal.
"You don't want to put any unneeded pressure on yourself," Fredette said. "Obviously, it's a great opportunity to go and try to get better and see if you have gotten better. Hopefully, I'll continue to show that. I think the TBT is beneficial for a lot of guys out there. People are definitely watching."