Back home: Northeast native Sammy Zeglinski, currently playing pro ball in Austria, hopes to compete in “The Tournament” in June for a $500,000 prize. TIMES FILE PHOTO
Sammy Zeglinski’s career as a professional basketball player has taken him all over the world and back, yet the allure of coming back home to Philadelphia is always inescapable.
He’s currently playing pro ball overseas in Austria, but Zeglinski grew up as a hoops standout at Our Lady of Calvary with older brothers Zack and Joe, the latter of whom starred on the court at Archbishop Ryan. After four years at Penn Charter, Sammy moved onto a stellar career at the University of Virginia, where he ranks fifth all-time in three-pointers made at the school.
His first professional stop was in Iceland before ending up in Austria; such is the nomadic, marauding lifestyle of a hoops player trying to make a living overseas. The one constant of living far from Northeast Philly for the last seven years has been summers back home, and in 2014 Zeglinski will be back in town for what he hopes is the best summer of his life.
About a month ago, Zeglinski heard through friends about something called “The Tournament,” a nationwide five-on-five basketball tournament of 32 teams competing for a grand prize of $500,000. The event begins on June 6 and runs through June 28, with all games being held at Philadelphia University in East Falls.
Shortly thereafter, dominoes from across the globe began to fall. Sam’s childhood friends Fran McGlinn (general manager/coach) and Eric Dethloff (assistant coach) toyed with the idea of entering, and Zeglinski, despite being half a world away, was soon on board with brother Joe and a slew of former and current teammates.
“At first, I thought it was fake,” said Zeglinski, speaking from Oberwart, Austria, about an hour outside of Vienna, where his team, the Gunners, were preparing for a quarterfinals postseason game. “I couldn’t believe there was a real tournament taking place at Philly U. with a grand prize of $500,000. I looked into it, saw it was legit and then we started thinking about putting a team together.”
Therein lies the true challenge. You see, to play in The Tournament, one simply doesn’t just sign up. No, you need help. Of the 32 teams to play, the first 24 will be decided based on which team garners the most fan votes on the event’s official website (www.thetournament.com), with the final eight being chosen by tournament officials. Right now, Zeglinski’s team, the Philly Patriots, has the most votes of 47 eligible teams. However, with a May 1 deadline rapidly approaching, he’s hoping the Patriots can make it official with some help from hometown supporters.
“On the website, we’re able to see all the teams trying to make it into the tournament,” Zeglinski said. “There are a lot of former college players reuniting and putting teams together. With the cutoff being May 1, I still think we’ll see a lot of talented players joining rosters late and trying to make the field.”
In addition to the Zeglinski brothers (Joe had a memorable collegiate run at the University of Hartford), other members of the Patriots include Sean Singletary, a former teammate of Sammy at Penn Charter and Virginia who has played in the NBA, the NBA Developmental League and Europe; Ryan Pettinella and Jason Cain, Philly guys who also played at Virginia; Fran Dougherty, a second-team All-Ivy League selection at Penn; Abe Lodwick, Zeglinski’s current teammate in Austria; Dan Comas, who played at Chestnut Hill College; and Mamadi Diane, a former teammate at Virginia.
Throw it all together, and the Patriots’ ability to score inside and out should give them a favorable shot to be the last team standing.
“The tournament being held in Philly really excited us,” Zeglinski said. “We chose the name Patriots because that was our AAU team growing up. It was a challenge putting it together with a lot of our guys over in Europe, but in the end we were able to put together a very good team.”
After seven years away from home, the prospect of returning to play in such a unique tournament fired Zeglinski up. It will represent a nostalgic return to glory for those involved, whether they were teammates in college or played on the same AAU team growing up.
“For me, Northeast Philly will always be home,” he said. “Going back to college, I’ve been away for seven years straight. But every summer, I spend all the time I can at home with family and friends. My parents still have their house in the Chalfont neighborhood. I haven’t been home since last August, so I’m pretty excited.”
For the Oberwart Gunners this season, Zeglinski is averaging 16 points, five rebounds and five assists per game. The town is small (about 3,000 people, according to Zeglinski), but its residents support the team steadfastly. He’s enjoyed a few sojourns to Vienna, and also enjoyed his time in Iceland, where his team won a championship.
It’s a different kind of lifestyle, one that can sometimes feel overwhelming given how far away Zeglinski is geographically. But at the end of the day, he can’t complain.
“There are a lot of long nights, and being away from home gets tough sometimes,” he said. “At the same time, I get to travel the world and get paid to do something I love. I get to meet so many different people and learn a lot about different cultures, and it’s all possible through basketball. My ultimate goal would be to keep progressing to better leagues each year, continue to develop my game and get to the highest level I can, whether it be the NBA or Europe.”
Athletics have always bonded the Zeglinski family, from the three brothers playing football, basketball and baseball growing up to younger sister Christina, now a freshman at the University of Pittsburgh, who played softball at Ryan. Sam is the only one still consistently playing at an organized level, and the game of basketball holds bonds built with family and friends tightly in place.
Zeglinski will be coming home regardless this summer; he just hopes it’s to play in the basketball tournament of a lifetime. As for what he would do with the money should the Patriots win the whole thing?
“I would definitely go on a long vacation,” Zeglinski said. “But once August comes around, I’m sure I’ll be talking to my agent to see where I am heading next, whether it’s the (NBA) D-League, South America, Europe or Asia.” ••
To become a fan of the Philly Patriots, go to www.thetournament.com/teams/philly-patriots and click “Join to fan this team.” The deadline to do so is May 1.