SHAWNEE, OKLA — Statement made. That’s how this writer described the Potawatomi Fire when they started the season by dominating the defending champions. And that’s how they ended it. Monday night was the emphatic win. Tuesday was tougher but was the final step in a season of staircases. The Fire, in just their second season, defeated the St. Louis Griffins 98-89 to win the 2023 TBL National Championship, accomplishing their mission and ultimate preseason goal.
“I’m so proud of the guys in that locker room, and I like I’ve always said, it starts at the top,” said Fire head coach Mark Dannhoff, the 2023 TBL Coach of the Year. “The ownership of CPN, chairman John Barrett, vice chairman Linda Capps, general manager David Qualls, and our coaching staff. The players that just committed to doing this tonight and I’m so glad they got to accomplish it together. Just a super group of young men who said they weren’t worried about personal accolades and honors. They just wanted to win themselves a championship because they had not done it. Paul Harrison was the only one and he helped us get there. He taught us how to get there. And just what a great group of guys and so proud of every one of them.”
Deshawn Munson and Chuck Guy were named Co-Playoff MVPs. Munson had 14 points, 11 rebounds, 7 assists, two steals, and a block while Guy had 24 points, 9 rebounds, 6 assists, two steals, and a block. Guy was also named 2023 Defensive Player of the Year during the postgame ceremony by TBL President David Magley. Munson finished his stellar sophomore TBL campaign on a 15-game double-double streak. Guy ended his concluded his MVP caliber season with 11 double-doubles. He also had a season-high five three-pointers on 10 attempts.
All five Fire starters finished in double figures. K.D. Moore added 19 points, seven rebounds, and three assists. Lyle Hexom had a double-double with 13 points and 13 rebounds. The 2022 TBL Defensive Player of the Year added four assists, two steals, and two blocks. Moore and Hexom were instrumental in keeping two of the Griffins’ top scorers, Timmy Goodwin and Martavian Payne, below their scoring averages. The Fire also set a new single-game club record with 13 blocks.
T.J. Maston had 12 points and three rebounds as he set the tone early with his inside play. Ricky Artis II had eight points and eight boards off the bench. Paul Harrison also had eight points with three rebounds. Harrison, who was the 2022 Playoff MVP for the Shreveport Mavericks, became the first-ever two-time TBL champion.
Game three was more like game one – a tough, intense contest that was relatively close throughout. Many of the statistics reflected that as two teams were nearly equal in field goal percentage (39% for the Fire to 36% for the Griffins); three-point percentage (29% to 26%); free throw percentage (73% to 77%); points in the paint (46 to 42); and fast break points (27 to 20). The Fire dominated the glass, outrebounding the Griffins 66-49, while St. Louis had a big edge in bench points (42-19).
The Fire led for all but a minute in the first quarter. Potawatomi led 21-15 after the first frame and just 46-35 at the midpoint. They extended their margin to 71-59 after the third before ending with the nine-point final score difference.
Guy was asked about the feeling of leading this Fire team and finally winning a championship after being part of TBL since 2020. “Yeah, I’ve been here a long time, and this was the one that solidified it, you know what I mean? It’s a great feeling. The team came together and we handled business as a group. Ain’t no better feeling than what it is today! … Just to know that I led the group – the guys that we had and they followed me in the right direction. They listened to me. It came out in our favor today. It’s a great feeling. I don’t know what else to say!”
Dannhoff on the play of his All-Star guard Guy and both teams in the series: “He’s in charge of the whole show, I always say he’s the conductor of the orchestra. He just brings all the pieces in and he makes the music, and that’s what he did again tonight. And that’s why we’re able to do the things we do. But everybody did play their role, everybody stepped up big when needed and that’s why we got it done tonight. But I will say this too, St. Louis is a very good team. They had a great year. They fought to the end. They never quit. They should be very proud of themselves as well.”
B.J. Young led the surprising Griffins with 25 points. Marcus Latham had 18 points. The Griffins reached game three of the Finals, an outstanding accomplishment for any club yet alone a first-year TBL franchise. St. Louis upset number one seeds Medora, Kokomo, and Albany during their playoff run.
This was coach Mark Dannhoff’s first full league championship, as it was for most of the Fire players on the professional level. “Without a doubt, (my first) as a head coach,” Dannhoff said. “I’ve won conference championships before. We lost in the CIT national championship when I was at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. But this right here — the best of all.”
The Fire finished 29-4 for the season, just one win short of the 30-3 TBL record set in 2021 when the Enid Outlaws won the championship.
The Fire’s championship win made it three straight TBL titles for the Central Conference: Enid in 2021, Shreveport in 2022 and Potawatomi in 2023.
ABOUT THE FIRE AND THE BASKETBALL LEAGUE
The Potawatomi Fire just wrapped up their second TBL (The Basketball League) regular season in 2023. They were 21-3 in the regular season (a three-game win improvement from 2022) to earn the top seed in the Central Conference portion of the playoffs as well as homecourt advantage throughout the entire playoffs. The Fire are the first professional basketball team owned by a Native American tribe (Citizen Potawatomi Nation) in Oklahoma. The Fire compete in the Central Conference of TBL, a men’s professional basketball league, now with 49 teams in over 20 different states across the U.S. and Canada. The Fire organization was named the 2022 winner of the Jim Koch Award as TBL’s Best Ran Business, despite the Fire being a first-year franchise. The dance team of the Fire, the Fire Girls, were named TBL’s 2022 Best Dance Team and Central Conference Best Dance Team in 2023.
The TBL season begins in February and runs through June, concluding with a championship playoff tournament. The players that make up the rosters of the TBL teams are former NCAA (Division I, II or III) or NAIA athletes. Many have played in the NBA or NBA’s developmental G-League as well as professionally overseas for several years and are continuing their careers closer to home or seeking a larger contract in another professional league. This level of pro basketball is just two steps below the NBA and G-League.
Story by Justin Wollard • Photos by Landon Kidney and Kent Bush/CPN