When the Potawatomi Fire hoisted “The Lillie” trophy over their collective heads on Tuesday night at FireLake Arena to complete an impressive 2023 championship season, the moment was a big flex.
It was also emotional.
Just ask the players and coaches on the court what that experience felt like and you’ll likely receive speechless replies.
That’s the point. Not only did the Fire achieve a goal in only their second season in The Basketball League, but the sheer manpower it took to defeat a scrappy St. Louis Griffins in a hyped-up winner-take-all Game 3 thriller was all part of the bigger picture and a blueprint that took shape over the course of last offseason. The signing of Mark Dannhoff as head coach was announced last August after his season with the Enid Outlaws, and truly set the wheels in motion to pursue the TBL title.
“After talking to David Qualls (GM, Fire) and members of the Potawatomi leadership and doing my own research, it became obvious that this was where I needed to be,” Coach Dannhoff said at the time.
Nearly a year later, Dannhoff now heads into this summer with two trophies firmly wrapped around each arm — a TBL Championship and TBL Coach of the Year, after leading the Fire to a best regular season record of 21-3.
“It felt like family before we even got here. It’s an honor and privilege to be here. I’m thankful to Chairman John “Rocky” Barrett, Vice-Chairman Linda Capps and General Manager David Qualls for giving me this opportunity.”
Opportunity. Sometimes that’s all a guy can ask for. That general feeling from Dannhoff was easily contagious, as TBL MVP candidate and Enid free agent, Chuck Guy, also inked with the Fire. When the news broke that Potawatomi had signed Guy to join reigning TBL MVP, Deshawn Munson, in the backcourt there was a virtual gasp that resonated across TBL-centric social media feeds as teams prepped for 2023 Training Camp. Couple that with the core of Tevin Foster, K.D. Moore, T.J. Maston, Ricky Artis II, and a tough front line with Lyle Hexom and Paul Harrison, and there was no doubt that the Fire were built to win.
And win now.
The Shreveport Mavericks may have been the defending TBL Champs at the time, but the real writing was on the wall for anyone who kept tabs on the league that the Fire weren’t playing pretender.
They were a legit contender.
By late March, there was a lingering question heading into Week 4: what would the undefeated Fire do for an encore after rattling off four-straight wins over Shreveport, Rockwall (twice), and Little Rock. That answer came in the form of Harrison, the free agent big man who captured a TBL title with the Mavericks.
“I just plan on getting in where I fit in and get my job done,” said Harrison of joining the Fire.
“I definitely don’t want to slow us down.”
Just the opposite. In the stacked Central Conference, the Fire heated up by rattling off a remarkable 13-1 stretch (including going 7-1 through the month of April) that equated a well-deserved TBL All-Star selection for Coach Dannhoff, Deshawn Munson, and Chuck Guy. And while the trio fully represented Potawatomi Nation on the all-star stage in Pennsylvania, it was becoming apparent that key players that dotted the rest of the roster were focused on elevating their games for the betterment of the entire team. Some in-season statistics tell part of that story as the Fire ranked 4th in the league in scoring (121.2 ppg), 2nd in assists per game (26), 6th in rebounds per game (46), 2nd in defensive rebounds per game (37.8), 4th in blocks per game (4.6), 2nd in free-throw attempts per game (34.7), and 7th in free-throws made per game (23.2).
Oh by the way, Potawatomi also ranked 8th in team FG percentage (51%) and 7th in 2-point percentage (58.5%)
The other part of the story?
Having guys on the floor who make an impact on the game, even if the numbers don’t always reflect it. That simply the sacrifice guys strived to make. That went for All-Stars. That went for the rest of the squad.
“I have nothing but confidence we can win it all,” Tevin Foster openly wrote for ATBL.
“Playing the right way is important to me and winning. I’ve been part of a lot of winning teams, and it’s a lot easier when guys play basketball the right way and are unselfish. Being on a team with a loaded roster it’s helping me grow as a player and learning my spots where I can be efficient for this team.”
Chuck Guy echoed those sentiments, in yet another MVP and Defensive Player of the Year caliber season.
“The biggest difference from last season to this season is I knew my scoring wasn’t needed as much this year. I have a lot of options who I can go to for scoring so I used my energy elsewhere this season,” he explained.
“I know it’s going to be a battle, but like I have been telling the team all year long; if we just play our game, we will be alright.”
That businesslike approach paid off huge dividends by overcoming defending champ Shreveport to win the Central Conference and carried over into the playoffs and Finals. Even after Potawatomi dropped Game 1 on the road, that 492 mile-long bus ride home back to Shawnee was heavy-hearted and provided the opportunity to dust off the blueprint and bounce back. Game 2 would be a must-win to save the season for the Fire, and they delivered with a resounding 127-95 victory over the Griffins.
“The job isn’t done yet,” Guy said the morning of Game 3’s championship match-up.
Guy going for a team-high 24 point performance in the title game and earning playoff Co-MVP honors with Deshawn Munson, put the final touches on a historic and unforgettable season in Shawnee.
“The Potawatomi Nation built the foundation of this house,” David Qualls said at the beginning of the season, as the Fire blazed a path through TBL.
“It’s the community that came in and decorated it.”
Now, there’s a brand new trophy to place on the mantle.
Wendell Maxey is the author of Around The Basketball League and has written about professional basketball and sports for 20 years. He’s been featured on NBA.com, ESPN.com, USA Today, FOX Sports, and SLAM Magazine among other publications and media outlets. You can connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn or read through his archive on Linktree.