It may have been election night, but the only debate going on in Belmont University’s Striplin Gymnasium Tuesday (Nov. 7) was who could take it to the hoop with more finesse.
“Mark Miller is by far the best hustler, but I can outshoot him,” funnyman Cledus T. Judd offered during a pre-game warm-up session. “Ask him.”
“No, he can’t,” countered Sawyer Brown’s Miller. “I mean look at his career. He steals everybody’s material, so how can you believe a word he says?”
And so it goes when you get a basketball court full of country music stars together for a good cause. The 11th Annual Vince Gill Celebrity Basketball Game and Concert, which raises funds for the Nashville-based university’s athletic and music business programs, continues to attract both serious players and those who just hope to survive the potential humiliation.
“I played in junior high, but I traded it in for the music,” said Montgomery Gentry’s Troy Gentry. “We’re just out here to help raise money for scholarships, and hopefully we can do that without getting beat up.”
Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson, whose 6-foot-7-inch frame would be attractive to any team, said he has learned a few things from his nine years of play in Gill’s game.
“I get slower and wiser, which means I don’t run as much,” Benson said. “I’m just going to take pictures during the game, so when somebody goes up for a shot, I’ll flash ‘em.”
Diamond Rio’s Marty Roe, also a multi-year veteran of the event, brought along his daughter, Isabella, for support.
“I started running a couple of years ago and part of that was so I wouldn’t die at Vince’s ballgame,” Roe confessed. “But I enjoy it. Vince and I are friends, and I like to help him out.”
First-time participants the Warren Brothers have wanted to take part in the event since they attended Gill’s 1995 charity game as unsigned Nashville newcomers. Lately, they’ve been keeping up their basketball skills out on the road touring with Tim McGraw and Faith Hill.
“Yeah, we’ve been playing with him [Tim], but we’ve got this little eight-foot goal so we can dunk, so my shot is so off, it’s not even funny,” Brett Warren said.
Even the host was pretty blunt about his athletic prowess. “Eleven years ago, I could play basketball a little bit, but now I’m 43 and it’s just a little harder to get up and down the floor,” Gill said pre-game. “I haven’t played at all since last year.”
Despite the dubious athletic talent, the stands were packed with around 2,000 fans expecting a good show on the court and some good music afterwards. Gill’s team, which included Gentry, the Wilkinsons, Larry Stewart and comedian Shane Caldwell, led at the half. Gill hustled for the first half of the first period, then jogged back to the bench to sit with expectant wife Amy Grant. The opposing team’s roster included Roe, Benson, Judd, Miller and Brett Warren, who showed off some fancy moves in the lane. When the final whistle blew, Gill’s team won 69 – 47.
The women played a short game at halftime with Chely Wright and Michelle Wright (no relation) as top scorers among teammates Deana Carter, Linda Davis, Chalee Tennison and Amanda Wilkinson.
This year’s game, concert and silent auction were expected to raise some $65,000, bringing the 11-year total to just under $500,000. The event was the brainchild of Gill and Belmont’s men’s basketball coach Rick Byrd who just wanted to make enough money to take the team to a tournament in the Bahamas back in 1990. Since then, the money has been used for needed equipment and scholarships for music business students and fifth-year senior athletes in all sports.
“It goes way beyond the dollars that we’ve raised,” Byrd told country.com. “The event and Vince have helped increase our national visibility as a school. I was in Minnesota this year and other places far away from Nashville recruiting, and people said they’ve heard of our school through the event being advertised on the radio.”
Gill is thrilled that the game has grown into something more than he and Byrd imagined.
“When we started this, I didn’t know that they would name scholarships in my name from the moneys raised from this,” Gill told country.com. “In those years, I’ve lost my brother and my father, and now they both have scholarships in their name here.”
One of those scholarship recipients was CMA Horizon Award winner and Belmont grad Brad Paisley, who won the Vince Gill Scholarship during his sophomore year in the music business program. He returned to his alma mater this year to shoot hoops despite an injured hand.
“I dislocated my finger playing basketball Sunday out on the road, so I didn’t go for any passes or anything” Paisley said at halftime, displaying a purple pinky finger. “It was sticking out to the left at about a 45 degree angle. My bus driver yanked it and pulled it in.”
Because of his hand, Paisley opted out of the traditional concert after the ballgame, but he stressed the importance of the event’s fundraising goals and his college experience.
“To me it’s everything,” Paisley said. “If I hadn’t gone to Belmont, I would not have a career right now. I know where the money goes, so this is really important.”
Following in Paisley’s footsteps is Gill’s own daughter, Jenny, who now is a Belmont freshman majoring in commercial music. She didn’t play in the game, but she joined her dad to sing Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel” during the show. Gill joked that he was comfortable with her going to Belmont because he had made many friends at the school who would check up on her. “And some of them you don’t even know who they are,” he quipped to Jenny onstage.
The concert portion of the evening was lighthearted and informal with Gill holding court center stage in basketball shorts and tennis shoes and performing a couple of songs with his wife. Diamond Rio’s Roe kicked things off, singing the band’s new single “One More Day” from an album due in January. The Wheel’s Benson gave a comical rendition of “Georgia On My Mind” with Gill swaying back and forth like Ray Charles. Also joining the acoustic lineup were Carter, Michelle Wright, the Warren Brothers, Stewart and The Wilkinsons, who debuted a sassy new Leslie Satcher tune titled “Real Bad Mood.” Belmont student Amanda Martin was selected from all music students to perform with Gill. She appeared poised and professional as she sang Gretchen Peters’ “Let’s Drive.”
The highlight of the nearly two-hour show was a debut performance by newcomer Nate Barrett, a 17-year-old Boston native signed to Lyric Street Records. After scoring several points in the basketball game, he climbed onstage to sit alongside one of his self-proclaimed heroes for the first time.
“It’s a privilege,” Barrett said of jamming with Gill. “He’s been one of my mentors all my life, listening to his guitar playing and everything.”
Gill sat mesmerized as Barrett flew through a self-penned guitar instrumental called “BloozeGrass.” When the young singer walked off the stage, Gill asked if he sang, too. When Barrett said yes, Gill replied, “Well, get your butt back up here then. You’re too young to vote, so you don’t have anywhere to go.” Barrett quickly returned to the stage to sing “This Side of Tennessee,” an uptempo bluesy number he co-wrote with noted Nashville songwriters Vince Melamed and Greg Barnhill.
The other big surprise of the night came as Gill called up a couple identified only as Dave and Deb. When it became obvious Dave, a Connecticut native, was going to propose, Gill offered some advice.
“You’re in the South now, so take the microphone off the stand and hit your knees,” Gill said.
Dave did, and Deb said yes.