Zoo Crew Relives Pitt Hoops Heyday, Praises Capel

Former Panthers to battle for $2 million prize

Josh Rowntree
July 18, 2018 - 10:18 pm
The Pittsburgh Panthers mascot and student section cheer after scoring against the Virginia Tech Hokies during the first half at the Petersen Events Center.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports


Pitt hopes that new men’s basketball coach Jeff Capel will eventually be able to bring the program back to its glory days.

But, for now, some of the players who took the Panthers to previously unknown heights will be again representing the school in The Basketball Tournament, a 5-on-5 contest of 72 teams that culminates in a grand prize of $2 million. 

They call themselves the Zoo Crew, a tribute to Pitt’s raucous student section at the Petersen Events Center. The squad is comprised mostly of Pitt alum whose playing careers have either taken them out of the country or have been otherwise finished. 

“Being able to play in TBT has been great,” said former guard Gilbert Brown, who is in Pittsburgh after recovering from an ACL injury and helped organize the team with center Gary McGhee. 

Brown has played all over the world, including cups of coffee with the Celtics and Bucks of the NBA. Most recently, he has played in Israel. So, familiar faces have been welcomed.

Former Panthers Antonio Graves, Levance Fields, Jermaine Dixon and Tyrell Biggs join Brown and McGhee. Three other former D1 players in Ricky Harris *Massachusetts), Jesse Morgan (Temple) and Marcus Cousin (Houston) round out the team.

"You get that nostalgic feeling, like you’re back in college with your guys, with your buddies,” Brown added. "You’re out at dinner, you’re talking about stories, reminiscing. I never thought it would happen, but here we are.”

Pitt is allowing the team to use the Petersen Events Center to have a mini-camp of sorts this week. 

“I thought it was over back in 2011 when I had my last practice here,” said McGhee, who spent last year playing professionally in Greece. “I thought it was over and wouldn’t be out here again. But, I’m happy for the TBT allowing guys to play with their University’s again and have a chance to compete for something."

The structure of The Basketball Tournament, in which the Zoo Crew will be seeded seventh in the Midwest Region, is all-or-nothing. 

“It’s a gamble,” said Brown. "You can appreciate it, winner-take-all. I think that’s what brings the excitement. Being able to come out here and compete, especially with former teammates and friends, that’s what gives you a little extra incentive.”

There has been a notable absence of Pitt basketball alumni at games over recent seasons. But that might change with a new leader in Capel, who sent the Zoo Crew an encouraging video message from the recruiting trails. 

“I was actually a fan first of the hiring,” Brown said. "Everybody wanted (former Pitt point guard) Brandin (Knight). Brandin is a Pittsburgh guy. But, when they hired Capel, I was actually excited, I was optimistic. I really, genuinely, like the guy. I like what he’d going to do for this program.” 

“I’m glad for the new coaching hire,” McGhee added. “I’m very excited for Jeff Capel coming in from Duke and experiences with Oklahoma. He’s a really good coach and a good recruiter. So, I’m excited for the changes that’s going to happen to the program. Hopefully it gets back up-and-running to the elite status that we had back when I was here.”

The Zoo Crew will travel to Columbus, Ohio for its first game, meeting a team from Jackson, Tennessee on Saturday at 6:00 p.m. The game can be seen on ESPN3. 

Listen below for more from Brown and McGhee, including their thoughts on the state of Pitt men’s basketball and the preparation for The Basketball Tournament.