BENNINGTON — In sixth grade, Kyle Callanan met someone in Owen Iannotti who would become his best friend for years to come.
Owen and Kyle had a close bond from the start, often intertwined with sports, as both played football and basketball throughout their years at Mount Anthony, creating a bond that they thought would last a lifetime.
That bond was cut way too short last June, when Iannotti died in a car accident at 23, a few months short of receiving his college degree from Castleton University.
He left behind his parents, his sisters Abby and Anna, and countless extended family members.
As sports had been such a major part of Owen's life, the family started a foundation in his memory, part of which would set up a scholarship through Mount Anthony Union High School, with donations to the fund helping students who cannot afford certain types of sporting equipment to be able to play.
The fund has been pretty successful, but Kyle wanted to do something more.
He got an idea from his brother Jared, another former Mount Anthony basketball player, who was a part of a team called Armored Athlete in the first ever The Basketball Tournament — an interactive fan tournament played during the summer where 64 teams around the United States played for a grand prize of $1 million.
Last year's tournament included NBA D-League players and alumni from major basketball powerhouses, like Michigan State and Syracuse.
Armored Athlete also had two other local connections in former MAU star and current Southern Vermont College assistant men's basketball coach A.J. Mahar as the general manager and current SVC head coach Dan Engelstad as Armored Athlete's coach.
Armored Athlete reached the Sweet 16 and even played on ESPN last summer. After hearing and seeing the tournament, Callanan thought it could be a great way to raise money for the foundation and help him forge a path in professional basketball.
So for this year's version of the tournament, Callanan signed up to start a team and take a crack at this year's prize, now $2 million.
The first thing he did was choose the name: OPI, for Owen P. Iannotti. Then he made a promise to donate $50,000 to the foundation.
"I believe this a great idea to try to raise money for Owen's fund," Callanan said. "I saw it as something that can help the Iannotti family and also help out inspiring professional basketball players like myself get a chance to show off their skills to people around the world."
Then, Callanan put together a group of guys, many with local connections.
Kyle's father Michael and brother Niles will coach and play. Kelly Kennedy will be the general manager and the head coach, while Arlington girls basketball coach Larry Andrews will work as an assistant.
Tanner Darwell, another MAU and Castleton grad, is one of the team's boosters, having played basketball with Kyle and Owen.
Former Southern Vermont College star Lance Spratling, a Pittsfield, Mass., native, is on the team as well.
The bulk of the roster are players from Division II Armstrong State University in Georgia, where Kyle Callanan played his college ball. They include: Marcus Hopper, Shema Sabiiti, Emmanuel Tiluscar, Nick Scott and Matt Wheeler. Filling out the roster are Jonathan Adams from Old Dominion and Andre Williamson and Isaac Butts from Appalachian State.
For OPI to participate in the tournament, the team will have to receive enough fan votes (that's where the fan interactive part comes in), to get them in the top 11 of their region, in this case the South region.
If they don't crack the top 11, they will have to bank on receiving one of the three at large bids that are given out in each region to get in the tournament.
The voting for the tournament ends on Wednesday and currently OPI is 12th in their region, so Callanan and the team have reached out to family and friends to vote for them and share the story. They want the people of Bennington to support this amazing cause.
"This is something that I think can be great for the area of Bennington," Callanan said. "Being a part of something that can help people in Bennington through Owen's memory is something that this town can rally around and help grew the community closer as well."
For more information on the voting process, visit www.thetournament.com. Fans need to register, but it's free and takes less than a minute.
At the end of the day though, it's more then a basketball tournament or even a piece of a $2 million first prize.
It's another way to keep Owen's memory alive and create another chapter in a friendship that will never die.
"Owen was my best friend and I will do anything to help him or family," Callanan said. "Owen and I found a friendship through sports and have had a blast playing together throughout our childhood and high school careers. This is another team that we can be a part of together and I know he will watching down on us when we hopefully play in the tournament this summer."