If you always dreamed of being a pro basketball player, you’re about to get your chance from an unlikely source — the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa.

The Atlantic City casino will hold a free-throw-shooting contest next month that pays a winner $5,000 to be the hottest shooter on the court — and, analysts say, could shoot Atlantic City into an entirely new era of gambling, featuring games of skill.

Borgata officials said the event will be the first of its kind in the country. State regulators agreed, as did a spokesman for the American Gaming Association, an industry trade group.

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The tournament is set for March 21 — which puts it in the heart of the NCAA’s wildly popular college basketball tournament. In its own tournament, Borgata will guarantee $10,000 in prizes and hopes to draw a big crowd of hoop dreamers to pay $20 each for the chance to take 15 shots in 90 seconds. The top shooters will move up toward a final round of 16, who will then shoot against each other head-to-head, in a bracket format similar to the college tournament.

The Final Four in Borgata’s foul-shooting tournament will take home all $10,000 in casino-guaranteed money. Half that pool goes to the ultimate winner, $3,000 to the second-place shooter and the third- and fourth-place shooters get $1,000 apiece.

“There’s going to be a lot of interest and we couldn’t be happier,” said Joe Lupo, a Borgata vice president. “We’re excited about the opportunity and we’ll be really interested to see how many people come.”

The casino is so pumped up about its hoops tournament that it won’t even take any cut out of the entry fees. Lupo said everything that comes in will be paid out to the winners — “We guarantee $10,000, but if more people come, the entire prize pool ... goes out to the players.”

But to be clear, players of other, more-traditional gambling games on Borgata’s casino floor that day won’t have to dodge any stray basketballs. Lupo said the the foul-shooting contest will be in its Signature Room, a self-contained, 6,000-square-foot room where Borgata usually hosts poker or slot tournaments.

Eric Weiss, the technical-services bureau chief New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement, said the agency needed less than two weeks to approve the tournament because “clearly the regulations permit what Borgata is doing.”

DGE allowed the contest under its New Jersey First Program, designed to “encourage people to bring products to New Jersey before any other jurisdiction,” Weiss said, adding that the regulators committed to reviewing those proposed new games within that two-week period. The DGE formally announced last year that it was “eager to receive skill-based game submissions for review,” something most observers had expected to apply to electronic-based games.

“I don’t know if we were surprised” by actual hoops-shooting, instead of a computerized, video-style version, Weiss said. “But we challenged the industry to do something innovative and Borgata was the first one to come up with the idea.”

He added that there’s no state rule against the host taking a cut of the entry fees — “That’s just the approach Borgata took for this specific tournament,” he said. “I think we’re looking for a day when all the casinos embrace the concept of skill-based gaming. ... You could have a backgammon tournament, a ‘Battleship’ tournament — leave it up to your imagination.”

The industry needs more imagination, Weiss added. “Look around, people are not going to the casino floor as much. The younger generation is bypassing the casino floor and going right to the bars and clubs.”

Gene Johnson, a senior vice president at Spectrum Gaming Group in Linwood, sees the foul-shooting-for-dollars game as “good for New Jersey. ... It’s a new category. It’s not sports betting — it’s a form of wagering and it is a sort of spectacle. There are all sorts of promotional and media opportunities associated with these kinds of events.”

To him, the host of the new tournament is less surprising than the game. “Borgata has always been one of the trend-setters in the industry,” he said.

Another analyst, Israel Posner, called the move “certainly a new frontier, and it’s probably a short distance between that and other kinds of games — pool comes to mind,” he said.

Posner, the director of Richard Stockton College of New Jersey’s Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming Hospitality & Tourism, knew of the official interest in skill-based games, but was also caught off-guard by the leadoff match.

“Frankly I was expecting more checkers or chess tournaments, or (electronic) types,” he said. But a sports contest makes perfect sense because “as spectators or players ... sports fans are very lucrative types of folks to have in your casino,” since many are also willing to play games of chance.

Wayne Nelson, of Galloway Township, actually was a basketball pro — he played six years in Europe after starring at Holy Spirit High School and Adelphi University. And he was a 91 percent foul shooter in his pro career, so he liked the sound of shooting for dollars in his old hometown.

“I can see people who have played basketball at some point in their lives are going to be excited about that,” said Nelson, now a coach at Cedar Creek High School. “They’ll say, ‘Foul shots for $5,000?’ I can do that.’ ... It might be good for the city.”

And shooting fouls is such a basic item that the winner could also be a surprise.

“When it comes to women in a sport like basketball, they tend to be a little more fundamentally sound,” this coach said. “A woman could come in there and win, easily.”

Borgata’s Lupo told a reporter that the tournament is open to any adult — including NBA star LeBron James if he wants to show up and shoot. But even at $5,000 for the winner, winning this championship would be chump change to James. At his reported salary of $20,644,400, he was paid an average of $15,258 for every shot he took last season — made or missed.

Contact Martin DeAngelis:

609-272-7237

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