ATLANTIC CITY — Al Callejas stood at the foul line ready to attempt a free throw worth more than $10,000 on Saturday.
As the son of a basketball coach, he spent a lifetime preparing for the pressure.
It didn’t even bother him that he was in the Signature Room of Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa and not a gym.
Callejas, 37, made the shot to win Borgata’s Free Throw Shooting Challenge — which was billed as the country’s first skill-based casino contest. Callejas shouted “Got it” as the ball dropped through the net. A total of 1,022 people paid $20 each to enter the contest. Callejas won $10,220.
“I never win (in the casino),” Callejas said. “This is the perfect setting for me.”
Borgata Casino Hotel becomes a national proving ground Saturday for a new form of casino gam…
Callejas, who lives in Archbald, Pennsylvania, played NCAA Division III basketball at the University of Scranton. His father, also named Al, is the coach of Holy Cross High School in Dunmore, Pennsylvania.
“I’m a coach’s son,” Callejas said. “That’s the bottom line. I’ve had a ball in my hand since I was 3 years old.”
The New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement announced in October that casinos could conduct skill-based or social games. The idea was to bring new gamblers to Atlantic City.
Saturday’s free-throw shooting contest did just that. The casino expected 750 people to show up. The competition began at 9 a.m., and the line to enter at that point was 50 yards long.
The event drew people who would not have normally been in Atlantic City or at Borgata on Saturday. One of those was Pat Devaney, who played basketball for St. Augustine Prep in 2002 and now lives in jersey City.
“This is awesome,” said Devaney, 30. “It brings more people to Atlantic City. This is for people who don’t gamble. It’s really more skill.”
The event created a buzz throughout the casino, said Joe Lupo, Borgata’s senior vice president of operations.
“This brings a different (younger) demographic,” Lupo said.
Lupo said Borgata will “100 percent” hold future skill-based games, but he didn’t specify what the casino had in mind.
Although the casino didn’t directly profit much from the event, many of the participants spent the day gambling, drinking and eating at the casino’s restaurants.
In the final, Callejas beat Wayne Nelson, the Cedar Creek High School boys basketball coach and Smithville resident. If Callejas had missed the final shot, the two would have been tied and gone to extra shots. Nelson took home $6,132 for finishing second.
While Callejas bent his knees and shot with the same fundamentally sound motion on each attempt, Nelson confounded fans and his fellow competitors by banking in his shots off Borgata’s forgiving backboards.
“It’s a casino,” Nelson said with a smile. “The bank is always open.”
The foul-shooting challenge occurred in the middle of “March Madness,” a time when basketball is on nearly every sports fan’s mind with the start of the NCAA Tournament this weekend.
Borgata set up eight baskets in the Signature Room.
Each contestant got to shoot 15 balls in 60 seconds. Each foul shot was worth one point. Each contestant also got to shoot two multicolored balls that were worth two points.
The field of 1,022 was narrowed down to 64. A few more rounds were held until Nelson and Callejas were the only ones left standing.
The contest drew amateurs taking their best shot, former players and even professional shooters.
The event’s appeal was that everybody who has ever played basketball thinks they can sink a free throw.
“But then you get out here with the lights and pressure,” said 29-year-old Julian Tynes, who lives in Boston and came to Atlantic City for the contest.
Nelson, who starred at Holy Spirit, wasn’t the only local standout to enter. Terrence Ward, who played for Egg Harbor Township High School in the 1990s and scored nearly 1,900 career points, made the round of 16.
There were a couple of professional shooters in the crowd, most notably Dave Hopla, who heard about the contest during last month’s NBA All-Star Game.
Hopla, 58, is considered one the world’s top shooters. He’s taught several NBA teams, most notably the Washington Wizards and Toronto Raptors how to shoot.
Hopla, 58, lives in Maine but was in New Jersey to give a shooting clinic in Red Bank today. Hopla was eliminated in Saturday’s quarterfinals.
‘It’s a good time,” Hopla said. “There are some players here, and they are some interesting (shooting) forms.”
Callejas is a first-grade teacher at Valley View Elementary Center in Peckville, Pennsylvania. He saw an advertisement for the contest on the Internet and spent the past week practicing.
“I’m not going to lie,” he said. “I got the keys to the (Holy Cross) gym, and I’ve been practicing. I read the rule book (for the contest).”
The crowd grew quiet — just like it was a real basketball game — as Nelson and Callejas shot in the final round.
Callejas said he wasn’t nervous before the final round and edged Nelson 16-14.
Callejas’ wife, Maribeth, watched him shoot. The couple has two daughters — ages 4 and 1. He said he has no set plans for his winnings.
They visit Atlantic City occasionally, but Callejas said he doesn’t gamble often. As an added prize, Lupo offered the couple a suite at Borgata on Saturday night.
“Maybe I will gamble now,” Callejas said with a smile. “I’m going to find a roulette wheel and bet 16.”
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