“Since the very first game, we knew we could win this,” Chris Thomas confidently and correctly boasted after the Notre Dame Fighting Alumni won the first ever The Basketball Tournament (TBT), a startup 32-team, single-elimination, $500,000 winner-takes-all tournament. Thomas, the point guard on Notre Dame’s 2003 Sweet 16 team, and other notable Notre Dame alumni like Rob Kurz, defeated Team Barstool, a team featuring former NBA players Dahntay Jones and Josh Boone in a closely contested game, 72-68.
During the days leading up to and right before the tip, many would not have given the Notre Dame Fighting Alumni a chance against Team Barstool. Besides Jones and Boone, Team Barstool also had the talented former Seton Hall point guard Andre Barrett and former Florida forward Matt Walsh on their roster. Not only did Team Barstool have the bigger names, but they also had the majority of fan support at Boston University’s Case Gymnasium.
Fan support was one of the main aspects of TBT; all of the 32 teams that qualified had to meet a minimal amount of online fan support. At Saturday night’s finale, Team Barstool successfully got hundreds of their fans to be in attendance. Clad in Team Barstool’s t-shirts chanting “I Believe,” the crowd, coupled with the $500k that was on the line, created an intense game environment.
Despite the Fighting Alumni scoring the first few baskets, Team Barstool did not get rattled as they feed off the crowd’s energy and the play of Barrett, whose quickness and aggression in the opening frame of the first half, put Barstool in the lead. The first half ended with Dahntay Jones scoring 5 points in the last minute to give Barstool a slim 5-point halftime lead. But in the second half it was a different story as the Fighting Alumni played lockdown defense, stopping Barrett’s drives and forcing shooters like Matt Walsh and Donnie McGrath (Providence, 2002-2006) into contested shots which resulted in Barstool shooting 1-for-13 behind the arc for the half. While Barstool had highly talented and skilled players, they didn’t have the familiarity that the Fighting Alumni had. “We felt like we were back in college,” Fighting Alumni forward Ryan Ayers said.
The Fighting Alumni looked just like a college team, playing full court defense, running base line out of bounds plays and moving the ball to get balanced scoring from inside the paint and from behind the arc. Led by the scoring of eventual MVP Tyrone Nash (19 points), Ayers (15 points) and Kurz (11 points), the Fighting Alumni held off Team Barstool for the victory and the $500k grand prize. As their win seemed imminent, the sizeable faction of Notre Dame fans, including former NBA player and Notre Dame alumni Luke Harangody, started to chant “Get that money!” while the Fighting Alumni celebrated on the bench. The Fighting Alumni counted on these fans to get them into TBT and they came through for them in the finale. “It felt like we back at the Joyce (Notre Dame’s home arena). Coach (Mike) Brey always said that the Joyce travels with us. If we go to the West Coast, we can count on our fans to make that gym, Joyce West. If we go to the East Coast, we got the Joyce East. Wherever we go, it will always be the same due to our fans,” guard Tory Jackson remarked after the game.
For TBT, this was just the first tournament of many. The championship game was broadcast live on ESPN3, and next year TBT hopes to have a TV deal for the whole tournament. Sports Illustrated’s Luke Winn sums up this year’s experience for TBT:
“The Basketball Tournament itself is an underdog story. Three years ago, Jonathan Mugar, a 38-year-old television producer who has worked on Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! and Comedy Bang! Bang!, texted childhood friend Dan Friel, a federal prosecutor in New Orleans, about his idea for an open, national hoops event that might have 1,000 teams, a $10 million prize and a nationally televised final. Mugar eventually pitched the idea to Hoop Group president Rob Kennedy, an expert in tournament logistics, and found a group of Boston investors to back the project. This past weekend in Philly, the first incarnation of TBT actually happened, with 32 teams in slick, tourney-issued jerseys, officiated by Division I refs, playing for a half-million-dollar purse.
Because the inaugural TBT did not have a TV deal, it operated at nearly $1.5 million in the red, but that was a loss the organizers were prepared to stomach. They hope that TBT will grow into a multi-region event (possibly Philadelphia, Chicago, Houston and Los Angeles) with a Final Four site and a multiplatform media deal for 2015 and beyond. Relying almost exclusively on Internet and social-media buzz—TBT’s advertising budget consisted of one $1,000 Facebook ad buy—they reeled in a 2014 field filled with where-are-they-now players, many of them professionals in the NBA D-League, Europe or South America.”
In whatever iteration TBT comes back with next year, they can already count on one thing: the Notre Dame Fighting Alumni will be back to defend their title.