$500K on the line in hoops tourney final

It sounded too good to be true, at first. A wide-open, winner-take-all hoops tournament with half a million dollars on the line.

“My first reaction was like, ‘Is this for real? How can there just be a $500,000 prize for nothing?’” said Matt Walsh, the former Florida Gators and Miami Heat and current Virtus Bologna guard.

His buddy, Donnie McGrath, had forwarded a piece Zach Lowe wrote for Grantland about The Basketball Tournament (TBT), and asked Walsh a question.

“He said, ‘Why don’t you ask your boys at Barstool [Sports] if they want to sponsor us?’” Walsh said. “So I wrote to David Portnoy and asked him if he wanted to be involved. He said, ‘Yeah, tell me what I have to do.’”

So McGrath, Walsh and Portnoy signed up and began assembling what would become Team Barstool, one of 32 teams in the field of TBT. If their rough-hewn roster -- loaded with NBA experience, from Quincy Douby to Dahntay Jones -- could survive and advance through the single-elimination format, held at Philadelphia University from June 6-8, they’d all have a shot at a healthy pay day.

That’s what convinced some of the more skeptical among them to agree to join the team.

“Well it was pretty easy once you mentioned that it would be at least a $50k cut,” Walsh said with a laugh. “Once you mentioned the money it was a pretty easy sell.”

“Some players thought that it was half a joke,” TBT co-founder Jonathan Mugar said. “But once they showed up they realized it was for real.”

Walsh said he wasn’t expecting much -- thinking it would be like the other tournaments he’s played in, which are more streetball than organized basketball.

“It was the most well run tournament I’ve ever been a part of,” he said. “I was not expecting a lot and it was great. I can’t say enough positive things about it.”

Of course, it probably helps that Team Barstool is one game away from claiming the big prize. The final is on Saturday night in Boston University’s Case Gym (7 ET on ESPN3).

Walsh & Co. will go up against Notre Dame Fighting Alumni, led by Chris Thomas (who’s played in Spain, Greece, Poland, Italy and Israel since his career in South Bend, Indiana), shooter Ryan Ayers and power forward Rob Kurz.

While Team Barstool relies on its talent advantage, the Fighting Alumni lean on their shared experience and outlook.

“We just got like-minded individuals together,” Thomas said. “We knew our camaraderie and [experience] playing together would be a difference-maker for us.

“We basically put all our egos aside and stuck to the game plan. We wanted to give ourselves a chance. And we’re here now.”

One game, one win away from a five-figure payout.

Thomas, 32 and a father of two, has retired from basketball and is trying to make a go of it as a financial planner.

Asked if he’d been playing much ball lately, Thomas said he had. In an over-30 league in Indy. A league that included cameos from players like NBAer Jeff Teague, but still.

The potential of heading back to Indy with a stack of bills isn’t lost on him, but Thomas almost seemed more excited about the prospect of getting people talking about Irish basketball again.

“To be in this position, financially it can help some people for sure -- not to take away from that -- but you’re kind of a pioneer of something we feel is gonna be very special,” he said.

While the future of The Basketball Tournament is uncertain beyond Saturday night, Mugar said the goal has always been to make it an annual event.

If his team is able to overcome the NBA vets on Team Barstool, Thomas said the Fighting Alumni would have to return to defend the title. Like any true competitor, Thomas’ thoughts didn’t stop with one more win.

“I’m trying to stay sane as a financial planner, but it’s hard because all this playing basketball gets the fire relit,” he said. “It makes you question, ‘Did you stop too soon? Did you give up? Is there something left in the tank?’

“I don’t know. It might be a door that opens back up.”

Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.