ATLANTA -- A $2 million prize is at stake in Friday's winner-take-all championship game at The Basketball Tournament.
Yes, the players from the four remaining teams crave the camaraderie and nostalgia of playing with former teammates. Some hope an impressive performance will lead to an NBA contract. But the money matters most.
Jon Mugar, the TBT's founder, was a writer and producer in Los Angeles when he and a friend from middle school conjured up the idea of a winner-take-all event. Now in its fifth year, the event is bigger than ever.
Mugar said he borrowed money from family members to come up with the $500,000 prize in the first year of the event in 2014. TV partners, sponsorships and ticket sales have helped him increase the winning prize to $2 million.
"I feel like we have more momentum than we've ever had before," Mugar said. "Our growth this year has been phenomenal. I feel really good going into the final. I think the competition is the best that it has ever been."
"The fair way to do it is to split it evenly. No one is more important than anyone else. So that's what we're doing. For a lot of guys, it's life-changing. That's a lot of money."Travis Diener
With money, however, sometimes comes conflict since each team in the TBT can decide how it wants to divide the prize money.
Travis Diener played five years in the NBA and several more overseas, with career earnings in the millions. He'll play for the Golden Eagles, a team largely composed of former Marquette players, in Thursday's semifinals in Baltimore. If they win, his teammates have agreed to split the prize money evenly, $140,000 to every player on the roster. He said he planned to throw a party for the team if it won the championship.
"The fair way to do it is to split it evenly," Diener said. "No one is more important than anyone else. So that's what we're doing. For a lot of guys, it's life-changing. That's a lot of money. ... For $2 million, you're gonna play hard, no matter how much money you have. That's a lot of money."
His teammate, Maurice Acker, said the Golden Eagles have focused on that goal throughout the tournament.
"That's more money than some people make in one year, two years," he said. "It's serious. Our goal is to go out there and play hard and always have that in the back of your mind."
Entering TBT, Byron Mullens, a former first-round pick who played on Ohio State's alumni team, Scarlet and Gray, said he had no concerns about the way the team intended to divide the money if it won. But Mullens quit the team before the Super 16 in Atlanta last weekend.
Why? He said he didn't like his cut of the pie.
That's not even the team's craziest story of the weekend. Last Saturday, Jared Sullinger got married in Miami. At the wedding, his wife surprised him with airfare to Atlanta so he could compete in the TBT with Scarlet and Gray on Sunday.
"I'm lucky, man," said Sullinger before his team lost to Team Fredette in the quarterfinals.
The conversation about money seemed to make some of the participants uncomfortable, even though many have and continue to play professionally. It's still an awkward conversation. Eberlein Drive coach Jacob Hirschmann said players who've participated in more games will receive a higher payout if the team wins. According to the TBT website, most players will collect $135,000 apiece if Eberlein Drive wins the title.
"The guys who came to all the games get more," Hirschmann said. "We just settle it down from there. Nothing too crazy."
Eberlein Drive's Lou Amundson made more than $10 million over his 10-year NBA career. He's not concerned about the payout.
"For me, honestly, it's not about the money," he said.
His teammate, Osiris Eldridge, who most recently played professionally in Turkey, said he hasn't thought about the money either.
"For me, it's a bonus, going back to Europe, before I go over there," he said. "It's a nice little bonus before I go over there. I haven't really thought about how I'd spend it."
When Team Fredette reached Atlanta to play in the Super 16, it hadn't decided how it would split the cash. After beating Scarlet and Gray to advance to the semifinals, it was still an open question.
"We're not worried about how we're splitting it," Brandon Davies said. "We're just worried about getting it and we'll decide. There's no sense in talking about who gets what if you don't get nothing."
Said Jordan Crawford: "Can't spend money you ain't got."
Jimmer Fredette added, "Yeah, we don't worry about it. We're just going to go play. Hopefully, we'll win it. And I have no idea. We're just excited to be here."
One team familiar with the conversation about splitting prize money is Overseas Elite, TBT's three-time defending champion, which has won $5 million in prize money.
"I stay out that conversation," former Arizona standout Kyle Fogg said. "I don't know who talks about it. For me, and I know a lot of the guys, definitely help out our families. I'll give a lot to my mom. For myself personally, I work through an organization called Pencils of Promise where they build a lot schools in places like Ghana and Laos. So I'll give probably all my winnings to charity and my mom."
Justin Burrell, a former St. John's standout who plays professionally in Japan, said he's not even sure how much of the pot he'll get this year.
"This past year, my portion ... I think I got a $1," he said, "so I'm fair with that again. Whatever we do in order to win, that's the main goal."
"One dollar better than no dollar, huh?" Fogg said.
"Exactly," Burrell responded.
On Friday, someone will make a $2 million shot in the TBT finale, and the winning team will decide the terms of their split once Mugar writes the check. But don't trust their humility leading up to this final stage. It's about the money. And it has always been about the money in the TBT.
During a timeout in the quarterfinals, Golden Eagles coach Joe Chapman grabbed his whiteboard.
"At the end of the timeout, I huddled the five out there," he said. "That's all I wrote out there: $140,000. I said, 'Do all the intangible stuff. It's $140,000.' ... They looked at me and said, 'Let's do this.'"
On the ensuing possession, Diener launched a 3-pointer near the top of the key to seal the win and send his team to the semifinals.