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College Basketball

For Fighting Alumni, The Basketball Tournament means more than $500k

Photo: Andy Lyons/Getty

Zach Hillesland, a four-year forward for the Irish, scored 548 points and snagged 496 rebounds during his collegiate career.

The Basketball Tournament championship takes place at 7 p.m. on Saturday at Boston University's Case Gym. Hillesland's team, Notre Dame Fighting Alumni, takes on tournament favorites Team Barstool, which features four former NBA players. The game can be streamed live on Watch ESPN.

A few years ago, a female coworker of mine gave me as a gift a black Nike-branded pocketbook with “BASKETBALL NEVER STOPS” embossed on the front. Assuredly a sweet gesture, I found it nearly impossible to contain my (juvenile) rage.

Basketball never stops? That’s weird, because instead of wearing a jersey and showing off the ol’ guns, I was not only wearing a waitress’ apron but also a “military-inspired” shirt that would suggest I should be holding a gun, albeit in this situation a squirt gun filled with ranch dressing in order to readily assist patrons looking to top off their turkey meatloaf sandwiches.

Flash forward three years later, there’s less ranch, fewer aprons and exactly one more basketball tournament to prove that basketball indeed never stops. This time the reminder didn't come in the form of a gift from a nice girl, but rather an email from a guy that many Notre Dame campus insiders would argue to be the best non-varsity basketball player to have graced the Rolfs Recreation Center during the late 2000s.

That guy, Chuck Flynn, came to a few of us Notre Dame grads in March with the idea of participating in an event accurately called The Basketball Tournament -- a 32-team, winner-take-all, single-elimination event with a $500,000 purse – and he did so in typical, straightforward Chuck fashion:

"I'm blatantly stealing this idea from a group of Rolfs regulars who thought Chops [another Rolfs legend] and I would be good enough to win a $500,000 tournament."

With just the right touch of self-deprecation, a general understanding of economics and a couple email threads, the idea spread from Chuck to former ND player Kieran Piller and eventually all the way to former Fighting Irish Big Men On Campus like Chris Thomas, Torin Francis and Russell Carter.

From rec league heroes to current pros, it turns out a lot of people can get out of bed for 500,000 clams.

By June, with the roster set, salaries allocated and charitable donations earmarked, the band was ready to get back together. And even if this exact band had never actually jammed in unison, we had all learned very similar instruments while under the tutelage of coach Mike Brey.

The day before the tourney began, we got together for our first and only practice, and by “we,” I mean half of us; and by “practice,” I mean an hour spent in Ryan Ayers’ high school gym with not just one, but two flat basketballs. Embarrassment of riches aside, we were able to insert a couple of sets and principles, all of which I forgot by dinner time.

Being around the group that first night -- Ayers, Piller, Thomas, Tory Jackson, Rob Kurz and Tyrone Nash -- two things became apparent: a lot has changed and not a damn thing has changed. 

Photo: Courtesy Zach Hillesland

Rob, a 6-foot-9 forward, can still box out the entire paint by himself. Ryan, a 6-7 guard, can still do everything. Tory still gets every loose ball within a 3-mile radius despite being just 5-11. Tyrone, a 6-8 forward, still has more horsepower than his car, and his car is no slouch. And Chris Thomas is still Chris Thomas, maybe a step slower afoot than during his playing days in South Bend, when he became one of the best point guards in school history, but still 10 steps faster in an already fast mind.

Yes, there are wives and kids and dogs and jobs and receding hairlines and at least one cigarillo habit. And yes, one or two of us drank the house out of beer before the burgers were done, but we all still remember the time when coach Brey told me to contact the janitor at Syracuse’s Carrier Dome to see if he could find my balls and ship them back to me via FedEx.

What permeated everything, however, was a sense of calm that can’t be accomplished by a group of 19- and 20-year-old student-athletes, and in those moments I wished we could have been this old in college. And I realized that our coaching staff probably thought that same thing every single day.

On the morning of Day 1 of the tournament, I sat there wondering how in God's name Tory can still afford to eat a breakfast of Fruit Loops and Swedish Fish and proceed to walk in a straight line, let alone play basketball at a very high level. Confusion, jealousy and a yearning for candy soon melted away as we began to play, and began to win, and as I totally caved and ate a handful of Sno-Caps.

As we advanced in the tournament, the somewhat abstract notion of winning such a fine lump sum became more and more tangible, and as we got closer, we played better. There was no bickering over playing time or shot distribution. Everyone played defense. There were no contracts to be won, no draft spots available, just a real and immediate reward, and I stopped to wonder if maybe this format had fixed sports, or at the very least fixed us.  

Afterward, as we all sprawled in booths at a Chestnut Hill tavern, having won four games in three days to get one win away from the cake, one of us had apparently consumed enough firewater to say that it wasn’t even about the money anymore. The rest of us laughed at the perceived absurdity of the statement, but the orator proceeded undeterred. He said it was about winning the championship, that it was about playing together as a team again and that it was about having the opportunity to represent the University of Notre Dame. The laughter quickly subsided as we collectively took another sip.  

It’s not just that basketball never stops. It’s that -- pardon my French -- Nothing Never Stops. You have to keep playing. You always have to keep playing. It was the prophet Andre 3000 who said, “You focus on the past, your ass’ll be a Has What.” You really are only as funky as your last cut, and all that’s left to do is cut these nets, cut this check and move on to whatever the next play might be, perhaps separately but always together.

Zach Hillesland started 53 games for Notre Dame from 2005-09. He lives in Chicago.

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