The Athletic – ‘We Got The Hottest League in The Summer’: The BIG3 Basketball League Demands to be Taken Seriously
By BIG3 June 9, 2021
By Tashan Reed
LAS VEGAS — A collection of legends are scattered on the sidelines inside the gym of the Tarkanian Basketball Academy: Ice Cube, George Gervin, Gary Payton, Julius Erving and Bill Russell. They’re scattered among former NBA players such as Nate Robinson, Jason Richardson, Mike Bibby and Josh Smith, fans, media and dozens of others in the audience.
Nearly 100 players in either red or white jerseys are spread across two courts playing as many as eight different half-court 3-on-3 games simultaneously while local DJ Darren Miles plays rap music. The bass from the speakers, squeaking of sneakers, bouncing balls, communication among players, whistles from the referees and talking and mingling among the crowd creates an immersive cacophony of sound.
The gym is sweltering and stuffy thanks to the 100-plus degree temperatures in Las Vegas, but it’s alive and jumping with energy. The reason: The 2021 BIG3 Combine took place last week ahead of this season’s BIG3 Draft on Monday.
While the combine is a loose setting for the onlookers, the action on the court is intense. Players dive for loose balls, get frustrated when they don’t get foul calls, aggressively call for the ball and ramp up their intensity when games get close to the end. It’s all part of the effort to impress the coaches and team captains, who serve as the general managers, from the BIG3’s 12 teams to be one of the 20 players drafted later this month.
“It’s very competitive and they know it,” BIG3 commissioner and NBA Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler said the week before the combine. “The combine gives guys an opportunity to showcase their skills.”
BIG3 held its first-ever open tryouts in Washington, D.C., and Dallas earlier this summer and nine athletes from those tryouts participated in the combine. Most of the other athletes played at various collegiate and professional levels, though, so there were legit ballers on the floor. The league canceled its 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic but will return to action this year with its eight-game regular season set to begin July 10.
The regular-season games will be played in Vegas and New Orleans over the course of eight weeks leading up to the two-round playoff in the Bahamas. Despite not playing a game since 2019, league co-founder Ice Cube is confident about where BIG3 stands in the realm of summer sports.
“I don’t care what nobody say: We got the hottest league in the summer,” Cube, whose birth name is O’Shea Jackson, said the week before the combine. “We’ve only been around four years, but nothing’s hotter in the summer than us. Not baseball, not soccer or golf, not even Summer League basketball in the NBA. People who recognize that will jump on board with our league, and we’ll continue to grow.”
Cube, 51, had already become a superstar as a rapper, actor and filmmaker by the time he and co-founder Jeff Kwatinetz started the BIG3 in 2017, but he said running the league has given him the biggest thrill he’s had in the entertainment world.
“It’s a dream come true,” Cube said. “It’s been hard as hell. I see why leagues don’t survive, but I think this is some of the most fun I’ve had in entertainment since I started rapping. Jumping on stage and being on stage with my heroes like the LLs and the Run-D.M.C.’s and Ice-Ts of the world was one level of excitement but being able to have a league that involves people from Dr. J to the Ice Man to Rick Barry all the way down to the Joe Johnsons of the world and real ballers who can actually play in our league, it’s just been fun.”
The BIG3 wasn’t born out of boredom or a yearning for more money; it’s something its leadership team, coaches, players and fans are genuinely passionate about. And it appears to be here to stay.
Cube and Kwatinetz never meant for the BIG3 to be a retirement league for NBA legends and fringe players to play pickup basketball. The founders knew that model would probably draw eyes initially, but it wouldn’t have much staying power. While they certainly wanted to have players that the general public would recognize, their larger focus was on creating something distinctive.
Yes, it’s 3-on-3 basketball in a half-court setting, but it’s more unique than that. In addition to the standard two and three-point shots, there are three four-point zones from 30 feet away. Instead of a 24-second shot clock, each possession has a 14-second limit. Beyond that, time only means so much, anyway. In Fireball3, halftime happens when one team reaches 25 points and the game is decided when a team scores 50 points as long as it’s leading by at least two points. Starting this season there will also be a “Bring the Fire” rule that allows each team to make one challenge per half and trigger an in-game 1-on-1 possession to decide who wins.
“Jeff Kwatinetz and Ice Cube are innovators,” Drexler said. “They continue to innovate and find a way to make our game entertaining and improve it in every single facet of the game. The players love to play it and the fans love to watch it and they get entertained the whole time. There’s not another entertainment value like the BIG3.”
It’s become clear that BIG3 is more than just old heads hooping. It’s something new.
“Cube and I said in the beginning, ‘If this becomes about nostalgia, then we might have one or two good years, but it will disappear because that gets old,’” Kwatinetz said the week before the combine. “We were always focused on nostalgia and great names and players that might get people in the doors to check it out, but it ain’t gonna keep ’em. … So, not having it be a novelty and really making it a great game was everything to make it last.”
With that being said, BIG3 still had to prove itself to garner a consistent fan base. Having different rules wasn’t enough: Fans had to see that the players actually cared and competed when they were on the floor. For those who attended games or watched the inaugural season on Fox Sports 1, they saw that most of the players were in shape, gave effort on both offense and defense and went all-out to win.
“It’s fast, it’s irreverent and it’s so competitive,” Kwatinetz said. “All the bells and whistles are fine and I think we make a great event and it’s great for TV and we’ve done a lot of really unique things, but the reason why it can grow is because the sport itself is so authentic and so competitive.”
The BIG3 continued to gain popularity in its second season in 2018 and agreed to a broadcast deal with CBS Sports ahead of the 2019 season. Early in 2020, the league announced that it was rebranding its version of 3-on-3 basketball as “Fireball3.” Instead of attempting to compete with the NBA in the basketball world, it created its own sport.
“After the third season we asked ourselves, ‘Why are people still doubting us?’” Kwatinetz said. “Not fans, but people from the corporate world or advertisers or media. And we realized it was because the things that are cool are the things that are fresh and new or the things that are the best in class. We’re not going to come along in four or five or six years and be able to say we’re better than the NBA. People would forward me these tweets or postings of people saying, ‘The BIG3 is so much better than the NBA,’ and I’d laugh because it’s kind of an absurd statement. Having said that, somebody saying, ‘I like football better than basketball,’ that’s a real statement.”
The BIG3 now views itself as a basketball-influenced league, which it says has resonated with players, media and sponsors alike. Its leadership team, which also includes former Raiders CEO Amy Trask as chairman of the board and Chris Hannan as CEO, feels that it’s gone from being “laughed at” to evolving into a legitimate league that can stand on its own.
“What’s cool is that people are calling it a league,” Cube said. “Just by people acknowledging it as a league and not just a cute little basketball tournament, it shows growth. We don’t want to depend on just the NBA to provide talent to the league. We want kids to grow up and want to be Fireball3 players, ya dig?
“We want to establish our own superstars who can play our game at a high level because, if you’ve been watching the league, just because you was the shit in the NBA, that don’t mean you gon’ come out in the BIG3 and shine. And just because you didn’t make it in the NBA, that don’t mean you can’t be a star in the BIG3. We want to highlight that you have to be a great Fireball3 player, not just a great NBA player, to be successful in the BIG3.”
The age and experience barriers to play in BIG3 has been gradually reduced since the league’s inception. Initially, players had to be at least 30 years old and have professional basketball experience. Then, the age limit got reduced to 27 and any sort of basketball experience was accepted. Now, the age has been lowered again to 22 and the league is having open tryouts.
BIG3 is essentially now open to college-aged basketball hopefuls and above, which could hypothetically cause the average age of BIG3 athletes to come down. A handful of players — Joe Johnson, Jeremy Pargo and Xavier Silas — signed NBA contracts after playing, but they all had previous NBA experience. Now, the league could potentially become an option for teams from other professional leagues looking to scope out less proven talent.
“I think they crazy if they not looking at us,” Cube said. “I mean, I know they are because they’ve plucked a few of our players, but, you know, it’s great basketball. The thing about our style is you can’t hide. In 5-on-5, you can find a place to hide. There’s a lot of help coming. But, in our league, there’s not. You can’t hide. There’s no help coming. You have to man up. You have to D up. So, you have to have an all-around game. You can’t just be a specialist and succeed in the BIG3. So, you just have to be a great all-around athlete to be able to be successful. Any weakness you have will be exposed.”
Drexler, who averaged 20.4 points per game, won an NBA championship and earned an Olympic gold medal during his 16-year career, believes that the skills needed to excel in Fireball3 are translatable to the 5-on-5 game.
“3-on-3 is a lot like 5-on-5,” Drexler said. You have to be able to beat your guy 1-on-1, you gotta be able to defend and you gotta rebound and just play solid basketball. The only difference is you don’t run up and down the court, which is not a huge deal. But, at the end of the day, everything that we do in 3-on-3 is very fundamental to the 5-on-5 game.”
Kwatinetz said that he’s seen other professional owners, general managers and coaches at almost every BIG3 game in recent years. He also pointed out that several players either have landed NBA tryouts or play internationally during the offseason.
“People are watching us,” Kwatinetz said. “Listen, we want our players to be able to get whatever advantages they can from participating, but, ultimately, it’s about the sport and competing and winning in the BIG3. It’s important to these guys. If it creates opportunities for other professional leagues, that’s great.”
It remains to be seen whether the lower age limit will significantly alter the structure of BIG3 rosters in 2021. All 12 player captains — Joe Johnson, Cuttino Mobley, Franklin Session, Rashard Lewis, Josh Smith, Ricky Davis, Nate Robinson, Brian Scalabrine, Greg Oden and Nick Young — have some level of NBA experience, which leaves just 24 slots available. Teams are allowed to pick up extra players in case one of the three players on the roster can’t compete, however, there’s a chance for young talent to come into the league at some point this season. It’d take time, but that could eventually lead to BIG3 becoming a pro pipeline.
“If young players 22 and over can come in and showcase their skills, I guarantee you NBA teams are watching,” Drexler said. “I guarantee you it would be a great showcase, but first thing’s first: They gotta be good enough to get one of those spots.”
The players and crowd alike gather around half court as Cube grabs the microphone. The combine, which lasted about 90 minutes, is over, but he has one final message for the attendees.
“There’s some amazing talent out here,” Cube said. “There’s no doubt that you can play in the BIG3. … And thank you. I know you guys were putting your blood, sweat and tears on the court. It got a little heated; we expect to see that when guys are fighting for a job. We appreciate you. … If you don’t hear your name called (in the draft), don’t worry about it. Stay in shape, stay ready and definitely stay in contact with the captains.
“And stay ready because I expect to see a lot of faces this summer.”
For those who don’t get drafted, they’ll have the opportunity to stick around via the injury list and could eventually play in games. Whoever makes the cut, BIG3 has a plan in place to make its games as safe as possible despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. It’ll continue to test its players for COVID-19 this season and will offer vaccinations to those who haven’t received one yet.
BIG3 will have fans back in the stands and will play its first games of the season in the Orleans Arena in Vegas, which has a capacity of 5,000. The fan experience may not be as intimate as it was before the pandemic, but there will still be halftime concerts from notable artists as well as skateboarding and BMX bike performances through its partnership with Monster Energy. Whenever things return to normal, the league will continue to enhance its atmosphere at games.
“Be innovative,” Cube said. “We see this as a rolling all-star game when we start combing the country again and going from city to city, which is probably in ’22. But we want to create the same kind of atmosphere as the NBA All-Star Game or NFL Pro Bowl or Super Bowl.”
The league intends to increase its number of games and teams and expand its international presence in the years to come, but it’s not getting too ahead of itself. The focus is largely on making this year a success.
“We got rocked like the whole world with COVID, so just getting back to where we were and getting the momentum and excitement back, which is happening,” Kwatinetz said. “We’re not sitting around saying, ‘What do we do next year?’ It’s all hands on deck for this year right now. … It was just really hard for a young league with so much momentum to lose our fourth season. It was a drag. So, we’re just excited that we’ve got it back on its feet and people are excited to have us back.”
BIG3 has already come a long way, but it’s not satisfied with where it’s at. Its focus in its mission to attain more, however, isn’t different from what it was at the beginning.
“Entertain the fans,” Cube said. “That’s our job. And the league will grow depending on how we do that job. How do we present our games and make them more entertaining than the average basketball game without resorting to gimmicks on the court or things that are not serious competition? We take the game very seriously.
“We do not play with the game, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously when it comes to fans watching the game and enjoying the game, letting players be themselves, letting fans get a little closer to the action and not being so rigid and stiff. So, we’ll continue to do what we’ve been doing and just do it better.”
(Photos: Sarah Wiesner / Motivisualz)