BIG3 Basketball: The 3-on-3 League's Stars Break Down Ice Cube's Hoops Venture

Bonsu ThompsonFeatured Columnist IMay 4, 2017

Entertainment executive Jeff Kwatinetz, far left, and entertainer Ice Cube, second from right, pose with former NBA players Kenyon Martin, second from left, Allen Iverson, third from left, Rashard Lewis, third from right, and Roger Mason, far right, after a press conference announcing the launch of BIG3, a new 3-on-3 professional basketball league, in New York, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017.  (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press

"My daddy dead!"

Last Saturday afternoon, the outside of UNLV's Mendenhall Center offered Las Vegas' calmest sun-drenched setting while the inside of the Runnin' Rebels' training facility roared thunderously. Stephen Jackson was informing a referee that the only person with the authority to instruct him on his profanity had expired. 

"Don't tell me to watch my language!"

Jackson was probably still upset at that charge Jerome "Junkyard Dog" Williams took against him a few plays prior. It could've also been that the jumper of Williams' teammate Cuttino Mobley is still quite moist. On the next play, former NBA wild boy Ricky Davis relaxed Jax a bit by ripping Mobley for a dunk.

Although competitive, the scrimmage wasn't full-court. It was possibly the most intense and talented three-on-three contest any non-athlete inside Mendenhall ever witnessed.

Jackson and Davis were teamed with former Pacer Al Harrington. On their bench: retired professional scorer Bonzi Wells, another ex-Pacer Andre Owens and former lottery pick by way of UNC, Rashad McCants. Charles Oakley was their coach. Cat and Junkyard were on the court with Corey Maggette. On the bench: journeyman Jamario Moon, retired Rocket and DC legend Moochie Norris and "Whose cousin is that?!" nominee Xavier Silas. Their coach was the Ice Man himself, Hall of Famer George Gervin.

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That game was the final of several played Saturday and a snapshot of the bigger picture: a combine to scout former pros interested in playing in Ice Cube's new three-on-three league, BIG3. There would be an official draft in less than 24 hours, so the afternoon sustained a training camp intensity. Notable names like Larry Hughes, Joe Smith, Kwame Brown and Steve Francis scrimmaged with forgotten ones like Mike James, Smush Parker, Jumaine Jones and Kareem Rush.

For an entrepreneur who has built a resume off of gangster rap and family films, launching a professional sports league, regardless of size or style of play, is an inescapably gargantuan feat. It's why O'Shea Jackson—better known as Ice Cube—slow-cooked his most ambitious venture for nearly two years. 

"After Kobe retired," Ice Cube says, seated upstairs in Mendenhall's roomy lounge, post combine, "I was like, 'Man this dude scored 60 points his last game, but it's over.' And why? Because of the wear and tear of the NBA—82 games, plus playoffs, back-to-backs. I was like, 'What can we do to still see these dudes play and take out the wear and tear?'"

Little did Cube know his business partner and manager of 20 years, Jeff Kwatinetz, had stashed an idea with Roger Mason Jr, then-NBA Players Association deputy executive director. Kwatinetz and Mason produced the first NBPA Players Awards together. During the last NBA lockout, Mason pitched Kwatinetz a half court three-on-three tournament with current NBA players. So when Cube vocalized his Mamba inspiration, his partner's lightbulb flashed bright.

The two tapped former Oakland Raiders CEO Amy Trask to be the BIG3 CEO, then former Wizards developmental coach Joe Connelly III as director of basketball operations and Mason as league president and commissioner. The BIG3 had its starting five.

The league is comprised of eight teams. Each assigned one coach and two captains and was required to draft three additional players. The draft was hosted inside the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino Showroom.

At the draft's pre-breakfast, Jackson, captain for the Killer 3s team, was vocal about winning the league's first-ever championship with co-captain Chauncey Billups and coach Charles Oakley. His draft strategy was simple: "I'm just gonna let Chauncey make all the decisions."   

Gary Payton, coach of the 3 Headed Monsters, took his vetting vision a little deeper:

"When you get out of the league, everybody doesn't stay in shape because there isn't a motivation to stay in shape," he says. "So you gotta think about who these guys were during their career. Were they partiers? Were they drinkers?"

The first-overall pick was McCants. The former ACC scoring leader says his interest in BIG3 was playing against high-caliber athletes again. The BIG3 is an opportunity for past NBA players to gift themselves additional days under bright lights, and in cases like that of McCants, to do so without the obstruction of injuries or a bad rep.

Says Mason Jr., "McCants' reasons for being out of the NBA were not because of his talent."  

Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press

To keep it 100, the prime motivation for employment is the dollar bill. The base salary for BIG3 draft picks is 100K. Additional incentive is that 52 percent of all BIG3 profits go to the eight teams. The first place squad will receive 30 percent of that pot, the 8th place team, the least.

Less than half of the 70 players at the combine made consistent millions during their professional career. A 13-year pro like DeShawn Stevenson—now a member of the Power team—still looks like money. Lee Nailon, a standout at Texas Christian University and NBA journeyman, came looking for a check.

"I'm not even gonna front," he says, after being drafted to Tri-State. "It was the money. I got two kids graduating from high school, so this will help me get them a graduation gift."

The last thing Ice Cube wants is for BIG3 to be perceived as the rescue shelter for players the NBA took to the shed. The NBA Development League was created to be an incubator for talent, and later an answer to the influx of kids leaving college early. Fact is, today's D-League is viewed by plenty as the land of the Not Good Enough.

The BIG3 execs don't seem worried. They're banking their success on a few things: First is a television deal with FOX Sports 1 that will air a BIG3 quadruple header on June 26 and the seven succeeding Mondays.

Second is star power. Player/coach Allen Iverson, of course, is the biggest draw. The Answer initially declined the invitation, fearful that he wouldn't be able to work himself into sufficient shape. It took some smooth talking from Commissioner Mason to get the icon on board.

"I explained to him, as a player-coach, he would have some flexibility and some recovery time. That and the Ice Cube factor helped," Mason says.

Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press

The final ingredients Cube and co. are leaning on for an investment return are skill and pride. Most of the league's vets aren't in the NBA because they can't sprint with 20-year-olds anymore. Since a player's most important tools (IQ and jump shot) are the last to go, three-on-three half court is a benevolent stage to, at least, look like the All-Stars they once were.

The majority of the team captains are ex-killers—from Bonzi Wells to Jermaine O'Neal. No matter how many pounds or grey hairs a former pro accumulates, his ego remains ripe. No one wants to be embarrassed on television.

"Three-on-three is personal," Kwatinetz says. "When you have five, you can hide."

If by summer's end, the BIG3 is recognized as a respectable alternative for NBA players and fans, Ice Cube will have won. Then perhaps that victory grabs the attention of his muse?

"In my hopes and wishes, [Kobe] sees this and says, 'Next year I'm going out for the BIG3,'" Cube sayd. "For all those NBA dudes, this a viable option to still do what they've been doing since they were kids, but on a big stage. I mean, I feel like Walt Disney."