Bad Knees and Big Dreams: Inside the NBA Last Chance League

Ride along with Kwame Brown, White Chocolate and the original Kaepernick as the BIG3's best team attempts to re-write basketball history with the first chapter of Ice Cube's nostalgia trip—if they don't get hurt tryin'
photo of Bonsu ThompsonBonsu ThompsonFeatured Columnist IJuly 18, 2017

New York City’s largest public sports facility, Chelsea Piers, is also the epicenter of athletes on the wrong side of their prime. On the second floor of Pier 60, the population of 30-something-and-up athletes is buzzing this June afternoon. Centered inside a quarter-mile-long track is a netted cage cocooning two full basketball courts being taken over by a congregation of retired NBA stars. Here is where the first set of practices for the BIG3, the premier three-on-three basketball league created by Ice Cube, are taking place. It’s also where Jason “White Chocolate” Williams is making the 2001 No. 1 overall draft pick look like 1992’s No. 1.

Kwame Brown has never been confused for Shaquille O’Neal. Not even when the 6’11” Brown played for Phil Jackson and with Kobe Bryant during his two-plus seasons as a Laker a decade ago. But with a Pistol Pete descendant for a point guard, the tallest player in a BIG3 league with an average height of about 6’6” looks primed for a dominant summer.

Brown and Williams play for the 3 Headed Monsters team. They along with team captain Rashard Lewis make up the starters. The three are currently going at it with their bench: former Bull Eddie Basden, 48-year-old former Denver Nuggets star Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and Rashard’s trainer, to even out the sides. 3HM are one of the BIG3’s preseason favorites and the early fluidity in their initial scrimmage supports that projection.

There are two other squads on Pier 60’s courts practicing for the first time. Spotted on the hardwood is a rich mix of players: former college star-turned-mediocre pro Rashad McCants (Trilogy), Hall of Famer Allen Iverson (3’s Company), as well as journey jumpman James White (Trilogy), all looking to use the BIG3’s 10-week schedule to scrub away that nasty “washed up” label. But the bottom left court is where the realest action lives; where the 3 Headed Monsters are fixing to prove that, despite playing in a league of retirees, their bite will not rely on Poligrip.

Jason Williams (left) and Ice Cube (right).
Jason Williams (left) and Ice Cube (right).(Photograph by Ben Sklar for B/R Mag)

Stephen Jackson, the co-captain of the Killer 3s, looks on. The man who defaced Dirk Nowitzki’s 2006-07 MVP trophy in the first round of that year’s playoffs makes his way over to 3HM’s sideline. He crosses his arms and begins stirring a cocktail of admiration and mind games.

“Y’all gon’ be all right,” he yells to no one in particular. “Y’all advantage is y’all got some smart guys like Rashard and Jason.” Jackson pauses. “Well, I don’t know about Kwame.”

Brown, in mid-play, turns toward Jackson and reminds him that neither of the two went to college. “On paper, we got the same education!”

While the BIG3 intends to validate itself through the notoriety of former greats like Stak, A.I., Chauncey Billups, Clyde Drexler and George Gervin, it offers opportunity to former NBA employees with various circumstance and agenda. Some receive one last chance to showcase that they’re still qualified to rock Jerry West’s silhouette. Ballers who own unsavory reputations can now write themselves a new ending.

When Colin Kaepernick was three years old in 1990, Chris Jackson entered the NBA with only a couple other players possessing his range off the dribble. When Jackson accepted Islam as his faith, changed his name to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and refused to stand for pregame national anthems, he went from being an original Steph Curry to the NBA’s first Kap. After September 11, he wouldn’t plant another pivot in the NBA. After playing much of the last decade overseas, he has spent the last several years in Atlanta training young gunners like Victor Oladipo, Rodney Hood and 2017 Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon.

“I’m trying to make mediocre great,” says Abdul-Rauf.

Rashard Lewis has only been out of the NBA for a few seasons. The 6’10” two-time All-Star and 2012-13 NBA champ (with the Miami Heat) is the tallest BIG3 player with an NBA career three-point percentage of 39 percent. He stands as the biggest mismatch in a short league with a four-point shot. While Lewis had an impressive 16-year career, a quad tear in Game 5 of the 2014 Finals turned out to be a personal blessing in disguise.

“When I was rehabbing I was intending to come back and play another year or two, but I kind of got comfortable at home with my family,” says Lewis, whose post-NBA life consists of driving his two daughters and son to and from school. He admits the itch to play pro remained, but he wasn’t pressed. “If [I received an offer from] a contender it would’ve probably been a no-brainer, but it was a lot of teams [offering me contracts] who weren’t even gonna make the playoffs.”

Lewis may have the greatest opportunity to win both the league’s first MVP and championship. Problem is, it’s the first practice of the season and his coach is MIA.

Where the hell is Gary Payton?

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Jason Williams is heated. It’s the following day of an 80-plus-degree BIG3 launch weekend and the 3 Headed Monsters are seated shoulder-tight inside a van with a temperamental air conditioner. They just wrapped their second team practice—today’s was at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center—and are now headed back to their Manhattan hotel, sweaty and hot. Reggie Evans of the Killer 3s is catching a ride while telling epic Kevin Garnett stories. The best one is of KG cursing out the Celtics owner on a private plane—similar to how J-Will is barking at the vent above him. “This is some shit,” says Williams, flicking the shutter back and forth as if the air issue is exterior. “I could’ve at least got us two vans. Anything but this 1932 van.”

In the late ’90s, Williams was the NBA’s Trojan horse for a hoop dribbling culture ripe in the inner-city parks, like Rucker, that spread nationally via And1’s Mixtape Tour. As a rookie in Sacramento, he created a highlight reel with Chris Webber. His trick passing and daredevil shot selection earned him a reputation as a turnover-prone wild child. That is until Shaq got him a job as the starting point guard on the eventual 2005-06 champs Miami Heat. Williams has always felt that he could play in the NBA. Albeit, he was flattered by the BIG3 invite. “I’m a little white boy from West Virginia, so when I saw Cube text me, I was like, ‘C’mon. This is a joke,’” says Williams during the media reception preceding the BIG3’s first practice. “If I could change one thing it would be [that we play] full court because I’m still a full-court guy. I can still get up and down. I don’t know if a lot of these guys can.” Remember this.

It’s one thing to expect millionaires who spent the bulk of their professional careers traveling by private plane or luxury bus to pile into a vehicle like an AAU squad; it’s another to fit men ranging from 6’1” to 6’11” (and some of their children) into a 13-passenger vehicle. But the BIG3 is a startup and it appears there are some amenities lost along with half of a court.

Michael Rapaport (center) and Kwame Brown (right).
Michael Rapaport (center) and Kwame Brown (right).(Photograph by Ben Sklar for B/R Mag)

Brown is less vocal than J-Will, but appears more uncomfortable inside the van. As a pro, he never completely fit in the NBA. He’s most famous for being the underachieving big man who tops Michael Jordan’s front-office list of regrets. The first high schooler to go No. 1 in an NBA draft still managed to clock in 12 NBA seasons. He blames the premature end to his career on an injury he sustained as a 76er. “I had what’s called an avulsion fracture where the hamstring tears a piece of the bone away,” says Brown. “They were working me out every day, but they misdiagnosed me. They told me I had a mild hamstring injury. I was icing when I should’ve had surgery to pin it back.”

Sounds like a lawsuit. “Nah, you’re not going to win with big corporations like that,” Brown says. Claiming to be 100 percent healthy, he sees this summer as a potential route back into the A. “I’m open. Whatever happens, happens.”

Basden is unbothered by the heat or commoner’s style of shuttle. He’s on his smartphone, surfing Instagram. “I had deleted my account,” he says. “But I just restored it so I need to get my followers up.”

Eddie Basden
Eddie Basden(Photograph by Ben Sklar for B/R Mag)

Basden is one of those BIG3 players who was not in the NBA long enough to be spoiled. He was born in Brooklyn but moved to the DMV area, where his game etched him a local name. In college, the 6’5” guard established himself as a decorated defender. Undrafted in 2005, he fought his way onto a couple of NBA rosters, but was overseas by 2006. “I didn’t have a lot of years in the NBA to get my name out there,” he says. “I started hearing all of the big names [affiliated with the BIG3] and I know a lot of these guys because I was a rookie when they were on their way out. So I just looked at it as an opportunity for a new beginning. It ain’t never too late to excel on a high stage.”

Basden’s eyes widen while staring at his phone. He slides his Droid in Kwame’s line of vision and the two hoopers become preoccupied with a different type of scoring. Amber Rose’s latest social media offering has their attention incarcerated.

Brown: “I gotta DM her.”

Basden: “You can DM her after like the fifth week.”

Brown: “Right. [To hypothetical Amber] ‘You in L.A. or you in Vegas?’”

Basden: [Laughs] “Oh, Vegas is gonna be crazy!”

Both Basden and Brown are banking on the BIG3 upping their stock. In 24 hours, their 3 Headed Monster team will play the very first game of the league’s debut quadruple-header at Barclays. Over the next eight Sundays, the league will hit a different city with the four matches airing the following Monday on television. Cube has high hopes for his league to become the summer hoops version of Monday Night Football. “Some of the guys feel like they got a bad rap in the NBA,” says Ice Cube. “Some didn’t get a chance to get loose. So this is their second crack at making a name for themselves on a whole different level.”

Coach Gary Payton was absent for the media reception and both practices. Yesterday, the only point guard to win Defensive Player of the Year was reportedly on his way to Chelsea Piers. Not even the BIG3 commissioner and president knew his whereabouts. “He’s a big boy,” said Roger Mason Jr., while cruising around Chelsea Piers’ courts in a custom black suit, clearly bankrupt of answers. “He’ll find his way.” Today, Payton is unresponsive. This, a day before the BIG3’s debut and 3HM’s reintroduction.

Turns out GP never made it to NYC. He was back home on the Left Coast. “I had stuff to do,” Payton would say later. “I had businesses to handle. Shit. This ain’t my motherfuckin’ job.” He laughs. “This ain’t paying my bills.”

The next day, Payton coached his squad to its first win of the season against the Ghost Ballers, which featured Mike Bibby, Ricky Davis and Ivan Johnson. It was an impressive winwell-fought, highlighted by a couple of comebacks, ended on a game-winning and-1 by Lewis aka “Sweet Lew.” Each BIG3 team must win by two points. The first to reach 60 points wins (a week later, the league would amend that to 50 points for time conservation; a 25-point arrival calls for halftime).

Lewis closed the day as the league’s scoring leader with 27 points. Brown finished with 17 points and 13 rebounds but still couldn’t believe how rough the game was. “It was more like streetball,” he says. Abdul-Rauf predicted this almost two months prior. “We’re going back to the old-school rules of hand checking,” he said after being drafted in Vegas. “Most of us came from the streets. So it’s gonna be physical.”

Ice Cube
Ice Cube(Photograph by Ben Sklar for B/R Mag)

It was both a rough and triumphant day for Ice Cube as well. Although the officiating was often inconsistent and the four-match day, at times, felt more NBA parody (a half court in any arena will do that) than experiential, overall the launch was a respectable one. Press conferences preceded each game. Fabolous performed between the four matches. Celebs like Whoopi Goldberg and LL Cool J were flashed and announced on the Jumbotron. James Harden and Lou Williams came through. New Brooklyn Net D’Angelo Russell did too. The BIG3 appeared to be a legitimate league.

Post-win, the 3HM locker room was bright and the winners were lit. All except the one standing in front of the locker that read “White Chocolate.” Two full minutes had passed before J-Will, dressed only in a towel covering waist to quad, could slide his underwear down his calves. He groaned, constantly, in much pain. Toward the end of the second half, with his team up by three, Williams drove into traffic and leapt for a fadeaway. When he planted his left leg for the lift, his knee shifted forward instead of up. His screams while stretched out on the floor informed everyone that a tear occurred. “That’s what it is, most likely,” said one of the trainers after Williams finally limped to the shower. “Fucking old guys.” 

The following week, BIG3 hit Charlotte. With 3HM’s starting point guard out for the season with a torn ACL, the squad found itself struggling mightily against the also 1-0 Trilogy teamled by former Pacer Al Harrington and BIG3 No. 1 overall draft pick McCants. The Monsters would replace the BIG3’s best ball-handler with former Grizzlie Hakim Warrick (a week later, they would swap him out for guard Kareem Rush). By halftime, it was a smack fest with the score reading 25-9 Trilogy. Although 3HM outscored Trilogy in the second half, the deficit was too great to close. “Y’all just let them do whatever they wanted to do!” scolded Payton in the locker room afterward.

The BIG3 was conceptualized after Ice Cube returned from shooting Fist Fight in Atlanta to his wife’s recap of Kobe’s 60-point finale. It sucks that he won’t play anymore, the former NWA member thought. But Mamba could continue hoisting fadeaways if not forced to endanger his Achilles with up-court sprints. It’s no stretch that the BIG3, via its average player age, is essentially a league of injury-prone athletes. J-Will wasn’t the only notable player to suffer a non-contact leg injury that first week. In the very next game, Corey Maggette popped his Achilles. The worst thing that could happen is Kobe or Paul Pierce joins the association and reinjures himself in front of America. Does the BIG3 really want to be documented as the house where Allen Iverson wrecked his knee?

“It’s important for the fans to know that I was all-in to be a coach,” Iverson begins to tell B/R Mag, after his Charlotte game, before bursting the hopes of cities anticipating the BIG3 arrival. “Me and Cube just thought it be cool for me to get on the floor for a little bit. But I’m not Allen Iverson at 25 no more. I’m 42 years old and been away from the game for six-seven years."

"So if you think you’re coming to a game to see The Answer, it’s not gonna happen.”

Payton had no time to be concerned with injuries or A.I. “I ain’t worried about Iverson and them,” he says to his players after watching Iverson mail in his second single-field-goal outing on the locker room TVs. “They look like shit. We just got to make sure we’re prepared, in shape and play our game. We gonna be all right. Fuck all that other shit.”

Allen Iverson
Allen Iverson(AP Images)

By Week 3, the 3 Headed Monsters had earned both their preseason projection and moniker. In front of a Tulsa crowd that included Russell Westbrook, 3HM served the blowout of the week to Coach Drexler's undefeated Power team, 50-32. The offensive onslaught wasn’t driven by Lewis or Brown, but instead the league's oldest player. For the first time since playing in Japan seven years ago, Abdul-Rauf scored 22 points, on 9-of-14 shooting (he knocked down 4-of-8 three-pointers) with five assists as cherry toppings. Payton's crew finally found its identity while helping the BIG3 establish its own.

This is what Ice Cube subconsciously scribed into the stars 25 years ago, when the three-on-three performance of his life got immortalized into a rap classic: a hardwood stage for the world's greatest hoop goliaths to no longer obsess over NBA supremacy by blue-veined warfare, but simply dance with the love of their life one last time.

After the Tulsa game, the normally Zen Abdul-Rauf spoke on his breakout performance with the fervor of new life. A closer listen and you’ll hear every single BIG3 player speak. “When the game was over, I didn’t want to look back and see that my effort wasn’t what it should’ve been. I don’t know how long we have leftone year, two years or five yearsbut I don’t want to leave anything…see, you can’t get these moments back. So I said, ‘Mahmoud, you’ve been here before. So every time you get on that motherfreakin’ floor, you got to go for broke.’

Bonsu Thompson is a contributing writer for B/R Mag and a media and marketing producer based in Brooklyn. He was previously editor-in-chief of The Source, creative consultant for MTV2, executive producer of BET.com’s PRELUDE series, senior writer at SLAM and music editor for XXL. Follow him on Twitter: @DreamzRreal

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