“Rick!” Kenyon Martin screamed as he walked in. “You a bad mof--ka, man! Rick a bad mof--ka!”
Coach Rick Mahorn, the hustler, the former Detroit Piston “Bad Boy” Martin grew up idolizing as a kid from Saginaw, Michigan, had been the first to enter the press room after his Trilogy squad won the first-ever championship crown for the BIG3, co-founder Ice Cube’s half-court three-on-three basketball league for former NBA players. Mahorn looked exhausted, as his team had clawed back from an 11-point first-half deficit against the Gary Payton-coached 3 Headed Monsters at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas on Saturday.
Mahorn had slowly reached for a chair, smiling once he got settled. He had a look of pride on his face: “What a great game, s--t,” Mahorn said. “Way to end the season on a great game. I’m still mad we ain’t played perfect.”
Then came Martin.
Mahorn greeted the former Denver Nuggets star with a headlock hug, and K-Mart flashed a wide smile. Al Harrington, who played 16 NBA seasons, chimed in too, turning to Mahorn: “I love my coach, man. I love my coach. Look at him! I love Unk! I looooove him! That’s all I got to say. I love this man, God damn, I love this man.”
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Mahorn, Martin, Harrington and the rest of Trilogy—Rashad McCants, Dion Glover and James “Flight” White, the BIG3 Defensive Player of the Year—looked content back in their element, jerseys sweated-through, back at a presser with microphones in front of them, with reporters asking three-part questions, with an urge to get out the next day and dominate again.
Squeezed tight together on the podium, they shared the familiar, euphoric feeling that can only come from being part of a team—a feeling the BIG3 brought back.
So what’s next for the BIG3, which begins its second season in Summer 2018? How can the nascent company learn from its early mistakes, build upon its successes and transition from a league built for curious fans to one with staying power?
Continuing to attract top talent is the first priority. This year’s crop featured players like Allen Iverson, Chauncey Billups, Stephen Jackson, Al Harrington, Cuttino Mobley and coaches like Rick Mahorn (Trilogy), Clyde Drexler (Power) and Charles Oakley (Killer 3s).
Though Jason “White Chocolate” Williams and Corey Maggette suffered injuries early on, and Iverson did not show up for a game in Dallas and sat for most of the season, there seems to be potential for more high-profile players next season.
It has not yet been announced who will join, but imagine rosters filled with veterans like Paul Pierce, Nate Robinson, Stephon Marbury, Kevin Garnett, Gilbert Arenas and Richard Hamilton.
Carolyn Adkisson, 51, and Janice Stevenson, 55, came from Detroit for the weekend to celebrate their birthdays and see both the BIG3 and the Floyd Mayweather Jr. vs. Conor McGregor fight. The pair of hoopheads usually attends most NBA All-Star Games together.
“The old-school players really put their heart into it,” Adkisson said.
Stevenson nods. “They don’t want us to think that they’re washed up and they can’t do it anymore,” Stevenson said. “They got a lot to prove, that, ‘Yeah, you know I’m older, and yeah I don’t play anymore, but I still got it.’ They still have it.”
Zach Swartz, 27, from Los Angeles, has bigger ideas for the BIG3: “It would be cool if coaches from the NBA played a game,” Swartz said. “Maybe even being coached by players.”
Swartz also suggested having the BIG3 championship simulate an All-Star Weekend. “Maybe if there was a dunk contest, or a shootout, if they just made it more of an event not just a championship game,” he said.
First, the BIG3 has to add more teams and venues to the mix. There are currently eight teams, with eight weeks of regular season play and two weeks of playoffs.
“You could have East and West Coast, too,” said Mike Bibby, former Sacramento Kings guard and 14-year vet who plays for Ghost Ballers. “Just do it like a real league and the winners of the West play the East for the championship.”
Wald, who is spending the year working in Vancouver but is from Frankfurt, Germany, wants to see the BIG3 go global. He likened the league to the Harlem Globetrotters and their success overseas, arguing that the BIG3 could be just as marketable in terms of promising an entertaining show.
“It could be a world tour,” Wald said. “In Europe, there are many people who love the NBA. It would be perfect. In Germany, I would tell literally everyone, even people who don’t like basketball: ‘This is an amazing event. You have to see it.’”
The BIG3 tinkered with the rules during the first week, when games were originally to 60 points. Now, the winner is crowned at 50 (win by two). “At that time, guys wasn’t in game-shape,” said Martin, a 15-year standout for the Nets, Nuggets, Clippers, Bucks and Knicks.
“I think guys knowing what kind of shape they need to be in for next season, I think we should get back to 60 points.”
There are fouls and free throws, including a rule where if you get fouled on a three-pointer, you get to shoot a top-of-the-arc freebie.
Brenden Corby, 19, from Colorado, wearing a Trilogy shirt, enjoys that in three-on-three, there aren’t as many fouls that come with customary, five-on-five NBA games. “There’s not much stopping. They’re actually playing the game; they’re not just standing around, wasting time,” Corby said. “I thought it was pretty sweet. Something different.”
Fans seem to flock to BIG3 games, with those in Los Angeles (10,000-plus fans) and Brooklyn (15,000) among the most attended. Games have also been held in Kentucky, Dallas, Chicago, Philadelphia and Seattle.
“I’ve never seen anything like it, the way it actually formed,” said Marcus Banks of Ghost Ballers, former UNLV standout. “Who knew that three-on-three basketball could, you know, seat 15- to 18,000 people every time we lace up? That’s an honor all in itself…it just makes us work hard and keep striving for good things to come.”
Marcus Bliss, 36, came to Las Vegas from Rochester, New York, with his girlfriend, son and nephew. He said the best part about the BIG3 was its accessibility, in terms of online, TV (BIG3 recently secured a second season with Fox Sports) and in person.
“They were real visible,” Bliss said. “It’s a nice, intimate setting. It’s nice, you can really see the players, it’s almost like you can reach out and touch them.”
“It’s just so fun to watch ‘em, man. I love it, because of the passion that they have,” said the legendary George “The Iceman” Gervin, Ghost Ballers’ coach.
“If you think about it, you know, this is really history, professional three-on-three,” Gervin said. “With the leadership of Cube, everything he told us he was going to do, he did. And I think from all of us, that’s nothing but respect, so it can’t help but to be bigger and better next year.”