There was a time when the NBA almost went dormant during the summer. After the Finals ended in June there was the draft and a little rush in early July with free agency, but by the time Summer League started — back when it was at the Pyramid in Long Beach, Calif. — few fans cared or showed up, and the league was on a hiatus until fall. Baseball owned the summer.
Now the Summer League is in Las Vegas and selling out the Thomas & Mack center at nearly 20,000 people, plus the games are televised nationally. Interest in free agency is up as moves are analyzed online, and this summer throw in a Kyrie Irving trade request — plus some Carmelo Anthony drama — and the league never quieted down.
The appetite for hoops is robust even in the off-season — and that’s where the Big3 came in and got its foot in the door this summer.
The new league founded by Ice Cube and Jeff Kwatinetz brought some nostalgic names, some physical play, and some 3-on-3 basketball (with a four-point shot) to 10 arenas around the USA — and it worked. It exceeded expectations. The games were entertaining in person, the league averaged 11,000 people in the building every weekend, and Fox Sports was happy enough with the FS1 broadcasts (delayed a day) to pick up their option for the second season.
“In a lot of ways, it was definitely a ‘show me’ year,” Ice Cube told NBC Sports. “Some people actually told us they would wait to see how we did this year before they would want to be a part of it. We knew trying to introduce something this new would have people kind of taking a wait-and-see approach.
“But, at the same time, I know a good idea when I hear it.”
That idea caught on with players quickly — and they have spread the word to other former NBA players.
“People were trying to see if this was a joke or how serious it is, but now the retired players are seeing this game and they’re excited about what is taking place,” 11-year NBA veteran Mike James said. “So from this year to next year, you’re going to see more familiar names playing in this league, you’ll see more ex-superstars that played the game. And then you’ve got guys on their last leg in the NBA, they got something to look forward to.”
“What do we have to do to get players that people want to see to join the Big3?” Cube asks. “That’s our goal.”
The Big3 had stars, although the biggest names — Allen Iverson, Dr. J, Charles Oakley — largely coached. That may change in future seasons (and there will be future seasons). Lamar Odom attended the game in Los Angeles and expressed some interest. Paul Pierce’s name has come up, as has Tracy McGrady. I’m not sure if a Kobe Bryant-level star will suit up (maybe Kevin Garnett would), but guys just a couple of years out of the league might. Players such as Kenyon Martin and Al Harrington were singing the praises of playing in the league.
“One group I didn’t have any problem convincing (about 3-on-3 basketball) was the pros themselves,” said Roger Mason Jr., the former NBA player who is the Big3 commissioner. “The one thing I knew as a former NBA player is that 3-on-3 basketball was something that we played often during the season. A lot of times you didn’t have the guys, the bodies to play 5-on-5 (at practice) but 3-on-3 is something that we do, we compete at a high level and I knew those battles, which fans had never seen, if seen, had a high chance of success.”“As far as players, we feel if we build a great league they will come,” Cube said.
“As far as players, we feel if we build a great league they will come,” Cube said.
The games certainly were competitive — and that’s what the players said they loved.
“Just an opportunity to compete,” James said of why he came back. “When you leave the game, I know the thing I missed the most wasn’t the team camaraderie, it wasn’t any of those things, it was the competition. And here it is, guys that are not playing NBA basketball, but that don’t mean they necessarily aren’t playing basketball, and this gives us a stage to be able to showcase ourselves without going overseas, or going on another stage.”
There were some moments where you could tell these older players mentally knew what they wanted to do on the court but were no longer able to physically execute it the same way. However, they adjusted, and as the season wore on the level of play improved.
What many old-school fans — including Ice Cube himself — liked was the physical style of play. Some of the loudest cheers at the Los Angeles tour stop were when Oakley stepped on the court and was his old enforcer self (racking up fouls and a flagrant).
“I think what caught on with the Big3, more than the names, was the game. Was the style of how the Big 3 is played, which is a style that’s familiar to those of us who have been around sports for a minute,” Cube said. “It’s back-to-the-basket big boy basketball, so I think that is catching on as well because you can’t really see that style anymore in the NBA or in college. I think it’s a pleasing style of play… it’s how they play when they ball…
“I believe people are going to fall in love with Big3 basketball, and not necessarily for who plays but for how they play.”
Stars have always been what sold the NBA, and the challenge for the Big 3 is that often Cube was the biggest star in the building. The next step for the league is to bring in names that allow Cube to transition away from being the face of the league.
“I think time will do that,” Cube said. “As people see the Big3 come around each year with different players. Each of the players we have in this league has a fan base in their own right. Not everybody came to see Allen Iverson play, some people came to see Mike Bibby play. I think as we’re around, and guys start to come right off the NBA court onto the Big3 court, to me, inherently, the players you want to see will be in the Big3.”
The Big3 learned from its first year. It had a good fan experience at the game, but now they want to improve and grow it. Same for the television broadcast.
What will not change is the barnstorming style — one day of games each week, every Sunday, with all the stars and teams coming to one city and arena for a day of hoops.
“To me, that’s the model for success, to go from city to city to city and bring the Big3 to each arena where you can see a lot of your favorite players,” Cube said. “We understand the nostalgic factor in this and we don’t want to lose that by having two teams here and two teams there. To me going city to city is a great plan and we can go anywhere in the world, basically, and play. If you can envision what that can be in the years to come, it’s a lot of possibilities.”
There is space in the basketball calendar for a little summer fling and trip down memory lane. Fans who attended the Big3 in person who I spoke with thought it was worth it, and that word of mouth is how a league gets built.
“We are full of basketball history, and we respect basketball history, and we’re going to honor basketball history,” Cube said. “So anybody who wants to be around that is going to have a good time at the Big3.”