Big3 going live, looks to make big step forward in second season

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The inaugural season of the Big3 felt a little bit like the 1970s NBA — the games were physical, player conditioning was not always up to modern standards, and the biggest games were shown on tape delay. At least with the Big3 the shorts were longer.

Then we all know what happened to the NBA in the 1980s — Magic and Bird ushered in an era of increased talent around the league, the popularity exploded, and soon the games were not only live but must-watch viewing for sports fans.

The Big3 plans to follow in those footsteps.

In its second season — a barnstorming-style tour which tips off June 22 at the Toyota Center in Houston — Big3 games will be broadcast live every Friday Nights on FS1 (or Fox), and those games will see a lot more talent on the court:

Amar’e Stoudemire. Nate Robinson. Metta World Peace/Ron Artest. Baron Davis. Carlos Boozer. Chris “Birdman” Anderson. That’s just to name a few new faces, joining returnees such as Chauncey Billups, Brian Scalabrine, Kenyon Martin and more (plus coaches including Julius Irving, Charles Oakley, and newcomer Michael Cooper).

“I think the talent level’s a lot better, I think people are going to be in shape,” Andre Owens, the No. 1 pick in the Big3 draft of Scalabrine’s Ball Hogs, told NBC Sports. “And Trilogy (last year’s champion), they got a target on their back. Every game Trilogy plays, people going to try and go after them.

“But the talent level is so much better than last year, and people are going to be in so much better shape. It’s going to be interesting.”

It was something Ice Cube — one of the league’s co-founders — predicted: A lot of good former NBA players were on the fence about his new venture, but once they saw it succeed for a season they were ready to jump in. About 100 players showed up for the Big3 tryouts this season, even though only about 19 could get drafted.

“I just can’t wait to get out there and play,” Artest told NBC Sports. “I just got back into the gym and I’m excited about it. Ice Cube was able to pay to start this thing with his successful career. I’m going to get out there live on Fox on Friday’s I’m very excited about it.”

Those new stars had better not expect deference.

“It’s not your name it’s your game — you got to have real game,” said Owens, who was top five in the league in scoring, rebounds, and assists last season. “You can’t hide it.”

That talent level and the more prominent names will bring more eyeballs to the games, more people tuning in to the production. Going live with that was something the Big3 would not have been ready for in its rookie season, admitted league co-founder Jeff Kwatinetz. They were learning as they went on how to make it work, how to keep the energy up in sold-out major arenas.

“The learning curve, as with any new business, is tremendous,” Kwatinetz said. “Even though it is generally the sport of basketball, 3-on-3 really is its own game with its own strategies, and part of what we learned is the game would really evolve and be something different….

“We made a fair amount of changes after Game 1 (last season)…” Kwatinetz said, noting the first day of games too five-and-a-half-hours. “By the time we went live (on Fox Sports) for the finals, we had learned so much about camera angles and pacing, and how to stage a live event so it would look great on TV.”

The changes they made over the course of the season — such as dropping the games from first to 60 down to 50 — were often about pacing on and off the court. The idea was to keep the energy up in the arena — shorter breaks between games filled with in-house entertainment, and the lower score meant players had to keep up the energy and pace during play, making the product more entertaining.

The nonstop energy needed meant players getting back in the gym early was one theme for season two — players from last season admitted they didn’t grasp the conditioning level needed to play a competitive game of 3-on-3 to 50. It may be half-court ball, but the player movement is constant and players have to be two-way guys.

“The games were quicker, faster, quicker turnaround from offense to defense,” Kwatinetz said. “Less dead time, just things that kept the pace up.”

“It was definitely real basketball,” Owens said. “It’s a little harder than 5-on-5 in that you’ve got to be able to score and you’ve got to be able to play defense. If you can’t do all that you’re going to be exposed. And the contact and the physicality of the game was very intense, so it was definitely harder than 5-on-5.”

The physicality of the league was something the fans and players liked — the Big3 felt a lot more like 1990s era basketball than 2018. Guys were given leeway to bang on each other like the old days, or a good playground game. Players loved it.

“That’s how I play, I put my hard hat on and I’m physical,” Owens said.

The rules of the half-court league — including the much-discussed four-point shot from certain spots on the court — cater more to the mind of a 35-year-old player more than just the speed of a 22-year-old player, organizers said.

“These guys, when it comes to tactics and strategy, and understanding the skills of basketball, they are way beyond what the first or second or third year NBA player is capable of doing,” Kwatinetz said.

But for the players, much of the motivation is the same that has always driven them — pride and ego.

“(Players are) definitely better prepped because they understand that the magnitude of this is just growing,” Owens said of the second season. “You’re playing in big arenas and packed houses and ain’t nobody want to be exposed on TV and in front of friends because they know how serious it is. And you got to be in shape, like I said everything is magnified. You’ve got to be able to play, and if you can’t play you’re going to get exposed.”

The Big3 is making strides on other fronts. They have a new sponsorship deal with Adidas. They will be doing a Young3 event every Thursday in whatever city they are in, reaching out to youth in the area.

Last year, the Big3 found a market — basketball fans would pay for a little nostalgia as long as the product was still good.

Now they are ready to find out just how big that market really is.