UK Men's Basketball

Big3 basketball in Rupp on Sunday: League wants competition, not nostalgia

Jerome Williams, left, and Rasual Butler went head-to-head in a Big3 game in Chicago last month.
Jerome Williams, left, and Rasual Butler went head-to-head in a Big3 game in Chicago last month. TNS

During a game in the new Big3 league last Sunday, a coach got into a heated exchange with his team captain on the sideline.

No doubt, rapper Ice Cube, one of the co-founders of the Big3, welcomed the sight of competitive sparks flying.

“Passion is something that’s starting to be missed in American sports,” he said on a teleconference this week. “Because you can’t show your passion without there being a controversy. ... Of course, we don’t encourage people to get into arguments.”

But, a moment later, he said of the heated exchange, “we feel that’s healthy for our league.”

That the coach, Charles Oakley, and the captain, Stephen Jackson, cared enough to argue gave credence to how Ice Cube and other league officials want the Big3 perceived. Although it features retired NBA players in three-on-three half-court games, it’s not a novelty act. It’s not a farewell tour. Even if the players enjoy basketball camaraderie again, the Big3 is about competition, league officials insist.

Or as the other co-founder, Jeff Kwatinetz, described the morphing of fellowship into competitive strife, the Big3 allowed its players to “hang with the boys, and a pro basketball league broke out.”

Kentuckians can judge the competitive zeal for themselves Sunday when the traveling Big3 summer league comes to Rupp Arena. There’s no former Kentucky nor Louisville players involved, so the quality of the games might be especially important in creating fan satisfaction.

On weekly teleconferences, league officials regularly mention team records and use terms associated with serious professional sports. Games in Dallas last Sunday had “playoff implications,” Ice Cube said. Two weeks earlier, Kwatinetz said “guys are desperate to win.”

Allen Iverson, who will not appear in Rupp Arena as he serves a one-game suspension for missing the games in Dallas, veered off script when the Big3 played in Tulsa, Okla., on July 9. After scoring two points in limited minutes, the Tulsa World reported him saying, “Damn, I’m old. I’m honest. I did not know that.” Iverson is 42.

But that same day Jackson vouched for the quality of the basketball by boldly saying, “I honestly feel if you got the top 10 guys here, we can beat an actual NBA team. Not just a summer league (team). And that’s no gas. I’m not smiling. I’m dead-ass serious.”

League officials recoil from the suggestion that the Big3 is anything short of serious competition. Nostalgia is almost a dirty word, even though Ice Cube acknowledged that having Julius Erving, George Gervin, Clyde Drexler and Rick Barry among the coaches gives the league a yesteryear glow.

“Just with the names we have, nostalgia comes with it,” Ice Cube said. “But getting guys to play hard is the key.”

Ice Cube cited a recent NBA All-Star Game as an example the Big3 does not want to follow. Big names. Little thirst for competition.

“The game was terrible,” Ice Cube said. “And that’s what we don’t want. What we want is hard-nosed, fair, three-on-three basketball at the pro level. ...

“Nostalgia sometimes turns to gimmicks,” he added. “And that’s the last thing we want to be, and that’s why we fight that word a little bit.”

While camaraderie might be de-emphasized, it provides the Big3 a charming subtext.

“When you play pro sports, it’s like having another family,” Barry said. “All of a sudden, you’re separated from your family when you retire, and that’s an adjustment you have to make. . . .

“You get a chance to go out and do something you still have a love and passion for your whole life, and that’s a cool thing. It really is.”

Iverson spoke of his daughters, ages 8 and 10, getting a thrill seeing “daddy” in a uniform and reacting with fans.

“They didn’t see none of this stuff,” he said in Tulsa. “They weren’t old enough to know what was going on. Now, they get to see it. I thank the Big3 for that.”

Ice Cube and Kwatinetz said they worked for more than a year on developing a three-on-three summer league. The idea was born from frustration.

“Me really getting tired of seeing guys retire,” Ice Cube said. “And not only can they still play, but I’d pay to see them play. I figured I can’t be the only guy.”

Kwatinetz acknowledged the skepticism that came with launching a basketball summer league. This might explain why the coaches outshine the players in terms of star quality.

“Most people thought we were dreaming, and it was unlikely to happen,” he said. “We had some players come on board and support it, wanted it to be great. But in the back of their minds, when we told them 15,000 people would be in Brooklyn, did any of them think they’d come out to that? You can probably count on one hand.”

The Big3 announced a crowd of 15,177 for its debut games in the Barclays Center on June 25.

Former NBA All-Star Paul Pierce attended the games in Brooklyn and expressed an interest in playing next summer, Big3 Commissioner Roger Mason said. Former LSU standout Glen “Big Baby” Davis has also inquired about playing next season.

As for the future of the Big3, Barry saw validation when the Olympics added three-on-three basketball in the 2020 Games. Ice Cube predicted players will move from Big3 to Olympic play. Players will also move directly from NBA retirement to the Big3, he said.

Ice Cube set a more modest goal for the inaugural 2017 season. “We just want to make sure we pique interest this year to get people to look forward to us coming back next year,” he said.

A question about adding new teams next season seemed to surprise Ice Cube.

“I knew we’re cocky,” he said, “but that’s a little too cocky for my blood.”

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton

Big3 League

What: 3-on-3 professional basketball

When: 2 p.m. Sunday

Where: Rupp Arena

Tickets: $22 and $32, all in lower arena. Available through Ticketmaster and Big3.com.

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