Three reasons Big3 basketball works (and three things it can work on)

The Big3, a professional 3-on-3 basketball league co-founded by entertainment icon Ice Cube, came to Rupp Arena on Sunday. As to be expected from a professional sports league in its inaugural season, it had some ups and downs. Here’s my review.

1.) Basketball isn’t ageist

These guys might be past their prime, but “past their prime” for former NBA players is different than it is for former high school stars reliving their glory days at the YMCA.

Marketers have talked up the level of physicality and intensity in these contests, and it’s not baloney. Guys dive after loose balls and body each other up in the post. I wasn’t convinced the defense was superb, but it wasn’t bad (especially considering the differences in space a 3-on-3 situation creates compared to a standard 5-on-5 matchup).

Perhaps most importantly, the players seem invested. After trailing 25-14 at halftime, Trilogy fought back to claim a 50-45 win over the Power to remain the league’s only undefeated team. Rashad McCants beat out multiple defenders for a rebound to put back the winning score off a missed free throw, but in the postgame news conference he wasn’t satisfied with his overall effort.

“I’m not the captain or anything like that, but I do consider myself one of the leaders and should be accountable for the way they play out there on the court,” said McCants, who was the league’s No. 1 overall pick and led Trilogy with 20 points and eight rebounds Sunday. “ … A lot of our breakdowns and the way we look as a team, as if we’re in trouble, are because of my breakdowns individually. And once those things are fixed we play seamlessly.”

... but is this ‘real’ basketball?

The physicality and effort is apparent and appreciated, but it’s a little easier to go all-out in a half-court setting than it is when you’re running up and down a 90-foot floor.

The Big3 embraces some things that differentiate it from other professional leagues. A trio of four-point circles extend above the three-point line to encourage more difficult shots; 17 were attempted and two were made during Sunday’s games. There is no defensive three-second rule. There are no personal fouls, and players only shoot one free throw worth the value of the point total of the shot they took (this is especially unique for three-point foul shots, which must be taken from the point of the foul instead of the charity line).

But over time will these be viewed as “innovations” or some corruption of the game? The league wants to be taken seriously and not treated as some sort of traveling circus (à la the Harlem Globetrotters) or gimmick-ridden sideshow. To some, a four-point zone is a fun reason to watch; for others, it will be a reason to point and laugh.

2.) The games go by quickly

Most of the games were finished in under 50 minutes, which is only two minutes longer than a regulation-length NBA game (which, in actuality, requires about two and a half hours of viewing commitment). A 14-second shot clock seemed to be plenty for teams to get off good shot attempts.

Fox Sports 1 airs the games on tape delay Monday nights, and all four games fit into a three-hour window. In an era where TV commands the ebbs and flows of most live sports contests, it was refreshing to watch a professional basketball game with a consistent pace unmolested by constant stoppages.

Yeah, they’re playing to an arbitrary amount of points (first to 50, win by two) and using only half a court, but the length and speed of a single game are things on which the Big3 has a solid handle — a crucial element if it wants to become a mainstay.

...but it does make for a long day

In its current form — four games featuring former NBA talents — the Big3 is trying to provide quality and quantity, which is admirable as it tries to compete with established leagues and other forms of entertainment. But, you’ve gotta be on the more hardcore end of the basketball-fan spectrum to not grow weary after a while.

It’s just difficult, as a casual observer, to muster up enough energy to sit through four hours of basketball without any pre-existing motivation behind that engagement, such as a rooting interest or a superstar talent (the league’s biggest individual attraction, Allen Iverson, was suspended after failing to show up last week) to keep you invested. By the final game on Sunday, which started about 5 p.m., most of the reported crowd of 8,009 had thinned out.

3.) Good mix of local flavor

Kudos to the event organizers for using Rupp’s massive video board to highlight Sam Bowie, a former University of Kentucky star who sat courtside with his son Marcus (a senior at Sayre) and watched former NBA peers Clyde Drexler, Rick Mahorn and Charles Oakley participate in the league’s inaugural campaign.

Former Wildcats Rex Chapman and Rajon Rondo took the floor along with actor and Big3 broadcaster Michael Rapaport for a four-point shootout during halftime of the day’s third game. Rondo, who received loud applause from those in attendance, won the contest.

“I talked to (Ice) Cube before the game and he said that he had to bring it here, this is the Mecca of basketball,” Bowie said. “(It’s) nice that they thought of us on this tour, and I think this will just snowball into something bigger.”

Bowie, 56, played at UK in the early ’80s but did not lack for attention from selfie- and autograph-seeking fans.

“Once a Kentucky Wildcat, it goes a long way,” said Bowie. “The commonwealth has been very good to myself and my family. They almost treat me like I’m still on the roster.”

… but there’s too much ‘extra’

The league bills itself as a legitimate competition that’s to be taken seriously by those in attendance, and the product on the court for the most part lived up to that billing.

When the P.A. announcer does multiple T-shirt giveaways during game action, then, it’s hard to give your full attention to a game happening in front of you. Music being played during professional basketball games isn’t a new thing, but it felt like more of a nuisance here than at any NBA game I’ve attended. The track selections were great; the timing and volume were not. Songs would stop and start with little rhyme or reason, and were always played at a boom.

You want people to leave your event excited to come back the next time you’re in town. I left Lexington’s Big3 event eager to see how the league evolves in the coming years, but also with a pounding in my head.

Josh Moore: 859-231-1307, @HLpreps