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The Big3 Is a Basketball Nostalgia Trip

Ice Cube’s new three-on-three league is part gimmick, part sport, and part TV show — and it appears to fit in both 1993 and 2020

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

The inaugural games in the Big3 — Ice Cube’s three-on-three basketball league that features tons of former NBA players — took place in Brooklyn on Sunday, aired on FS1 on Monday, and made for a DVR viewing appointment in my living room on Wednesday afternoon. That sentence seems drastically outdated in the 2017 sports landscape, where information spreads to every corner of the globe so quickly that Suzy Kolber barely even flinches when Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen text and/or take phone calls on live TV. (My favorite example of the absurdity of the #scoops industry: A video of a guy typing into a phone while talking on another phone as a crowd cheers him on and records him with their own phones has been viewed almost 35,000 times.) That an upstart league would want its games to be broadcast after a tape delay feels strange, but that it agreed to a deal in which those games are aired an entire day after they have been played is completely bonkers. It’s almost as bizarre as weirdos like me DVRing a tape-delayed sporting event to watch it three days after it happened.

But what became clear after watching the first installment of Ice Cube’s brainchild is that the Big3 isn’t primarily a sporting event at all — first and foremost, it’s a TV show. That may have already seemed obvious given the fact that (a) it’s a half-court three-on-three league featuring washed-up former NBA players, (b) one of the league’s biggest selling points is the presence of a 4-point shot, and (c) this entire enterprise was founded by a man whose most notable work features the line, “I felt on the big fat fanny, pulled out the jammy, and killed the punanny.” When FS1 edited the third of the four opening games to highlight-reel length so that it could squeeze Ice Cube and Allen Iverson’s discussion about how kids watch YouTube into the broadcast, though, there was no denying the true nature of this league. (To be fair, it was apparently brutal to watch.) Players and coaches — DeShawn Stevenson and Gary Payton, especially — seemed to care deeply about winning, and the on-court product was surprisingly entertaining. Still, it was evident that the Big3 is a television show featuring basketball instead of a basketball league that just so happens to be on television.

And that’s exactly why I’m buying what this league is selling. The Big3 knows what it is, and it’s more than happy to run with that. It isn’t trying to market itself as an offseason NBA substitute. After all, NBA fandom has become a 24/7/365 job in recent years, to the extent that news is breaking in the middle of the night in late June. It’s not enough to simply watch NBA games anymore. Fans also must immerse themselves in draft rumors, trade theories, and thorough investigations into the deeper meanings of players’ social media posts. By contrast, the Big3 exists exclusively in a three-hour window on Monday nights (or Wednesday afternoons!). I’m sure some in the media will cover it like it’s a legitimate league, if for no other reason than this is the slowest time of the sports calendar. But that doesn’t change the fact that any extracurricular details are inessential to following along. There are no MVP discussions, arguments over whether this generation’s best player/team is better than the guy/team that was king 20 years ago, or press-conference quotes to be taken out of context. You can turn the Big3 on whenever you have free time, watch the edited three-hour package, and move on with your life. That’s it.

A league that I can keep up with whenever is convenient feels like a godsend in this never-ending cycle of modern sports information. If nothing else, that’s one thing the Big3 has going for it. There truly isn’t a professional league in any sport quite like it. And that’s funny to think about considering the same couldn’t have been said nearly 15 years ago.

Ever since society peaked in the summer of 2003, when Mountain Dew Code Red was on tap at every gas station across the Midwest and both SlamBall and the And1 mixtape tour flourished on the airwaves, I’ve been desperate for some form of summer basketball. I guess I should clarify what I mean by that, since the NBA Summer League, the Olympics, the FIBA World Cup, and The Basketball Tournament have all been played in the summer during the past decade-plus. It’s not actually summer basketball that I’ve craved; I’ve wanted something that vaguely resembles basketball but is so drastically different that it might as well be its own sport. That was the genius of SlamBall and the And1 tour: Both drew us in with a sense of familiarity (“Why yes, I would be interested in watching some basketball”), only to subvert our basic understanding of the game’s structure by having guys beat the shit out of each other, jump off trampolines, get away with double-dribbles by stuffing the ball into their jersey, and throw the ball off their opponents’ faces while hype men run around the court screaming, “OH BABY!” into a microphone. This approach is also why MTV’s Rock N’ Jock is considered the greatest thing ever televised by those of us who watched it, why every person I know in their 30s would cut off an arm for the chance to high-five Mike O’Malley atop the Super Aggro Crag, and why Arena Football still exists. The idea of taking the sports we know and love and making them XTREME 2 DA MAXXX will always be cool.

As the XFL proved, though, this is only the case if the XTREME-ification process is done properly. Ironically, I would argue that the XFL’s biggest problem — and to be fair, it had somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 million “biggest problems” — was that it wasn’t extreme enough. The XFL had the sideshow stuff figured out, from its coin toss alternative to its apparent mandate to shove microphones and cameras in every place imaginable. But the games themselves weren’t all that different from the NFL’s product. While there were no touchbacks, fair catches, or PATs, everything else about the XFL’s gameplay was virtually identical to that of the NFL. An experimental league that’s too similar to the sporting body it’s drawing from tends to fail. And that brings us back to the Big3, which at the very least seems to have figured out the differentiation part.

DeShawn Stevenson (Getty Images)
DeShawn Stevenson (Getty Images)

I don’t want to get ahead of myself and predict that, unlike the XFL, the Big3 will be around 10 years from now. The odds are very much against that happening. I’m just saying the league’s first “episode” scratched a nostalgic itch and successfully recaptured a lot of the SlamBall and And1 magic for me by following the same formula those two versions of basketball did. It took something we know and love (basketball), kept the core elements intact, tweaked the rules enough to make them completely different from those in the NBA (it’s three-on-three, played in the half-court, where teams play to 50 points, hand-checking is encouraged, and there’s a 4-point shot), and packaged everything in a way that gives fans a similar viewing experience whether they see the games in-person or binge-watch them all six months from now. On top of that, the Big3 is played and coached by former NBA players (including Hall of Famers and no. 1 overall draft picks), promoted by a rap icon, and televised by a major sports network. There is definitely something here, even if it’s not quite clear what that something is yet.

The Big3 could do more than just transport viewers back to the past with its aging NBA talent and embrace of the “what if the sports you know were different?” ethos that was prevalent around the turn of the millennium, though; it might also represent part of basketball’s future now that the 2020 Olympics will feature a three-on-three competition. Suddenly, what felt like an experiment destined to end with a bunch of washed-up dudes blowing out their knees could emerge as a viable proving ground for up-and-comers and/or guys who are no longer good enough to chase their NBA dreams but want to play in the Olympics nonetheless. If you’re Chase Budinger, Jordan Farmar, or Josh Smith (ages 29, 30, and 31, respectively), wouldn’t you at least consider that route? If I’m those guys, I play overseas in the winters and springs, compete in the Big3 during the upcoming two summers, build a reputation as a great three-on-three player, and then attempt to win an Olympic gold medal that I otherwise never could’ve sniffed. Shoot, I might even consider that path if I were someone like Mike Conley who can’t break through with USA basketball.

For a league that’s less than a week old, the Big3 is in an enviable spot. It’s a made-for-TV experience that could luck into becoming a legitimate sports property, and fluctuating between those two labels is a luxury that the Big3 will certainly embrace. It can demand to be taken seriously as the world’s best three-on-three league … and then turn around and air heavily edited games more than 24 hours after they’re played. It can pretend that Iverson is the face of the league and remind audiences that this is a rare chance to see a Hall of Famer in action … but then give Ice Cube more on-camera time than anyone as Iverson plays a mere nine minutes. It can have a real basketball broadcast booth headlined by Gus Johnson and Jim Jackson … while also hiring Michael Rapaport to bust balls as the sideline reporter.

At this point, the Big3 is a perfect contradiction, and it resonated with me in a way that no experimental basketball league has in a long time. In Week 1, Payton talked a ridiculous amount of shit as coach of 3 Headed Monsters; Reggie Evans was whistled for a foul approximately every 30 seconds; Kwame Brown was constantly yelled at by his teammates; Gus Johnson called the 4-point-shooting spots “Curry Land”; Rashard Lewis and Corey Maggette looked like they were trying to play their way back into the NBA; Stevenson pimped a game-winner; Brian Scalabrine was on the court; and Iverson apparently just wanted to stay warm. It was a throwback experience that everyone involved took super seriously, and I loved watching every second of it — even three days after it happened.