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Summer Hoops Star Frank Nitty Finds a New Home in the Big3

Damian Lillard called Franklin Session, a.k.a. Frank Nitty, the best non-NBA player he’s ever played against. The three-time Drew League MVP is still testing his talents against NBA competition, this time in Ice Cube’s 3-on-3 league.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I ask Franklin Session what it’s like to cross someone over so badly that their body contorts. What goes through his mind as he blows past an opponent desperately trying to maintain their balance? “It’s a dope feeling,” he told me, but adds that at the same time, his mind is preoccupied. “You always worry about making the shot or right play after,” he said. “It could be a million-dollar move with a penny finish.”

Session, better known as Frank Nitty, has become a household name on the summer basketball circuit. But you won’t find him playing in the NBA’s summer league in Las Vegas. He’s nowhere near an NBA roster, but his highlight reel has earned him a reputation among players and fans. Earlier this year, the Watts, Los Angeles, native entered the player pool for the Big3, a nationally televised three-on-three basketball competition founded by Ice Cube in 2017. It’s composed of many former NBA players—if you miss the sight of Joe Johnson floating to the rim for silky finger-rolls, it’s your kind of entertainment.

Session’s basketball résumé is thinner than most Big3 participants’—the 6-foot-2 guard played professionally in Canada and Qatar—but his peers’ respect for his game isn’t in doubt. He was named cocaptain of head coach Charles Oakley’s “Killer 3s” team, where he plays alongside former NBA players Donte Greene, Eddy Curry, C.J. Watson, Josh Powell, and Stephen Jackson.

“The Big3 saved me,” Session said. He said when Jackson texted him and asked whether he wanted to play with the team, he took a screenshot of the conversation and sent it to his wife and two kids. “I don’t have to get another job,” he said.

I first saw Session play last summer on a grainy Facebook Live stream captured by an iPhone. He was playing for the rapper the Game’s team in the Drew League and was squaring off against Denzel Valentine, the Chicago Bulls’ lottery pick in the 2016 NBA draft. Like so many players before him, Valentine traveled west to hoop in the legendary Los Angeles pro-am league, which has hosted some of the world’s best players for a few summertime runs.

At the time, Session was the two-time reigning Drew League MVP. He said he hadn’t heard of Valentine, the former Michigan State All-American prior to their meeting. He barely watched basketball anymore.

The two became acquainted when their teams met in Los Angeles last July. Early in the game, Valentine bumped Session after fouling him. It was characteristic behavior for summer basketball: One guy jaws at another, and play moves on. For Session, it was an unpardonable offense.

“It was like, ‘Oh shit, I don’t think he realize who he talking to,’” Session said. He feeds from that energy, loves that type of environment. Soon, Valentine stopped scoring. “I start walking down with the ball and he’s talking shit as I’m walking down with the ball and you hear the gym erupt. It’s a video on YouTube where they pan out and look at the crowd because it’s so loud in there. At that point, I just started going off.”

It is hard to describe the moment when you know what’s coming next and realize nothing can impede its course. In front of NBA players like Isaiah Thomas, DeMar DeRozan, and Rudy Gay, Session proceeded to break down Valentine and his entire team. It was a wonderful display of when talent meets elite shit-talking. He finished with 44 points and waved to Valentine as he walked out of the gym.

“I got so much backlash because people thought I picked on him,” Session told me. “First off, he an NBA player, man. He was a great college player. I don’t know how somebody like that can get picked on.”

The game became a viral sensation on social media, and Session went on to win his third Drew League MVP. His performances against NBA stars past and present burnished his reputation, players like P.J. Tucker, Montrezl Harrell, Nate Robinson, DeRozan, and Gilbert Arenas. Damian Lillard, Session’s teammate at Weber State for one season, said he’s the best non-NBA player he’s ever gone against.

Harden introduced Session to representatives of the Houston Rockets, hoping to get him noticed. The day after Session’s game against Valentine, Kevin Durant walked into a gym at UCLA for a pickup game and congratulated him on his performance.

“Doors opened up. It’s kind of been endless,” Sessions said of the notoriety he gained after the game. “I don’t really talk too much about it because that day on the court I was kinda reckless. [Valentine] said a few things that kind of messed with my heart, so I had to turn up like that. But I don’t take it personal. I don’t take basketball personal because in the heat of the moment people say shit they don’t mean. I mean, we both reacted in a way that was out of character. But we in between two lines and we gonna go to work. It was a day to remember.”

After the Drew League season, Session, 30, kept himself in shape by working out in the mornings before going to work at a sneaker store.

“I was doing workouts from 8:30 a.m. to about 10, 10:30 a.m. I’d go work a job from 12 to 7. Mind you, I live in Orange County, California. Workouts are in Los Angeles. It’s about a 50-minute drive without traffic, really an hour and 10 [minutes]. I was making that drive up and then going from the workout to the job, which is another 45 minutes, then come back home. I wouldn’t get home until 9:30, 10. I’d be gone from like 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. just to keep money coming in, and make sure the family is straight, and keep living my hoop dreams.”

Session’s basketball career might have taken a different path. He arrived at Weber State in 2009 as a junior college transfer and averaged 10.2 points a game playing alongside Lillard in the backcourt, earning Big Sky Conference Newcomer of the Year and second-team all-conference honors. He had 18 rebounds in a game against Sacramento State and was fifth in the league in blocks.

He was expelled from the team in 2010 for disciplinary reasons. Session said it ate at him that he wasn’t the face of the team and admitted he wasn’t coachable. His JUCO coaches didn’t require him to practice, knowing he’d take over games, an attitude he carried with him to Weber. He didn’t love basketball. He was picked up by the Los Angeles Lakers’ G League team in 2011 but left after breaking his hand. He was out of basketball for many years afterward; when the Game approached him about playing in the Drew League, Session was working at a Verizon store.

Today, the Killer 3s are 3-1 and in line for a playoff berth. The league’s championship game will take place September 1 in Los Angeles at the Staples Center. During Session’s first four appearances, he’s exhibited the elusive streetball game that’s made him a social media sensation: the ball fakes while using his pivot foot before finishing a jumper off the glass; the in-and-out left-hand hesitation dribbles leading to And 1 buckets; the ankle-breakers on Jason Richardson and Mario Chalmers, followed by a shimmy at the end. The Big3 can, at times, be a crotchety league hell-bent on bully ball and set jumpers—Session brings a youthful speed and a necessary spark. He might not have NBA pedigree, but if Session is on the court, I’ll watch every minute.

At the Barclays Center in Brooklyn last weekend, Session shook Carlos Arroyo with a low, left-handed crossover, right-hand snatch-back, and layup. His Drew League performances might not have earned him an NBA call, but the Big3 is the perfect platform to showcase his Southern California flash to a national audience.

“Forty is a lot to put on somebody’s head,” Session told me about the night that made him a star. “It just says you can put the ball in the hole a lot of different ways. Nobody is gonna let you keep shooting 3s. Nobody is gonna let you keep hitting layups. Defenses are gonna change it up, coaches are gonna get smarter, players are gonna overhelp. But it feels great,” he admits. “You the man at that point.”