There’s something breathtaking about watching an athlete who’s simply at a different level than all of the competition. Whether it’s Ja Morant being unleashed against the Ohio Valley Conference, the U.S. women’s national team scoring 13 goals in a World Cup match against Thailand, or a young Vince Wilfork wrecking diminutive high school offensive linemen back in the day, I can’t look away from the dominance. And I think I’ve found the strangest level yet for such dominance to occur, which is why I must alert everyone to the most important development unfolding during this otherwise slow time in the sports calendar: Joe Johnson is obliterating the Big3, raining hellfire on the creaky retirees unfortunate enough to stand on the court with him.
Through the first month of the Big3 season, Johnson leads the league in points and assists, and ranks second in rebounding. His team, Triplets, is the only undefeated squad remaining in the league. In two of Triplets’ four wins, Johnson has scored more than half of his team’s points; in three of those wins, he’s hit the game-winning shot. The Big3 has 4-pointers, which are launched from hot spots straight out of NBA Jam. Johnson is tied for first in the league with two, and iced last week’s victory by drilling a shot from the spot.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Big3, it’s basketball’s answer to the Senior PGA Tour, or one of Deadspin’s “Let’s Remember Some Guys” videos morphed into a professional sports organization with a network television deal. It’s a three-on-three basketball league that includes former NBA players: some recently retired, some not-so-recently retired, some refusing to acknowledge that the decision to retire has been made for them by an unsentimental league and the human aging process. The Big3 tours around the country with Ice Cube, the league’s chief Rememberer of Guys, watching omnipresently from the sideline. It features the 43-year-old Cuttino Mobley, who’s so comically grizzled that he looks like he went through a real-life version of the FaceApp age filter and is out here making Uncle Drew videos. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, 50, is also involved.
Upon its 2017 launch, the Big3 seemed doomed to a quick and hilarious failure. The first week of play saw multiple old men suffer injuries when their old-man bodies were suddenly forced back into action. A few weeks later, the league’s most prominent player, Allen Iverson, decided to skip games to do the sorts of things Allen Iverson does. And there was some weird coup involving the league’s first commissioner and shady Qatari investors. The Big3 originally seemed like a way for washed ex-ballers to con fans into financing their retirements via half-assed pickup games.
Three years in, though, the league has survived and carved out a niche. The players are increasingly NBA-adjacent, and everyone appears generally interested in winning. (The league let go of some of its big-name players, including Baron Davis and Lamar Odom, for lack of effort.) On Thursday, our website published an entirely serious article about Big3 basketball. Now, our site has published two serious Big3 articles in two days. By 2022, I expect The Ringer to be a full-time Big3 website.
Still, the mild uptick in basketball quality could not prepare anyone for the Joe Johnson experience. In his first Big3 game, he put up 27 points and 16 rebounds. This is when I should mention that Big3 games end when one of the teams gets to 50 points, so any individual dropping 27 points is a lot. Here is Iso Joe’s first game-winner:
In his second game, Johnson drilled his first 4-pointer and his second game-winner:
In his third game, Johnson scored eight of the final nine points, rallying Triplets back from a big deficit and finishing with 26 points:
Next up for Johnson is a matchup against last year’s Big3 champions, Power, a team led by reigning MVP Corey Maggette and the grizzly man Mobley. If Johnson can win that game on Saturday, it will be clear that he is unstoppable. This may have been inevitable from the moment he joined the Big3: Not only did he have far and away the best NBA career of the players currently in the league, but he also is one of the least washed.
Along with Johnson, four other Big3 players have been named to an NBA All-Star team. Amar’e Stoudemire, who’s third in the league in scoring, made the All-Star Game six times. Gilbert Arenas is a three-time All-Star, while 2017 Big3 MVP Rashard Lewis and Carlos Boozer are both two-time All-Stars. However, all of these players are long, long removed from their respective primes. Stoudemire last appeared in the NBA in 2016 after he missed large swaths of time with knee injuries. Arenas has been out of the league since 2012, Lewis since 2014, and Boozer since 2015. Johnson made seven All-Star appearances throughout his NBA career—that’s 35 percent of the Big3’s total—and played for the Houston Rockets just last year. Two years ago, he hit a game-winner for the Utah Jazz in the playoffs. Every other former NBA All-Star in the Big3 had already retired by that point.
But that’s not even what stands out the most about Johnson’s participation in the Big3. My presumption is that most of the players in this league have agreed to fly around the country for a post-retirement influx of cash. After all, when Ice Cube tried to sell fans on the Big3 in its early days, he pointed to the players being motivated by the champions earning significantly more than the losers. Joe Johnson, though, does not need the money. He brought in $215 million in his NBA career, thanks to a contract that made him one of the five highest-paid players in the league from 2012 to 2015 even though … uh, he was not one of the five best players in the league during that span.
There’s no need for Johnson to be here. He doesn’t need the cash, and if he wants to return to the NBA, this probably isn’t the best way to get there. I genuinely believe Johnson is in the Big3 just to bust people’s asses—and my goodness, is he succeeding.