Back in April of last year, Ice Cube was watching Kobe Bryant close out his 20-year career in his final game with the Los Angeles Lakers. Seeing an athlete like Bryant retire yet still able to post a staggering 60 points gave Ice Cube the idea to create BIG3, a professional three-on-three basketball league featuring former NBA players.
It’s a daring venture considering the veritable graveyard of forgotten sports leagues created in the vein of giants like the NBA and NFL. Remember the XFL, United States Football League, or World Basketball League? Exactly.
“When you have an idea, you’ve got to give it room to make sure it’s a good idea,” says Ice Cube. “You’ve got to note it in your brain and then just keep building on it. I’m all for looking at the pros and cons of a major decision. So I started to talk to [BIG3] co-founder Jeff Kwatinetz who’s my manager and business partner. And we started to think about why this is a bad idea, what could go wrong, and why it won’t work. And we couldn’t come up with a lot of reasons why this wouldn’t work.”
The reason for Ice Cube’s confidence is that he and his executive team don’t consider BIG3 to be in competition with the NBA. The rules and format of BIG3 are fundamentally different than the NBA’s (half-court play, a four-point shot, games played until 60 points, etc.) In addition to that, there will be four matches played per night, lending the league somewhat of a festival feel. But what Ice Cube and Kwatinetz are really banking on is being able to tap into basketball fans’ existing connection to three-on-three basketball and to the already established players.
“[Three-on-three basketball is] played hundreds of times more than full-court, five on five–especially at the younger levels. So it’s not like we invented a sport that people don’t already have a connection to,” says Kwatinetz. “The second thing is, we don’t have a league of old guys. These are guys who are elite professionals and most of them are only a couple of years out of the league. Some of them aren’t even out of basketball–they’ve been playing overseas and other types of ways.”
“It’s a different evolution of a game that plays into the strengths of our players,” Kwatinetz continues. “Basketball IQ is really important in the game, as is fitness and strength and skill. But it’s not the NBA. Basketball leagues in the past have tried to emulate the NBA with players that couldn’t make it into the NBA. So when people are watching it’s basically just watching a poor man’s NBA.”
Choosing the right players has been a crucial component to building BIG3. There was a draft in April to select the 40 players across eight teams. And one of BIG3’s immediate challenges will be to prove to fans and viewers that the league isn’t a novelty or something like an All-Star game where it’s more about showmanship than competition.
“Ultimately, we’re going to be judged by the quality of play on the court. We can do all sorts of sensational business deals, we can have great sponsorship deals–that’s not what will interest fans,” says BIG3 CEO Amy Trask. “Fans will be interested if the quality of the games is good. The practice I attended underscored for me how competitive these games will be and how committed the athletes are to playing winning basketball.”
If it’s any indication of BIG3’s possible success, the International Olympic Committee recently announced the addition of three-on-three basketball to the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. The existing and growing interest in three-on-three basketball worldwide is the reason for Ice Cube and Kwatinetz’s scramble to put a league together, essentially from scratch, in just six months.
“We needed to launch because we felt like this idea was so good somebody would beat us to it,” Ice Cube says. “Our biggest enemy has been time. We started in January and we’re about to play Sunday. It’s just been one of those endeavors where you know it’s going to be hard but hard doesn’t mean impossible.”
Even under stringent time constraints, BIG3 managed to secure FOX Sports as its broadcast partner. It certainly isn’t a bad start, but Ice Cube is already looking past now toward what he wants BIG3 to ultimately be.
“As we do more and more of these, we’ll get better. Things will get smoother. I would love to get to that point where it’s really all about growing the league, and it’s not about picking colors for uniforms or logos–even if that kind of stuff is fun,” Ice Cube says. “We think that once people see what we have, they’ll be excited. Right now, it’s a lot of explaining what the game is and what we’re trying to do. So we feel like the best way to explain to people what we got is to show them.”
BIG3 tipped off June 25 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Get the full schedule here.