On Sunday night, Ice Cube’s new Big3 basketball league made a stop at Wells Fargo Arena in Philadelphia for a slate of games. And in the days leading up to the event, the Big3 used Allen Iverson—who is a player/coach for the league’s 3’s Company team—to get Philly fans excited about the league coming to their town. It was to be a homecoming of sorts for AI, who spent a decade playing for the 76ers at the start of his NBA career and officially retired as a Sixer in 2013.
AI tried to temper expectations on Saturday by telling fans in Philly not to expect the 25-year-old AI to take the court in front of them. But while talking with Philly.com and other publications in the area, he strongly suggested that he would be playing during his team’s game, which was scheduled to be the fourth and final game on Sunday.
"I’m not going to go out there and be the 25-year-old Allen Iverson—you’re going to see a 42-year-old man out there," he said. "But to be able to do that, for my fans, I thought that would be cool, just to get back out there again…for my fans to get that flashback."
Plenty of fans in Philly bought into the hype and reportedly crowded into Wells Fargo Arena on Sunday. They came to see AI play in Philly one last time.
But just hours before his team was set to play, AI took to his Instagram account and posted a video to announce that he would not be playing in the Big3 game. He didn’t really give a reason for why he would be sitting out of his team’s game, but he did say that, despite not playing, he would still be there to coach and interact with those fans in attendance.
"To all my fans out there, based on advice from my doctor, I will not be playing in the game tonight for the Big3," he said. "I will be there to coach my team and beat Dr. J’s team. I will be interacting with all my fans, and we’ll have a great time and see some great basketball. I love you fans for supporting me all of the years up to date, and I’ll see you when I get there."
The Big3 posted the video on their Twitter page as well:
The problem with that was that, while AI may have had a legitimate excuse for skipping the game, the Big3 made the announcement about him sitting out so late in the game—both literally and figuratively—that it immediately looked like the Big3 had used the idea of AI playing in Philly as a PR stunt to sell tickets before pulling the rug out from fans. As For The Win reported, there were a lot of fans who showed up at the event to see AI play only to find out that he wouldn’t be playing while they were already in their seats. And there were a lot of people at home who ripped the Big3 for the way they handled AI’s absence from the game:
AI and the Big3 tried to make the most of the situation. AI received a hero’s welcome prior to the 3’s Company game:
He also addressed the crowd and thanked everyone for coming:
"I’m glad I had a chance to come back home," AI said. "Ain’t nothing like this relationship we have. I love you for supporting me throughout my career, and still today, you’re supporting me."
But once his team started playing, fans who came to see AI play, not coach, chanted "We want Iverson!" and begged him to take the court:
But it wasn’t to be. AI, the guy who played through so many illnesses and injuries during his time in Philly, stayed on the sidelines. It made a lot of people both in the arena and at home angry:
And the backlash was so strong that, early Monday morning, Ice Cube was forced to address the criticism of the way the league handled AI sitting out of the game on Twitter. Cube said he was just as disappointed as everyone else about AI sitting out of the game. Cube also said AI was disappointed about it, and he told the fans in Philly that he owes them one the next time the Big3 is in town:
At the end of the day, the people who showed up at Wells Fargo Center on Sunday to see AI play basketball probably didn’t miss much. AI is obviously one of the most beloved athletes in the history of the city and will always have a special place in the hearts of Sixers fans, so it would have been nice for those fans to see him take the court. But AI has struggled in limited action in the Big3 so far this season, and he is clearly just a shell of his former self. So he probably wasn’t going to go off for 30—or hell, even 10—in the game last night.
That being said, this might be one of the many challenges the Big3 faces as it moves forward. It’s smart of them to use specific players to promote events and put fans in the seats. But if those players end up being forced to sit out due to injury, illness, or something else, then the Big 3's promotions are going to start to feel like PR stunts, and people are going to stop showing up for games. It will be part of the league’s growing pains, but it’s a problem they’ll have to address from now on whenever they decide to lean on former NBA stars to promote their product.