CHARLOTTE — Passionate hoops fans who decide to check out the Big3 will wonder whether they’re living in a lucid dream. It’s a basketball cosmos that in 2017 is truly far-fetched.
Is Chauncey Billups, a leading candidate for the Cavs' GM opening, really out there making it rain four-pointers?
Is Gary Payton actually all the way out on the court talking s*** to the referees?
Could I really be watching Allen Iverson and Mike Bibby go head-to-head at the point like it was 2001?
Many of the NBA’s best players from the ’90s and 2000s (and, in the case of the coaches, the ’70s and ’80s) are all-in on the Big3, which made its second stop Sunday in Charlotte. They think the 3-on-3 summer basketball league masterminded by the man behind “No Vaseline” is on the come-up.
“This is better than the NBA,” said the Blazers and Rockets legend Clyde Drexler, who coaches a team named Power. “This is more fun because we’re older and we can enjoy it more. When you’re young, it’s life or death. Now, you have a better balance, a better focus. You get to have fun. And you’re around guys you’ve known 30, in my case, 40 years. And so it doesn’t get any better…this is the place to be.”
The effervescent Drexler seemed genuinely grateful for the Big3’s existence. He talked about how George Gervin, Dr. J, and Gary Payton—who are also Big3 coaches—are members of his “fraternity.”
It’s been the same way for the players. Cuttino Mobley, a 10-year NBA vet, put up 23 points (he was the day’s leading scorer) and hit back-to-back 2-point free throws (that’s right) to seal the win for Drexler’s Power. After the game, he chopped it up with teammate DeShawn Stevenson—they also played together with the Orlando Magic—about how great it is to be back out there.
“What we miss a lot when we leave the league is the camaraderie,” the 41-year-old Mobley said. “The competitiveness. We gon’ get our legs in it; it’s gonna be a lot more fun to watch. Just watch out for the Big 3, that’s all I have to say.”
The Big3 is equal parts basketball and entertainment, which you would expect considering Ice Cube is its founder. LL Cool J chills courtside; Michael Rapaport conducts the sideline interviews; Anthony Hamilton randomly pops up for a halftime performance.
But it’s not just Hollywood entertainment. The sheer fact that we have basketball legends going out there and playing and coaching their asses off—these guys really want to win—is entertaining, too.
During team Power's press conference, Payton—who coaches the 3-Headed Monsters—walked in and shouted, “They shot 95 free throws, you gon’ win when you shoot 95 free throws!”
Payton then became a de facto member of the press conference, which turned into a 15-minute roundtable about the state of the NBA. Some of the highlights:
- Clyde Drexler on the power imbalance between the NBA’s East and West: “The West, in my opinion, had the majority of the good players. After all these trades, now they’ve got all the good players. If Bron comes to the West, they might as well do away with the East.”
- Gary Payton on superteams and stars teaming up: “During our day, we didn’t go to teams. We drafted people and then we did it. We had 8-9 teams that had 4-5 great basketball players on it, so there was a difference. That’s where eras come in.”
- Cuttino Mobley on AAU culture and the modern game: “We grew up watching greats who competed at the highest level. They were ready to fight each other…We weren’t playing with guys in the summertime when we were 10 years old, all buddy-buddied up…Young kids now, it’s a little different. It’s just a little friendly, losing the competitiveness of it when you start fraternizing with guys.”
It was like four Uncle Drews talking about how back in their day they got buckets, and it was marvelous—better than anything you’ll find on a podcast.
The post-game press conferences were consistently fantastic, a testament to how this league is more laid back than the NBA. Rick Mahorn marveled at how Al Harrington still plays like he’s 25. Brian Scalabrine roasted his friend Rapaport (they won’t do a show together because “there are levels to this game, and he is not on my level”). Bibby and Ricky Davis quickly walked out when they were asked a question about LaVar Ball.
And then there was A.I.
Even in the alternate reality of the Big3, everything revolves around Allen Iverson. He’s been the face of the Big3, a lynchpin of its marketing.
His family lives in Charlotte. He felt the love Sunday.
The crowd exploded when The Answer was introduced, then buzzed every time he touched the ball. Philadelphia 3 jerseys were everywhere. The media room was packed for his appearance (with both media and family).
“For it to be here, and for the people in Charlotte to get a chance to see me play here, maybe it’s the last time, that was special to me,” Iverson said. “My whole thrill is just off my three smallest kids being able to see me on the court. My two older ones, they grew up with my career as an NBA basketball player, and now for my little ones to get the thrill out of it is cool to me.”
He has played sparingly in the first two weeks. Sunday he tallied 2 points on 1-for-4 shooting in 11 minutes. Iverson has beaten-up knees and he’s moved gingerly on the court, but he says he’ll play the full Big3 slate (there are eight cities remaining on the inaugural tour).
“I think it’s important for the fans to know that I was all-in for this thing to be a coach in it, then I just thought it would be a cool idea, me and Cube we talked about me getting on the floor a little bit,” Iverson said. “Obviously, you see that don’t sit too well with some of the fans because they want to see me play. I’m not Allen Iverson at 25 anymore. I’m 42 years old and have been away from the game for 6-7 years. For you to think you’re coming to see a game where Allen Iverson is The Answer for real-for real, it’s not going to happen. I felt like it would be a great idea for the fans to just have those flashbacks, to have them memories of coming to support me like they’ve done all my career.”
Though Iverson can’t bring it like he once did, some of the other players still have the juice. Stevenson (36 years old), Harrington (37), Bibby (39), Billups (40), and Rasual Butler (38) were among the standout players Sunday.
Drexler said the Big3’s best could still play in the NBA.
“Every (NBA) team has 8 or 9 guys on their bench, and a lot of these guys are much better than some of those guys,” Drexler said.
As for Billups, who was reportedly in talks with Cleveland to take the helm of the Eastern Conference champs, he said he didn’t play in week one of the Big3 because he didn’t want to distract from the league’s launch.
“You guys know I’m pondering,” Billups said of the Cavs’ opening. “There’s no new news to report. Clearly, the situation is out there. I’m still in the process of thinking it over. That’ll probably be some point in the next few days, but there’s nothing to really report.”
Monday morning, Woj tweeted that Billups had withdrawn his name from consideration for the position.
One of the concerns with a league that revolves around past-their-prime players is injuries. In the first week of the Big3, at Barclays Center, Jason “White Chocolate” Williams and Corey Maggette suffered injuries. There were none to report Sunday.
The league made some rules changes from weeks one to two—most notably, the first-team-to-60 format was modified so it’s now first-team-to-50. This sped up game play, a necessary change, and reduced the likelihood of injuries.
The Big3 is still figuring things out. The league is far from a finished product, and this year will involve a lot of trial and error, but it’s a welcome addition to the traditionally dry sports summertime.
Early returns suggest it will have staying power. It drew 10,651 fans in Charlotte following a packed house of 15,177 fans in Brooklyn, and its first broadcast garnered almost 400,000 viewers.
This very well could become the summer league fans have wanted for years—considering the climate (people are desperate for basketball and the Olympics just added 3-on-3 as a sport for 2020), it makes too much sense not to stick around. Like Ice Cube has said, “David Stern should have thought of this 30 years ago.”
The players and coaches have raved about the Big 3’s organization and fan support. It wouldn’t be a shock if more well-known recently retired players—looking at you, Kobe, KG, Shaq Diesel, and Paul Pierce—hop on board next year.
“Make no mistake, we love the NBA and that’s the reason we’re all here,” Drexler said. “The NBA is phenomenal and it’s the greatest thing to ever happen to any one of us. We look at the Big3 as an extension of the NBA and we can still have fun. That’s what makes it so great.”
It’s no lucid dream: the Big3 is really happening. And if basketball fans are lucky, the league will continue happening—and keep getting crazier—for years to come.