Basketball

Ice Cube’s Big3 basketball league put on a show in Miami — and hopes to keep growing

Killer 3s Metta World Pease (15) goes up against Ball Hogs Andre Owens (20) and DeShawn Stevenson (92) during BIG3 basketball at AmericanAirlines Arena on Friday, July 20, 2018.
Killer 3s Metta World Pease (15) goes up against Ball Hogs Andre Owens (20) and DeShawn Stevenson (92) during BIG3 basketball at AmericanAirlines Arena on Friday, July 20, 2018. adiaz@miamiherald.com

Metta World Peace, a former NBA Defensive Player of the Year and 17-year league veteran until he left the league in 2017, was looking for something to jumpstart his desire to play basketball again.

Former Miami Heat players Amar’e Stoudemire and Chris “Birdman” Andersen wanted an outlet to continue their basketball careers, the former looking for a potential avenue back into the NBA, the latter wanting to ensure he chose when it was time to call it quits.

The 56 others also have their own stories, their own reasons, to take part in this endeavor — a wide-scale three-on-three basketball league.

And with that came the Big3 basketball league, the brainchild of rapper Ice Cube that has allowed former NBA stars another shot at playing the game with which they made their living.

The burgeoning traveling halfcourt league is halfway through its second season following its Friday-night stop in Miami.

And the consensus among the players, coaches and executives who are devoted to the league is that it’s merely just beginning.

“In terms of the total package, the star power, former All-Star players, this is probably the second-best league in the world,” Metta World Peace said. “Ice Cube did his thing, and there’s probably going to be more and more basketball to be played.”

It was on display inside AmericanAirlines Arena on Friday night, the league’s fifth stop on a 10-week schedule playing in different NBA venues.

Yes, it’s halfcourt. Yes, it’s three-on-three.

But it’s still former basketball players who played the game at the highest level. The desire for competition, they said, hasn’t fallen off with age or time away from the league.

“Even though we’re a little bit older in our age, it still doesn’t matter. ... It’s physical,” Andersen said. “It’s a lot of contact. I mean, I don’t mind. I like it. But as a comparison [to the NBA], it’s right there.”

Former Miami Heat center Chris "Birdman" Andersen was in Miami on Friday as part of Ice Cube's Big3 basketball league.

The main problem early on: Would people pay attention to it?

“The hope was that people would catch on,” said Jim Jackson, a Fox Sports basketball analyst who serves as the network’s Big3 color analyst each week, “but you just don’t know because it’s something that hasn’t been done.

Proper marketing and keen scheduling helped give the league a proper jumpstart.

In 2017, the league played its first game at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center three days after the arena hosted the NBA Draft and the day before New York City hosted the NBA’s annual end-of-year awards. Fast forward nine weeks to late August, and the league played its championship game in Las Vegas hours before the primetime Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Conor McGregor boxing match.

“Last year’s timing was unbelievable,” Jackson said.

The league’s success in Year 2 is showing Big3 might not be a one-time affair.

More than 13,000 people filled the lower bowl in AmericanAirlines Arena on Friday night. The season opener in Houston drew more than 16,000 to the Toyota Center. Games are being televised live on either Fox Sports or FS1 depending on the week.

Name recognition isn’t a problem, either.

There are enough big names spread over the eight teams to form an NBA who’s who from the early 2000s — Stoudemire, Chauncey Billups, Jermaine O’Neal and Nate Robinson among them. Four of the eight coaches — Rick Barry, Julius Erving, George Gervin and Gary Payton — are inductees to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

“It’s kind of like no longer a question of ‘is it going to be great basketball?’” Ice Cube said. “It’s kind of expected.”

That’s only part of the league’s mission, though.

While the on-court product is what fans see, Big3’s executive board — a group including cofounders Ice Cube and entertainment executive Jeff Kwatinetz, Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler as the league’s commissioner and former Oakland Raiders CEO Amy Trask as the chairman of the board — has made it clear its mission is to make sure the league’s growth and success starts and finishes with the intentions of the players and coaches in mind.

“They are part of building this league with us,” Trask said. “We are not looking to build on their backs without regard to their contribution and their input. … I spent almost 30 years working for [former Oakland Raiders owner and general manager] Al Davis. He told me from Day 1 of my career in the NFL, ‘Kid, the players are the game.’ And he was right.”

They’ll keep that approach throughout the rest of this season and beyond.

“You have a sense and feel that this product has staying power,” Jackson said. “This year, it hasn’t disappointed.”

It felt great really to be back in Miami,” said Stoudemire, a six-time NBA All-Star who closed a 14-year NBA career in 2016 with a one-year stint with the Miami Heat.

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