They might be getting up there in age. They might be years removed from their time as NBA All-Stars
But some of the league’s former big name players still know how to put on a show.
Nowadays, though, they’re doing so in the Big3 league, Ice Cube’s travelling three-on-three league that made a stop at Miami’s AmericanAirlines Arena on Friday night for the fifth week of its 10-week rendezvous around the country.
Fans get to watch former greats play on the court with the same intensity that they had when they were in the NBA.
The players get to experience the rush of playing in arenas they once called home.
”It’s always good when you’re connected to an area and have a fanbase, especially when you played in that arena,” said Jim Jackson, a former Heat player during the 2001-02 season who now serves as a basketball analyst for Fox Sports. “Those memories come back when you walk into the locker room, going into the parking garage, going around where you had a place of residence, the places you used to like to eat. All those things come back, especially if you’ve been away from the game for a while and now you’re able to compete in an arena where you want to play in a place that you once called home. It’s always special like that. The nostalgia of playing in your old arena, you can’t replace it.”
Those in the league with ties to Houston, Oakland, Chicago and Detroit received that experience already.
This week, it was Miami’s turn, with a dozen players and coaches in the league who have ties to the city - from University of Miami legend Rick Barry to former Miami Heat players Amar’e Stoudemire, Chris “Birdman” Andersen, Jermaine O’Neal and Gary Payton among others - having the chance to experience that nostalgia.
“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. “My last year in the NBA was phenomenal. To be back in this place on this platform, where even more of a different fan base can enjoy the game makes it fun to be back.”
And while there were a fair share of missed highlight opportunities -- botched alley-oop dunks, buzzer-beating threes clanging off the rim and airballs alike -- they put on a show for a crowd that filled most of the arena’s lower bowl while playing with a medley of instrumental hip hop from the early 2000s booming throughout.
Action was non-stop save for the five-minute halftime. Players slashed to the basket with reckless abandon and fought for every loose ball. Fans giving the occasional “oohs” and “ahhs” at each big moment.
The nostalgia was there. The intensity was there.
And there was trash talking. Plenty of trash talking.
Look no further than the end of the first game of the quadruple-header between Tri-State and the Ghost Ballers.
Tri-State, coached by basketball legend and Hall of Famer Julius Erving, led the first-to-50 game from the get-go and was one basket away from closing it out when Ghost Ballers went on a run with a four-point basket and a pair of layups.
After a timeout looking with Tri-State looking to end it, Bonzi Wells fed a pass to three-time NBA Slam Dunk Contest champion Nate Robinson in transition.
Robinson charged toward the basket and fed the ball to Stoudemire who closed out the game with a floating tip-in that he was inches away from grabbing for a dunk.
“It’s just a basketball play,” Stoudemire said. “Nate went up for the shot. The court kind of shrunk on him. He dropped it off to me and i was able to finish it.”
And then there was Birdman, the home crowd favorite and the player who got the loudest ovation when introduced.
His statline for Power on Friday -- 6 points, 3 rebounds -- didn’t tell the whole story in his team’s come-from-behind win.
He hustled during his time off the bench, was a menace defensively and found ways to keep the crowd entertained whether he was a star or not.
His lone field goal -- a first-half dunk -- sent the crowd into a frenzy. A kiss to the crowd when he checked out shortly afterword was returned with equal affection.
“This dude is a favorite everywhere,” teammate Cuttino Mobley said. “My kids don’t even love me that much.”
Andersen added: “To be back here and performing in front of everyone, Heat nation -- I can say that; I’m a lifer -- being part of Power and being down here playing in front of everyone, I’m grateful for the experience.”
Just like old times.
▪ A handful of Miami Heat players sat courtside for the game: Hassan Whiteside, Josh Richardson, Tyler Johnson, James Johnson and Rodney McGruder.
▪ Following the first of four games, city of Miami mayor Francis Suarez gave Ice Cube a key to the city.