The BIG3 will conclude its season today with the championship game between Joe Johnson’s Triplets and Stephen Jackson’s Killer 3s. Ahead of finishing the league’s third season, we spoke with BIG3 founder Ice Cube about the state of the league, the momentum of 3-on-3 basketball, and the success of female coaches within the BIG3.
3-on-3 hasn’t really had a big market in the US before – why do you think you’ve had this level of success?
I think it was kind of looked at as a version of basketball that you were forced to play in a way because you didn’t have either the space or you didn’t have enough people. So it was kind of relegated to the playgrounds, to the backyards, schoolyards, and it wasn’t really looked at as anything other than basically street basketball.
But certain companies would have these tournaments outside and have a lot of weekend warriors come with their crew and play. But what was happening around the world is because of the same issues, a lot of people are playing 3 on 3, and not a lot of people are playing 5 on 5, because of infrastructure in those countries and never really having the gyms and all the stuff that we have here. But that being said it was starting to pick up a lot of momentum and popularity around the world. And so looking at that, and seeing what we have here, it was just a matter of elevating it to the professional level because it’s so familiar to anybody that plays basketball’s brain and psyche that if you elevate it to the professional level, it’ll fall in place if you do it right. And so we were able to do a lot of things right. We still gotta do a lot of things better, but we got a lot of things right to spark interest, and it was really up to the players to determine: was this going to be a real league or was this going to be celebrity game on steroids.
What do you think are some of those things that you did right? It’s so hard to start a new professional league in this country.
I think the biggest thing was picking the right time of year after the Finals and before football really starts. It’s a lull, it’s a dead zone for people who are not into baseball or soccer or the summer sports, golf, whatever. So it’s a void in the industry there. Filling that void is one thing we got right, and having players you know playing the game you love. That right there is another thing we got right because it got us the attention we needed to present the sport. And creating a competitive atmosphere with guys who play for real and try to beat each other. Those are the three things that we got right.
What are some other challenges you think you still have to address in order to grow the league?
What we have to do is fan the flames and grow the popularity of the sport and get in front of as many people as we can to show how cool this version of basketball is when its’ elevated to the professional level, and so that’s our job.
How do you convince people who are NBA fans that this level of basketball which is totally different than NBA basketball is worth watching?
Being on CBS is a great start. Once you see it you’re definitely intrigued, and then if you ever come to a game, you’re hooked if you see it live. It’s the same thing that any sport that’s trying to survive needs to live on: Attracting star athletes and seeing if they can win. It’s fun for everybody. That’s what we’re doing, that’s what we want to continue to do. We want to continue to attract guys that still have the desire to play at a high level and showcase their talents in front of everybody and grow the league. That’s the goal.
Did you anticipate this league being so important for women? The fact that you’ve had two straight female coaches of the year is kind of groundbreaking.
It’s nothing I really anticipated starting it. It’s nothing that I really envisioned. What we did was give opportunity to some very qualified people, and to me, that’s like a no brainer. And if this country doesn’t work like that, that’s why it’s in trouble. Cream should rise to the top no matter who you are, no matter what you look like. If you can do a job, what difference does it make? It’s just how the world should work, and we got some very cool people in the leadership group of this league who believe that and who believe the cream should rise to the top, and that’s why we’re successful.
It has to be something you’re pretty proud of, though, right?
Oh yeah. You dream of being in a position to make everything right or make it how it should be. And in our small way, that’s what we’re doing, and it’s making a big impact. It’s just breaking down mental barriers and stigmas, and it’s going into a place that people are scared to go into, and its not so scary. It’s normal. As a matter of fact, as you can see, the cream did rise to the top. Coach of the year for two years in the row (Nancy Lieberman in 2018 and Lisa Leslie in 2019) Voted by their peers, which is the most important thing. It’s not a league thing. This is the players and the coaches saying this, so it’s no charity here. It’s a great thing.
It seems like so much of the conversation around the BIG3 is “which big former NBA star is going to join next?” Does that ever get annoying for you or is it just cool that your league draws that level of interest?
That’s what it’s all about. I think our draft is way more dramatic than the NBA draft because you know our players or most of them. It’s like, ‘who’s getting picked, who’s going to pick them, who’s coming into the league, who doesn’t want to come into the league and why’. It’s just the drama of sports that is going to help us continue to grow, so we love it. That’s what it’s all about.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.