NEW YORK — Athletes are meant to be superheroes — a collection of larger-than-life figures through whom fans are able to live our their childhood aspirations. They are to win with grace, lose with dignity, and never pull back the curtain that shows a person behind the great and powerful Oz.
This is what made Glen Davis’ moment after the BIG3 final on Friday night memorable. Davis’ Power squad won a league championship — the second to be awarded by Ice Cube’s half-court 3-on-3 basketball league — with a 51-43 win over 3s Company. Through tears, he addressed the media, explaining why winning this particular trophy was such a big deal.
“I was dealing with depression before I accepted the contract with you guys,” Davis said to his teammates. “Mentally, because when I left the game, I left the game in a different phase, and you guys brought that back to me. I’ve been going through a lot of crazy things lately that it’s just not who I am.”
Davis is a former NBA champion, and yet winning the BIG3 meant enough to him that he was moved to tears. He wasn’t the only member of his squad to have that reaction — guys like Corey Maggette and Quentin Richardson were emotional after the win. Head coach Nancy Lieberman, the recipient of the league’s 2018 Coach of the Year award, reacted the same way as her players heaped praise upon her after she became the first woman coach to lift a championship in a men’s professional league.
All of this gets back to the unofficial mission of the league, which is trying to elevate itself from a thing hoops fans occasionally watch to something hoops fans follow closely: The BIG3, at its core, is a league that values passion over everything.
The league itself is something of a labor of love. There aren’t many new sports leagues that pop up in the United States that survive, and who knows? Maybe the BIG3 is on borrowed time, despite the fact that its third season will occur in 2019. But if the BIG3 isn’t able to make the jump to an American sports powerhouse, it won’t be for a lack of trying.
The games themselves are a spectacle. On Friday night in Brooklyn, music blared all evening — before, during, and after games. Celebrities like LL Cool J and Sway sat courtside, right near Ice Cube, who held a concert before the evening officially got underway. He closed the set with “It Was A Good Day,” of course, but before he started digging into the more well-known portions of his catalogue, he did the league’s theme song, which he recorded and airs before broadcasts begin on FS1 every week. There are dancers, there are smoke machine-aided player introductions, and there are contests on the floor during timeouts.
When games are occurring, both the players and the crowd get into it. Take, for example, during the finals, Maggette, the league MVP and Captain of the Year, hit a shot in Dahntay Jones’ face, which led to some jawing between the two, which led to the benches clearing, which led to Cuttino Mobley looking like he was ready to throw hands with someone. (If you had fun reading that sentence, I promise you, I had more fun typing it.) The crowd was into that, just as they were when Mobley hit the title-clinching shot, just as they were when Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, at the ripe young age of 49, canned back-to-back threes to clinch a third-place finish 3 Headed Monsters.
All of this happened because of passion. Sure, part of that passion manifests itself in the form of guys wanting to play professional basketball when other opportunities do not exist — although those involved with Power agree that teammates Davis, league Defensive Player of the Year Chris “Birdman” Andersen, and 30-year-old Xavier Silas should be in the NBA right now. But beyond that, this gives players whose best days might be behind them the opportunity continue pursuing the thing they love above everything else: basketball.
Still, there are consequences that pop up in a league full of professional athletes, even if you’re playing half-court basketball once a week. Maggette, for instance, tore his achilles in the first BIG3 game last year, rehabbed, came back for this season, and played in the title game despite pulling both of his hamstrings in the weeks leading up to the finals. But for him, getting to win this championship alongside players like Richardson (“I’ve known him since the fifth grade,” Maggette said) and Mobley and Andersen (the former he’s known for 20 years, the latter 17) was worth the fact that he entered the title game hobbled.
On the subject of Richardson, he made it a point to stress how winning a championship has evaded him for decades. Well, at least until Friday night.
“Since high school, I haven’t won a championship,” Richardson said. “So this, for me, this is huge, and I’m gonna savor it and live it up like it’s a ring in the NBA.
“Me and Corey won 15-and-under nationals, AAU, we kicked everybody’s butt, too,” Richardson continued. “I haven’t won a championship since high school. I won states, nationals, but this means something.”
These are the kinds of things you’d expect to hear out of, say, a veteran NBA player who finally lifts the Larry O’Brien Trophy. But for a half-court, 3-on-3 league that barnstorms the United States and features players in their 30s and 40s as its main attractions, well, it might be hard to understand why those involved care this much.
The answer, again, is passion. It starts at the very top of the league — Richardson praised Ice Cube for being “all the way in” with regards to giving BIG3 support and a public face — and in the case of Power, trickles down throughout the roster. For example, Richardson told a story about being coached by Lieberman, saying that he holds her in the same regard as a head coach as people like Larry Brown and Stan Van Gundy. While some teams would skip practices or turn them into glorified shootarounds, Lieberman went through plays and made sure her team was well-prepared.
“If we played Friday — if this was a regular week — Saturday morning, by the time I got on a plane and landed in a city, we would have film, we would have Xs and Os, we would have everything,” Richardson said.
No one moment epitomized the love that people in BIG3 have for the league better than Davis speaking at Power’s press conference. In a way, it adds validation to BIG3, as a former NBA champion was moved to tears over what it meant to compete in a place that let him add to his personal trophy case and continue his dream of playing professional basketball.
It was abundantly clear that, in the context of a basketball career, winning BIG3 was among a crowning achievement. Who knows what the league has in its future, but on Friday night, the players of Power wanted everyone to stress the importance of being a champion of this league. Not just for themselves, but for everyone who has been afforded the opportunity to play BIG3 basketball.
“Don’t ever think that the people that play in the BIG3 don’t take this seriously and it don’t mean anything,” Richardson said. “We take it seriously, all of us as players, and it means something. It really does. This is a league that ain’t going nowhere and we all take it seriously. Everybody cares, everybody works hard to be ready to play, and this is here to stay.”