Now that Kevin Love has joined forces with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving in Cleveland, NBA fans can rest easy that this season will not pass by (in fact, the real worry might be how many minutes can pass by) without hearing the words “The Big Three.”
It was after seeing a Big Three form in Boston and win the NBA title in 2008 – eliciting memories of a previous, storied three-pronged attack in Celtic green and white – that James decided to form his own, leaving Cleveland for Miami in the summer of 2010 to team up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Those three players were collectively known as The Big Three for four years and the championship pedigree that seemed, so often, to follow that moniker was present, as well, to the tune of two championships in four years. But the Miami Big Three’s reign came to an abrupt end at the hands of a San Antonio Spurs team whose offense just never did, and a core of players (Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard excluded) called… well, The Big Three. Don’t tell their coach, though.
But San Antoinio’s Big Three was different from Miami’s, who are different from Boston’s recent and somewhat older edition. Tony Parker, Manu Ginobli and Tim Duncan received the brand back in the mid-aughts and since then the term had evolved. What lurked even further back in the history of The Big Three – back with the original Big Three: Bob Pettit, Cliff Hagan and Clyde Lovellette of the St. Louis Hawks in the early 1960s – is a stain that, in hindsight, makes some sense of why after Pettit, Hagan and Lovellette, no three players were popularly referred to as The Big Three for over 20 years.
The 2008 Celtics, then the 2010-14 Heat defined the current (over)use of The Big Three. The team must have three All-Stars, preferably three top 20 guys – best or top 3 at their respective positions – a superteam, some would go so far as to say. James, Wade and Bosh in Miami. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen in Boston. Now, arguably, James, Love and Irving in Cleveland. But that kind of concentration of talent wasn’t seen in the league so often before Danny Ainge resuscitated the Celtic’s storied history over the 2007 offseason. Before then, the focus was just to get two big stars. Now, everyone is trying to get a Big Three — particularly Houston.
Before the ’08 Celtics, Parker, Ginobli and Duncan earned the designation designation by winning titles in 2005 and 2007 with Ginobli and Parker developing into players capable of sharing the spotlight with Duncan. But that was the NBA of the aughts, when contending teams were more likely to center around two names, Kobe Bryant and Shaq, for instance, or ride the personnel shuffling around one star like Reggie Miller or Allen Iverson. The blip of that decade continues to be the 2004 champion Detroit Pistons who just screwed everyone up on how an NBA champion was supposed to be built.
There is no better example of the more egalitarian idea of The Big Three than the Milwaukee Bucks of Glenn Robinson, Sam Cassell and Allen. That Big Three, more than any other, seemed to say, “Yeah, we have three really good players, but no one star.”
The term was loosely applied to Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman as the Chicago Bulls stormed to Jordan’s post-baseball three-peat in the mid-90s, but those teams are still (unfairly or not) thought of as Jordan’s show. When most people think about The Big Three their default is to what many would wrongly consider the original iteration of the phrase: Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish of the Boston Celtics of the 1980s.
Were there similar collections of trident-like talent bridging the gap between Pettit and Parish? Of course. The Showtime Lakers had James Worthy to go along with Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Before that? The Celtics teams of the 1960s that rattled off eight titles in a row features a pair of Joneses, Sam and K.C., who, when taken with Bill Russell, surely could have been considered Big and (certainly) Three. Even subbing in Bob Cousy or Tommy Heinsohn for either Jones – as Celtics fans, especially at that time, likely would have – would have kept the Beantown Triumvirate just as Big as any other in the league at the time.
Yet, none of these combos were called, as far as I can tell, The Big Three.
Pettit, Hagan and Lovellette were undeniably talented. They put up huge numbers (Pettit: 27.9PPG, 20.3REB; Hagan: 22.1PPG, 9.3REB; Lovellette: 22.0PPG, 10.1REB) as the Hawks made the NBA Finals in 1960 and 1961, only to lose to the Celtics. What sullies the name The Big Three is not what those three players were able to do on the court, but how the term was used to designate who was and what wasn’t.
In his seminal book about the NBA, The Breaks of the Game, David Halberstam describes what then-rookie point guard Lenny Wilkens faced after being drafted by the Hawks in 1960:
“Three seasons earlier an all-white Hawks team had won the NBA championship and that nucleus remained. The big star was Bob Pettit, one of the truly great players in the league’s history, and there were two other popular players, Clyde Lovellette and Cliff Hagan. The Big Three, they were called, and it was the job of the other players to make sure they remained stars.”
There is a subsequent (and worse) account, told in the ESPN documentary Black Magic, about Cleo Hill. Hill, a college basketball phenom and scoring machine out of North Carolina Teacher’s College, was drafted by the Hawks with the eighth pick in the first round of the 1961 draft. Initially, it seemed like Hill’s scoring instincts would translate to the pros, but there was one problem: any success Hill, the first player from an historically all-black college taken in the first round, was having took touches away from The Big Three. According to the documentary, Hawks management approached head coach Paul Seymour and told him to limit Hill in favor of the team’s white stars. When Seymour refused, he was fired.
Not all of this was coming from the team’s players, though. In fact, Wilkens identified Hagan, in particular, as seeming “to know no racial prejudice.”
“In a quiet understated way, Hagan befriended the young Wilkens,” Halberstam writes. “And they ate together on the road; they even went out together with their wives which, given the times was more delicate. Acceptance came more slowly with Pettit, who had played in Louisiana in the early fifties, and whose mores were set in a very different time.”
What the situation with The Big Three in St. Louis does show is how that popular designation has morphed throughout the years, as values have changed and the attention on the NBA has gone from regional to international.
Now, as we look ahead to a Kevin Love outlet pass to Kyrie Irving who, at mid-court bullets a no-look pass to a cutting LeBron James for a highlight slam, The Big Three – as a unique gathering of some of the best players in the game on one team — is something (at least on a purely basketball level) to be enjoyed by all basketball fans. The Big Three of 1960 was more about a region and management, still steeped in antebellum culture, designating who was “us” and who was “them.” It was a way of controlling their brand of white superstars by making sure that they continued to be treated as the collective face of the franchise.
After all, how should anyone – black or white – suit up for the St. Louis Hawks and think themselves bigger than The Big Three. They were, after all, The Big Three and, to a point, simply continuing to call them that made it continue to be so.
As the NBA wakes up from an offseason riddled with a similar embarrassment of race and language (possibly most embarrassing is that the league’s most recent egg comes from this same franchise that moved from St. Louis to Atlanta in 1968) let’s hope we see a lot more highlights from the newest incarnation of The Big Three than we do the shadows still cast by how its original was used.
Which Big Three combinations did we miss?
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