Charlotte Hornets

Is the BIG3 a professional basketball league or a traveling sideshow?

Cuttino Mobley hasn’t played in the NBA since 2008, when he abruptly retired because of a heart disease. ... But his 23-point, six-rebound performance in Charlotte hearkened back to his 11-year NBA career.
Cuttino Mobley hasn’t played in the NBA since 2008, when he abruptly retired because of a heart disease. ... But his 23-point, six-rebound performance in Charlotte hearkened back to his 11-year NBA career.

Cuttino Mobley walked to the postgame podium, sweat trickling from his brow as he tried to catch his breath.

He took a seat next to DeShawn Stevenson, who hit the game-winner for Power in the BIG3’s debut last week in Brooklyn. This weekend at the Spectrum Center, it was Mobley’s turn to knock down two game-winning free throws to cap off the most competitive of Sunday’s four games.

Mobley hasn’t played in the NBA since 2008, when he abruptly retired because of a heart disease. Now, his hair is a little thinner and his goatee has almost fully greyed. Nine years will do that. But his 23-point, six-rebound performance in Charlotte hearkened back to his 11-year NBA career.

This is blacktop rules tailored for a TV audience: no hand-checking and no fouling out means no aversion for contact ...

For now, two months shy of his 42nd birthday, it’s close enough.

“I’m damn sure not making a jump back ...” said Mobley, whose recipe of wind sprints and alkaline water fueled this week’s effort. “I’m a realist. I just want to have fun with my guys now.”

On the surface, that’s what the BIG3 is all about: fun. Three decades of rap music drowns out the on-court action, and the PA announcer pleads for 4-point shots as if he’s paid on commission. The schedule spans 10 cities in 10 weekends, each stop offering eccentric sideline interviews, halftime dunk contests and live musical performances.

But is this professional basketball?

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Tri-State's Lou Amundson dunks as Ball Hogs players Derrick Byars (4) and Rasual Butler (8) watch in a game during Sunday’s Big 3 basketball tournament at the Spectrum Center. NELL REDMOND

A sizable crop of the league’s players are on the wrong side of 40, and over half of the team names are puns derived from the league’s 3-on-3 format. This is blacktop rules tailored for a TV audience: no hand-checking and no fouling out means no aversion for contact. The open-floor nature of 3-on-3 leads to more isolation plays, post moves and mid-range jumpers.

“You’re not worried about double teams and stuff like that,” said Al Harrington, a 16-year NBA veteran. “It allows you to go out and show your skillset.”

Former UNC star Rashad McCants played through a chorus of boos from the Charlotte crowd, launching 3-pointers and fouling to his heart’s content. Chauncey Billups drilled two 4-point shots in his BIG3 debut to assert his “Mr. Big Shot” stature. Co-captain Stephen Jackson, a boisterous personality throughout his 14-year NBA career, nearly wrestled Mobley to the ground on a late flagrant foul.

In some ways, the BIG3 resembles an impromptu tour of eight bands whose aging musicians are learning the set music on the road. But they’re still rock stars.

In some ways, the BIG3 resembles an impromptu tour of eight bands whose aging musicians are learning the set music on the road. But they’re still rock stars, and the personalities alone are worth the price of admission.

“This is better than the NBA,” said Clyde Drexler, former NBA Hall of Famer and current Power coach. “This is more fun.”

Rasual Butler, a 13-year NBA veteran, lauded the behind-the-scenes organization of the league. But it didn’t always show on the court. Drexler called the BIG3 an “extension of the NBA,” but even that’s a stretch.

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Ball Hogs player Josh Childress, left, drives around Tri-States player Mike James in Sunday’s Big 3 basketball tournament at the Spectrum Center. NELL REDMOND

When Trilogy hit 25 points in the first game, players had to remind the officials to signal for halftime. Sometimes players passed the ball into play, other times they dribbled it in – it didn’t seem to matter. Tri-State forward Lou Amundson’s name was missing a letter on his jersey. The list goes on.

Even Jackson’s flagrant foul, which gave Mobley two 2-point free throws for the win, was subject for criticism.

“Maybe they’ll correct that the next time,” Drexler said.

This is better than the NBA. This is more fun.

Clyde Drexler, NBA Hall of Famer and current Power coach

Perhaps that’s the beauty of the BIG3. After the first week ran nearly six hours, the league shortened the games by shortening the league’s “first-to-60” rules to 50 points. Ice Cube derided last weekend’s officiating, and this week’s free throw numbers spiked.

Kenyon Martin, the No. 1 pick in the 2000 NBA Draft, said players voiced their concerns in a conference call after the opening games. For a league in its infancy, adaptation is key.

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Tri-State's Xavier Silas, left, drives around Ball Hogs player Rasual Butler in Sunday’s Big 3 basketball tournament at the Spectrum Center. NELL REDMOND

“We’re here to make this thing right …” said Martin, who tweaked his hamstring last weekend and didn’t play Sunday. “There’s gonna be some bumps, but it’s gonna be good for years to come.”

For many players, the BIG3 experience is about 3 a.m. card games and pregame locker-room banter that they haven’t known in years. It’s about the thrill of playing basketball without the grind of an 82-game schedule.

It’s about unknown NBA retirees like Derrick Byars, who hit a game-winning 3-pointer to cap off a 21-2 comeback run, earning an ovation in an NBA arena. It’s about players like Eddie Basden – a former Charlotte 49er who bounced overseas for much of the past 10 years – getting one more hometown reception.

It’s certainly about Allen Iverson, an NBA Hall of Famer and unofficial poster child for the league. Two points, one assist – who cares? Certainly not the fans wearing his jerseys, or his three youngest children watching him play for the first time.

“For the people in Charlotte to get a chance to see me play here, maybe it’s the last time,” said Iverson, who lives in Charlotte. “So that was special to me.”

After his postgame press conference, Iverson walked off the stage and immediately spouted baby talk as he scooped up one of his daughters. She artfully dodged his kisses before eventually relenting. To her, he’s not an 11-time All-Star; he’s a 42-year-old father, and a smothering one at that.

But when he’s on the court in front of 10,651 fans, even just for 11 minutes, he’s a superstar again.

So, is it professional basketball? Maybe not. But maybe it doesn’t matter.

C Jackson Cowart on Twitter: @CJackson Cowart

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