Barber: BIG3 basketball brings familiar faces to Bay Area

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OAKLAND — It was Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf’s 3-point shot that delivered a victory for the 3-Headed Monsters over the Killer 3s at Oracle Arena on Friday. Can you guess the magic number? Yeah, it was three, because the BIG3 came to town for some 3-on-3 basketball.

This is the league co-founded by rapper/actor/producer Ice Cube and his business partner, Jeff Kwatinetz. The event landed like a carnival — “I would use a different word. I would say it’s like a festival,” said BIG3 chairman (her approved word) of the board Amy Trask — with eight teams pairing off for a series of four games. The whole thing moves to Detroit next Friday.

It’s an interesting concept — a familiar sport, but played on only half a court. It’s a throwback to the days of pickup basketball but also, perhaps, a look to the future. It offers star power alongside gimmickry.

In honor of the BIG3’s appearance in Oakland, I have three big questions about the organization.

1. Is it entertaining?

You bet. Players like Baron Davis and Chauncey Billups still know how to put on a show. The league’s eight coaches are hand-picked for intrigue and marquee appeal: Gary Payton, Julius Erving, Rick Barry, George Gervin, Charles Oakley, Michael Cooper, Rick Mahorn and Nancy Lieberman. The halftime entertainment included mini-sets by Bay Area legends Too Short and E-40. When someone blocked a shot, the words “Get that outta here!” would burst from the PA system.

Not content to adopt the 3-point line, the BIG3 features 4-point circles in deep Steph Curry territory. The pace is fast. After a made basket, the ball goes immediately to the top of the key for the next possession. (Losers’ outs, if you’re wondering.)

The players, removed from the grind of the NBA, are relaxed — for better or worse. After Tri-State’s big win over Power, I asked Nate Robinson and Amar’e Stoudemire if the competition level of the BIG3 was what they expected. Stoudemire hadn’t paid attention to the question. When Robinson repeated it to him, Stoudemire leaned away from the microphone so that his voice became a whisper, shrugged and said, “Give or take.”

A moment later, he got up and left the podium as Robinson answered another question.

But Robinson, the diminutive guard who played for eight teams over 11 NBA seasons, was highly entertaining. And so was Baron Davis.

“When you leave the game, you sort of develop amnesia. It’s heartbreaking,” Davis said. “But to have something like the BIG3 for guys like us who still love the game and still can play at a high level, it definitely gives us something to kind of fill that void.”

2. Is it good basketball?

You know what? It’s not bad.

“Way better than I thought it was gonna be when I joined last year,” said Warriors legend Barry, who is coaching the Ball Hogs. “I was very skeptical, as most people were.”

“Everyone was like, ‘It’ll be a clown show,’” is how Tri-State’s Jermaine O’Neal put it.

You might expect that, too, when you hear that the guy who hit the final game-winning shot Friday, Abdul-Rauf, is 49 years old. The term “graybeard” is not metaphorical here, and it isn’t just Abdul-Rauf. Power guard Cuttino Mobley is just 42, but he looks like Uncle Drew. Billups of the Killer 3s and Bonzi Wells of Tri-State are 41.

But not everyone is so close to AARP membership. Robinson acknowledged that he hasn’t given up on the NBA. A little over two years ago, Dahntay Jones, now with Trilogy, was helping the Cavaliers defeat the Warriors for the NBA title on the very same Oracle court. Nearly 60 players took part in the BIG3’s scouting combine this year. They were competing for just 19 roster spots.

“There’s a crowd out here because of a reason. Because we have good basketball players,” said Payton, the Oakland native, Basketball Hall of Famer and current coach of the 3-Headed Monsters. “We got people that’s in shape. Nobody want to come see three-on-three basketball if you have old men out there, or people out there just playing around.”

The format suits older players. Their conditioning would be exposed if they had to run the full court for 48 minutes, but they don’t. And the games aren’t long; the first team to 50 points wins. Meanwhile, most of these dudes still have the strength to fight off hand-checking or battle inside for rebounds.

Confirmed Friday, the fire still burns in NBA players long after their vertical leap has diminished.

“You guys think this is almost like charity basketball, but it’s not,” said 3’s Company’s Drew Gooden, who grew up in Oakland and Richmond and went to high school in El Cerrito. “Our competitive juices start to flow, and the reason why we’re all professionals start to flow.”

Still, this is not the NBA. The stakes aren’t as high, the pressure isn’t as intense.

“If I got a grudge at 37, I ain’t growing,” said NBA vet DeShawn Stevenson. “I’m trying to, like, go play three-on-three, have a glass of wine and get on a plane.”

3. Is it viable?

This is the biggest question, and the hardest to predict. Just about every sports league that has challenged the NBA, NFL or MLB over the years has run into a dead end.

The BIG3 has some things going for it, though. The most important might be Ice Cube, who has carved deep inroads into both music and film, and seems to be one of the few people able to build a bridge between the inner city and the suburban living room. Cube was sitting courtside at Friday’s games; he follows his league wherever it goes.

“No one outworks him,” Trask told me.

The BIG3 has lured well-known players by offering revenue sharing and bonuses based on team results.

It has been selling out arenas, or nearly so. League reps said Friday’s attendance was 13,562. Last year the games were televised on tape delay. This year, three of four are live on Fox or FS1 each week, while the fourth is livestreamed on Facebook. The BIG3 will play in Toronto on July 27, its first appearance outside of the U.S. Trask said she and her cohorts are discussing partnerships in China and Brazil.

The BIG3 really got a boost in June of 2017 when the International Olympic Committee officially added 3-on-3 basketball to the 2020 Summer Olympic program in Tokyo. As Tri-State coach Julius Erving pointed out, these players will be “the best prepared to represent America” when that moment rolls around.

But if the Olympics helps to legitimize the BIG3, you could just as easily argue that Ice Cube’s endeavor laid the groundwork. As Trask tweeted when the new sports were announced for Tokyo: “@IOC, you’re welcome.”

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