The players only play a half-court game, and teams must score 50 or more points to win. The shot clock is 14 seconds. Players can also hit four-point shots; all while hip hop plays in the background. Is it traditional basketball? No, but it’s not 3-on-3 in the conventional sense, either.
This is Fireball3 gameplay in Ice Cube’s BIG3 league, now in its fourth year, is creating a buzz that the hip-hop icon hopes will increasingly be taken as seriously as any other sport. The league features players and coaches that are NBA legends including Julius “Dr. J” Erving, Gary Payton, Clyde Drexler, Charles Oakley, Nate Robinson as well as other former NBA greats and international players.
Cube, who started the league with entertainment exec Jeff Kwatinetz, says that he’s striving to have his version of 3-on-3 basketball grow in the sports world and plans to do that by ensuring that the games are professional. This means holding players, coaches, and staff accountable and referees who consistently call the games fairly.
“We have fun in the BIG3; you can be yourself, you can trash talk, but you can’t mess with the game,” said Cube. “The game is sacred to us, and if we hold that standard, we’ll continue to be on the upswing.”
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On Saturday (Aug. 28), the league will start its four-team playoffs, the 3-Headed Monsters vs. the Triplets and Trilogy vs. Tri-State. The winners will face each other in the BIG3 Championship on Sept. 4. The entire series will be played at Atlantis Paradise Island in The Bahamas, and Cube says the players and coaches are so eager they can taste it.
“I think when it comes to the guys, that’s been here for a minute, like Gary Payton, he’s been to the playoffs every year, but he hasn’t been able to bring the trophy home,” said Cube of the 3-Headed Monsters coach, who also happens to be a basketball Hall of Famer. “Dr. J, the trophy is named after him, so I know he wants it."
“Then you have Joe Johnson and the Triplets who won it last [season], so they want to go back-to-back to show that it wasn't a fluke,” he continued. “Then Trilogy, led by Stephen Jackson who was in the championship in 2019 and lost to Joe Johnson, so now he’s the coach of Trilogy, so they’re about to knock it out.”
But like many other businesses, the BIG3 was hit by the coronavirus pandemic. Like other sports, the league had to pause play temporarily and lost a significant sponsor, Adidas, which was severely impacted by global lockdowns.
“It hurt us, without a doubt,” said Cube. “We were poised to have our best year, and it took away a lot of momentum, so I have to try to gain that momentum back this year. It hasn’t been easy, but we’re doing it. We’ve gained 10 to 12 new sponsors throughout the season. So we’re happy with where we’re at, but we’d be a lot farther if it weren’t for the pandemic.”
See more BIG3 League coverage on CBSSports.com
But it isn't just growing as a league grows; it is also earning its place in hip hop culture, something that Ice Cube is synonymous with. More than three decades ago, he was a founding member of the groundbreaking and controversial rap supergroup N.W.A. That led to a successful solo career as well as multiple hip-hop collaborations. From there, he went to filmmaking; the most popular movies are the Friday series. In 2017, he decided to put together BIG3 to give a new spin to what most people recognize as streetball. All the while, hip-hop was at the center.
"Everything I do is part of hip hop culture," said Cube. "I'm entrenched in the culture, so it comes from the tradition of streetball, but it's elevated to the professional level; that's the key. That's why it doesn't look or feel like straight streetball 3-on-3 games.
"So we've taken some things from the street, some things from NBA basketball, and we've combined it to create something fun to play and watch," he said. "I would love for the people on the playground to adapt our rules and play 3-on-3 games with BIG3 rules. I mean, that's kind of cool. That just shows the emerging of the culture. We hope to be the standard like the NBA is the standard of 5-on-5, we want to be the standard of 3-on-3."
Two women coaches have actually won championships in the BIG3, Nancy Lieberman in 2018 and Lisa Leslie, both former WNBA superstars. Cube says having a parallel women’s BIG3 is not out of the realm of possibility.
“Yeah, it’s something I think about but, it’s kind of like we’ve got to get one foot in front of the other,” he explained. “We’re very inclusive; you never know, a woman might play on a team one day if she’s drafted or picked. So one day, we’ll get to a point if we’re creating a women’s version of the BIG3, which means we’re very successful with the men’s version. It’s really about making sure this version survives and then moving on and crossing that bridge when we get to it.”
But Cube hasn’t turned away from the art that brought him international fame. This year he plans to release an album collaborating with fellow West Coast rap giants Snoop Dogg, E-40, and Too Short, forming a supergroup called Mt. Westmore. Although no official release date has been announced for the album, it is slated for the third quarter of 2021.
“Man, it’s dope to collaborate with Snoop, 40 and Short,” said Cube. “Those dudes are brilliant legends, and so making the music has been fun and easy. Right now, we’re just working out the business behind the scenes. We’re just getting those done before we launch. So after the season, I believe we’ll be knee-deep in it."
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But one of Ice Cube fans’ favorites, the Friday movie series, is still up in the air, and there’s nothing concrete about the return of its neighborhood homie characters Craig, Smokey, Day-Day, and others from the films. He said he’s still dealing with Warner Bros. over the franchise. But he says he still wants to see it move forward.
“I mean, God willing, but you never know,” he said, noting that the company hasn’t come to any agreement with him on control of the projects and that there's been no movement on it. "So I’m gonna keep fighting them until I get a hold of it.”
The BIG3 League Playoffs air Aug. 28 at 3 p.m. on CBS and streaming on Paramount+
Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images