Hip-hop legend Ice Cube has broken new ground throughout his career, thrusting himself into various sectors of the entertainment industry. Now, the man who once boasted about casually compiling a triple-double in a pick-up game of basketball has made a foray into the sports world with his BIG3 basketball league, which has proved to be his most challenging transition yet.
Built around the 3-on-3 format that’s been a mainstay on playgrounds for decades, the BIG3 has become a platform for some of the best basketball talents in the world to showcase their skill. It’s comprised of former NBA players (Joe Johnson, Nick Young, Nate Robinson Drew Gooden), collegiate stars, and players who balled professionally overseas and elsewhere. Coaches and executives include Hall of Famers Julius “Dr. J” Erving, Clyde Drexler, Gary Payton, Lisa Leslie, and Nancy Lieberman.
Launched in 2017 by Cube and co-founder Jeff Kwatinetz, the BIG3 has gradually carved a niche of its own, choosing to cultivate its own brand rather than attempt to compete with the NBA or its G-League. In February 2020, the league partnered with FOX Sports for its inaugural championship game and the last two seasons. Now, the BIG3 has struck a deal to air its games on CBS, a move that signaled the league’s rising popularity among basketball enthusiasts and casual viewers alike.
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic sent the country into a national lockdown weeks after the deal was announced. The league’s fourth and most anticipated regular season was canceled altogether, putting the league’s future in a state of uncertainty.
Being the leader and visionary that he is, Cube gathered the troops and forged ahead, bouncing back from the layoff with a new BIG3 season that introduced new implementations like FIREBALL3—a unique set of rules that revs up the competition and creates new strategic wrinkles that put the league in a class of its own.
Since expanding from eight teams to twelve after its second season, the BIG3 has proved to be a vanguard for inclusivity, from opening the door for athletes from all walks of life to try out for a roster spot, to empowering women in the sport to be in positions of power. The BIG3’s last two champions have been coached by women, with Nancy Lieberman leading Team Power to the title in 2018, and Lisa Leslie picking up the championship hardware following the 2019 season.
This year’s champion will be determined over the course of the next two weekends, with Tristate facing off against Trilogy, and the Triplets battling the 3 Headed Monsters on Saturday, Aug. 28 for the right to put it all on the line. The BIG3 championship game goes down on Sept. 4 at The Atlantis Paradise Island in the Bahamas and the playoff matchups will be streamed live on Triller and FiteTV.
Ice Cube spoke with VIBE about the growth and evolution of the BIG3, promoting inclusivity, working with some of his childhood heroes, and why he probably won’t be putting up another triple-double anytime soon.
VIBE: The BIG3 just completed its fourth regular season and is in the midst of its playoffs. In what ways has the league evolved over these past few years?
Ice Cube: Well, I think we’ve gotten better in how we present the game. Our athletes are better, year by year the competition becomes tighter and tighter so the league is moving in the right direction. COVID and missing 2020…I ain’t gonna lie, it did hurt, but we bounced back and we’re just getting better and better each year. And that’s all you can really hope for. For a new league to first survive and then to present a better product each year.
Prior to the pandemic, you partnered with CBS to televise the BIG3’s games nationally. How did that partnership come to be and how has it Big3 benefited?
I think it’s been very essential in our climb. We were on FOX our first two years, but some of the games were tape-delayed so we would play on Sunday and they’d play ’em on Monday night. The second year, we went live on a few games but then we went to CBS and we were live from day one in 2019. Then we had the break. We were supposed to be on CBS in 2022, so now we’re back in 2021. It’s been great [and] high-profile for the league. Some of the games that weren’t on CBS were on Triller, FiteTV, so that platform has been great, too. We believe that it’s necessary to continue to [raise] the profile [of] the league to be very high on CBS.
This weekend, the playoffs kick off in the Bahamas at The Atlantis Paradise Island. Talk about the teams involved and what the fans can expect.
Man, the playoffs are gonna have some hard-nosed teams. They were all fighting to get to the Bahamas. It’s a paid vacation, if you will. They were fighting and scrapping to get there and the teams that are there, any one of them can win the championship. You’ve got our No. 1 seed, Tri-State. They’re coached by Dr. J. They’ve just been winning and putting games together. They’re run by Nate Robinson, Jason Richardson, Larry Sanders. Earl Clark, so they’re a viable opponent for anybody trying to go for the championship. They play Trilogy, who’s run by Stephen Jackson. He’s the coach and their captains are Jarrett Jack and Amir Johnson. They’ve got a squad too that can take it all. They’re the No. 4 seed so they’re gonna play each other.
Then you got [the No.] 2 seed and the [No.] 3 seed. The [No.] 2 seed is the defending champs, Joe Johnson and The Triplets. Alan Anderson and Jannero Pargo are doing their thing with Big Al Jefferson in the middle. And then they go against the Three-Headed Monsters. They’ve been in the playoffs all four years in a row. They’re led by Gary Payton as the coach and the team is run by Rashard Lewis, Mahmoud Abdul Rauf, and Reggie Evans. And I forgot to mention that Lisa Leslie is the coach of The Triplets so these are all Coach of the Year candidates. These teams are all our top seeds and they’re gonna be battling this Saturday.
The past two BIG3 champions were coached by women: Lisa Leslie and Nancy Lieberman. How important was it for you to have female representation in the Big3?
To me, it’s important not to discriminate in any way, shape, or form. Talent is talent. I’ve been able to recognize talent my whole career, so to have a league like this and apply it to that [is great]. Gender never mattered to me when it came to doing the job so I’ve always felt like if the opportunity came that we want the best people for the job. And luckily, Nancy Lieberman took the job in 2018 and won the championship that year. Coach of the Year, too. Then, Lisa Leslie came the next year and agreed to be a coach. These are Hall of Fame basketball players, you know? They’re not just any old person. These are quality players, prestigious players. So, to have them join the league, I was happy. And then she wins the championship and Coach of the Year, so we could throw all of the test studies out of the window. There should be a woman coaching in the NBA, without a doubt. Several, not just one.
What would you say are three of the life lessons you’ve learned or have been reinforced during your experience with the BIG3?
Believe in yourself. Believe in your idea. Work hard at it. Put your money where your mouth is and realize nobody’s obligated to help you get it done. It’s really about passion and connecting with the right people who have the same passion, drive, and vision. Then you can do great things together. That’s what I’ve learned. You can’t think if you put Dr. J and Gary Payton and these great names supporting it are part of a league that everybody would just run to it. No, you’ve got to bring a great product on the court. You’ve got to bring personality entertainment and that’s what we’ve been doing. It’s been fun.
One of your most memorable lyrics was on “Today Was A Good Day,” when you said, “Messed around and caught a triple-double,” which has been a hip-hop reference in sports. Have you ever gotten on the court with any of the BIG3 players and play a little shoot-around or a game of one-on-one?
Nah, man, I’m retired when it comes to that. I let them do their thing. They’re the pros, you know? It’s up to me to set the stage and it’s up to them to do their thing on top of it. I’ll shoot around if nobody is on the court. But as soon as they walk on the court, I’m off because it’s their place to get ready and I’m not gonna be in the way, you know what I’m saying? So, I let them do their thing.
How is it to work with some of the players that you watched while growing up or throughout your adulthood? What’s it like to see them evolving and working in different roles as far as coaching?
You know, I’ve been able to be a fan, too, and it’s a dream come true to work with Dr. J. To work with Iceman George Garvin. To work with Rick Berry and Gary Payton. It’s just been something that I didn’t even dream could happen. I feel blessed to be in a position to work with these guys in a league and watch them compete to win. And the phrase ‘take it serious’ is a little overused, but at the same time, these guys…they’re not dialing it in. They come to win and you can appreciate that even though they’re coaching. They’ve still got the same fire and I think we might have to keep a couple of them from running out on the court this weekend and trying to put up some buckets. So, it’s just amazing to work with these basketball gods, for lack of a better word, and to grow a league with ’em and see how hard they work. And I hope they respect me for what I’m doing.
What are the next steps for the BIG3 moving forward?
To grow the league and try to attract the athletes that people want to see. Look for new talent out there. We’re not just former NBA players. We want BIG3 players, you know? We’re not worried about [you being] NBA level. We’re worried about…’Are you a pro and can you play our game?’ Just because you were in the NBA, that doesn’t mean you’re gonna get loose on the BIG3 court and vice versa. Just because you didn’t have a great NBA career, that doesn’t mean you won’t come to the BIG3 and blow up. We’ve got our own sport, our own league. We want our own athletes and we’re doing tryouts during the off-season. One of our tryouts had made it. A few of ’em made it on the roster. One of ’em is playing this weekend in the playoffs, so you might go from the couch to the Bahamas one day. You never know.