In his NBA career, Allen Iverson scored 11,526 points at Wells Fargo Center. But never once, in 14 years in the league, did A.I. hit a four-point shot.
That could change this Sunday, when Iverson returns to the Philly hardwood as part of Ice Cube’s Big3 summer basketball tour. Backed by big names, Hall of Fame players and heckuva lot of buzz, the Big3 is hitting the WFC in week 4 of it’s 10-city barnstorming summer tour, giving Philly another chance to prove how great a professional basketball city it can be.
If this even is professional basketball.
Let’s be real, the Iverson who crossed over Michael Jordan isn’t walking back down the tunnel this weekend. Neither is the Iverson who ended his career with heartfelt goodbye with the Sixers. Hell, it’s probably not even the Iverson who flamed out in Turkey.
This A.I. is older, slower and, um, a bit plumper than the one we remember.
“I signed up to be a coach, player and captain. Coach part is going to go on throughout the game,” Iverson said after the first week of action this summer. “Playing part is not going to be what you expect. You’re not going to see the Allen Iverson of old out there.”
In truth, we’re not seeing any of the players of old out there, which is why the whole tour seems to be more about the atmosphere than the action.
Big3’s big names
As a brand, the Big3 has done a lot right in its inaugural run. Attendance in the first three weeks has been fantastic for gimmicky 3-on-3 hoops with guys in their 30s and 40s trying to show off whatever physical ability they have left. For the first stop in Brooklyn, the tour announced more than 15,000 fans. Last week, in Tulsa, more than 10,000 showed up. In Tulsa!
There’s little expectation the Big3 will fill the WFC this Sunday, but ticket prices are reasonable in the upper decks — they range from $25 upstairs to $750 courtside — and walk-up should be solid with an in-person-only BOGO deal if you show up with a kid in tow.
The names attached to the tour are as good as any in the history of the game. That’s not hyperbole, either. Iverson, himself a hall of famer, might be the most notable player, but his basketball legacy pales in comparison to greats like George ‘Ice Man’ Gervin and Julius Erving, both of whom signed on to coach teams this summer. Other coaches include Clyde Drexler, Rick Barry, Gary Payton, Charles Oakley and Rick Mahorn.
It’s a cavalcade of former NBA stars on the sidelines. And even some of the other players are notable too. It’s just, well, they’re all old. And the games are kinda hard to watch.
The first week at the Barclays Center took six hours — SIX HOURS — to complete four games. The first season of the Big3 is being televised on FS1, with Gus Johnson and Jim Jackson providing the commentary and actor-turned-sports yapper Michael Rappaport providing what amounts to sideline reporting, but it’s on tape delay, on Monday nights, so you can’t even watch the games live. When asked about the tape delay issue, I was jokingly reminded the first week of games took SIX HOURS to play.
Why so long? Because there is no clock, and it’s bad basketball. The first week, games were played to 60 points. That’s since been cut down to 50 points, with halftime coming after one team reaches 25. With two, three and even a few four pointers on the shortened court, finishing games takes a while.
The NBA Senior Tour
The Big3 is not trying to compete with the NBA, like, say, the XFL did to the NFL a generation ago. The Big3 tour runs during the NBA offseason — it ends in Las Vegas on August 26 with a title game being billed as part of the run-up to the Floyd Mayweather – Conor McGregor fight that night – and is specifically set up for players who are both older than 30 and have played in the NBA.
In other words, it’s a retirement league. It’s the senior tour of basketball. And everyone seems just fine with that. Everyone except maybe Stephen Jackson.
Jackson, the co-captain of the Killer 3s with former NBA Finals MVP Chauncey Billups, suggested the ten best players in the Big3 could beat an NBA team. That, more than series of 3v3 games on half a court, would be worth watching. And in one game, Jackson might be right. It’s not that older guys can’t play, it’s that some of them just can’t play that much anymore.
“After Kobe retired,” Ice Cube told Bleacher Report in May, “I was like, ‘Man this dude scored 60 points his last game, but it’s over.’ And why? Because of the wear and tear of the NBA—82 games, plus playoffs, back-to-backs. I was like, ‘What can we do to still see these dudes play and take out the wear and tear?'”
That’s where 10 weeks, half court, 3v3 to 60, er 50 points came from. It’s just not Kobe playing. Yet.
The journeymen and the stars
There are 40 guys in the Big3, and while the best 10 might still be able to hang with the worst team in the NBA (say hello to the late-March Sixers), the whole point of the Big3’s existence is not to try. There are a slew of former NBA players you’ve surely heard of — Rashard Lewis, Mike Bibby, Kenyon Martin, Jermaine O’Neal, Corey Maggette, Jason Williams — but the rest of the group isn’t exactly household names, and they’re just happy to get the chance to still play ball in front of fans…and get paid for it.
There will be some local notables in town this weekend, too. In addition to Iverson and Erving, fans will get to cheer on Sixers legends like Reggie Evans, Larry Hughes and Kwame Brown (was Andrew Bynum unavailable?) as well as former Philly scholastic hoops stars Cuttino Mobley and Rasual Butler.
“It’s always fun when you have the opportunity to come home and perform in front of people who watched you grow up and have some hand in your development,” Butler told me by phone this week. “I’m always happy to come home and see my family and friends, play in front of them and play well and entertain the crowd and feel the energy and feel that love of being back home.”
While Ice Cube is the corporate face of the tour — imagine saying that 30 years ago — the Big3 is being run by former NFL executive Amy Trask as CEO and former NBA players association executive Roger Mason Jr., who serves as president and commissioner. Mason has long been an advocate for players’ rights, so it stands to reason he’s involved in an endeavor to give former NBA players a smooth transition into life after the Association.
Every Big3 player gets paid $100,000, with 52 percent of the money brought to the league going to the players, more set aside for teams that advance in the playoffs. That’s not NBA money, no, but it ain’t bad for a summer job.
The NBA league minimum for a player with five years experience is around $1.5 million. That works out to around $18,000 per NBA game. A 10-day contract in the NBA would net somewhere around $85,000. The length of the Big3 season, spread out over the entire summer: 10 days.
“A lot of guys are doing it because it’s a good opportunity to be around each other,” Butler said. “The pay is good. Ice Cube and his team have done a good job in the first season of making sure the way they compensate people is respectable. You’re playing once a week, it’s 3-on-3 and it’s family friendly.”
Playing the long game
When you watch the game on the court, this barnstorming tour feels like a one-hit wonder. Ratings were big for the first week on FS1 — Fox announced 398,000 viewers for the day-after telecast — but that number dropped 41 percent in a week, to 234,000, in part because the novelty was gone and in part because, at the end of the day, it’s not great basketball.
And yet, the highlight packages can go semi-viral. This video has more than 600,000 views.
There’s another video floating around that merely drops the rumor Kobe might join the league that’s got more than 800k views. There’s obviously interest. It just needs to be represented in the product.
For the Big3 to remain viable after this year, they won’t be able to rely on the likes of Dr. J and A.I. touring every summer. And they shouldn’t have to. If the Billups-level stars headline each team and the rosters are filled out with guys in their early 30s who might still be able to play a little bit, the games could get better.
“Obviously when you get older you lose a step or two,” Butler admitted, “so depending on how you age, you can’t really play the game at that level anymore. To be able to do this for a lot of us, it’s a lot of fun and it allows you to continue to do what you have a passion for.”
Rules changes will help — Pro tip: why not play to 40 and get them over with? — and more live television games will add some natural buzz. The finals this year will be live, so how that event does on Fox will say a lot about the future viability of the brand.
It also helps that the plan is to stay player-based. Teams can add guys all the time and cut the players who are underperforming and not drawing any audience to the gym. Rosters could even regionalize in the future, where players for a team could stick to their area of the country for some games — though the salary structure would probably have to change for that to happen. There’s even been talk of taking the tour overseas, as 3v3 hoops is huge around the world right now; so big the Olympics are considering making it part of the Summer Games.
Butler noted that a big part of this is being around the other players again. “One of the things that guys really miss once you stop playing basketball is the camaraderie,” he said. “Just being around the guys, joking around and having fun with each other, going to dinner…things like that. So you get to do those things again, pick their brains and hear how some of the guys you looked up to might view you, or how they viewed you as a basketball player.
“It’s those things that make this really cool.”
This could be a one year thing, or it could be the start of something that last for a long, long time. The Senior PGA Tour has been around forever. People didn’t think MLS would last in America, with funky rules and subpar talent and old players who probably shouldn’t have still lacing up their boots, but look at where that league is now, where the entry fee for a new team is more than $150 million.
The Big3 could turn into something, well, big. For now, it’s more about the nostalgia of it all, and reminiscing about when these guys were stars.