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The Big 3 is building something bigger than old guys playing basketball

Inside the Big 3’s attempt to create a new league from the ground up.

BIG3 - Week Two Photo by Jonathan Daniel/BIG3/Getty Images

CHICAGO — It only took 10 minutes for someone to start talking shit about Michael Jordan. This is what happens when you put Stephen Jackson, Metta World Peace, and Charles Oakley all on the same podium, a fever dream only made possible by Ice Cube’s Big 3 league.

“Mike would get cooked.” Jackson is talking and he’s starting to get a little worked up. “Right now? Not 10-15 years ago. But right now? Mike would come out here and get cooked.”

Meanwhile, Oakley is going all the way in on the ways the modern NBA has let him down. He’s using “analytics” as a pejorative and citing the Rockets’ 7-for-44 mark from three-point range in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals as an example of how math has tainted the game he loves. He wishes he was coaching in the big leagues, not the Big 3.

“Guys who go out after reading two books with their little glasses and tight pants.” This is how Charles Oakley describes the coaches and front office types who get so much of the publicity in today’s NBA. “That’s basketball. They never played the game, but they know everything. It’s killing the game.”

This line of thinking is often maddening coming from the game’s old guard, but it’s almost endearing to hear it out of Oakley in a setting like the Big 3. There are no analytics nerds here. There is only jacked Mike Bibby.

This is the distinct vibe of the Big 3 as it enters its second season. It’s a place where yesterday’s NBA cult heroes are earnestly trying to build something new and authentic from the ground up. It doesn’t have Kobe Bryant or Shaq or Kevin Garnett, but the Big 3 is getting more players you know and love and growing its audience.

A year ago, Big 3 made its debut stop in Chicago at UIC Pavilion. This year, it’s at the United Center, playing in front of a mostly full crowd. World Peace is a new addition for season two, as is Amar’e Stoudemire, Nate Robinson, Carlos Boozer, and Chris ‘Birdman’ Andersen, among others.

Will the league continue to pull in bigger names? Will a mass audience embrace three-on-three? For now, the Big 3 has more questions than answers, but that’s to be expected. Much like the idea of 40-year-olds lacing up their old sneakers, part of the fun of the Big 3 is just watching them try.

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The United Center crowd roared when former Bulls guard Nate Robinson was announced for Tri-State. Amar’e Stoudemire and Jermaine O’Neal were next, and they got big cheers, too.

Then came David Hawkins. Who?

It’s possible the best player in the Big 3 is someone you’ve never heard of. Hawkins was the driving force behind Tri-State’s win over Ball Hogs (featuring Josh Childress, Deshawn Stevenson, and Brian Scalabrine), pouring in 20 of the team’s 50 points on a combination of slashes to the basket and long-range shooting. Through three weeks this season, he’s one of the league’s leaders in scoring, rebounds, and assists. He is also tied for the lead in made four-point shots (a Big 3 innovation) at two.

“I really don’t care if anyone knows my name,” Hawkins says after the game. “At the end of the game, you’re gonna know. The unknown dude, he was hooping.”

Hawkins was a a four-year starter at Temple who went undrafted in 2004 despite finishing fourth in the country in scoring — 24.4 points per game — as a senior. He latched on with the Rockets in training camp on a team led by Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, but was cut before he ever appeared in an NBA game.

Hawkins went overseas, where he had a long and successful career playing in Italy, Turkey, and Rome. He was the Italian Cup MVP in 2006, and won championships in numerous leagues. He was also making good money, taking home $1.6 million in his best year. Because of that, he never made an honest attempt to get back in the NBA.

“For me to come back, try to get a minimum deal not to play, it would have been a pay cut,” Hawkins says.

Hawkins was interested in the Big 3 last season, but he couldn’t make the league’s draft combine, so he played only sparingly in three games as a reserve. He told his team in Rome this year that no matter what happened, he had to go back to LA for the combine.

He played well enough to be a first round pick, No. 5 overall, selected by Tri-State coach and NBA legend Julius Erving. Now he has a shot at being the Big 3’s MVP.

“For me, this has been a fairytale that’s continuing and I’m just thankful for the opportunity,” Hawkins said during his postgame press conference. “For me to be here is just a blessing. I go out there with a chip on my shoulder because I’m literally not supposed to be here. I want everyone to know that it’s not a fluke. I belong here.”

After Hawkins finished talking about all the places basketball has taken him, he realized he forgot something on the podium. That would be his paycheck. Big 3 players make $10,000 per game, in addition to a share of more than half of all league revenue, and they get paid after each game. Over the course of an eight-week season before the playoffs, it’s a nice chunk of money.

The Big 3 is selling nostalgia, but some of its best stories come from the guys who grinded just to get here. Hawkins is a shining example of that.

BIG3 - Week Two Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

How seriously do the players take this league? Just ask Corey Maggette.

Maggette tore his Achilles on the Big 3’s opening night last season. That might be the worst injury a basketball player can have, especially for someone like Maggette, who retired from the NBA at 33 as injuries began to pile up. Now 38, Maggette easily could have hung up his sneakers forever after such a devastating bit of hard luck.

Instead, he busted his ass in rehab to be ready for the opening night of season two. Now he’s leading the league in scoring through three weeks.

Everything about the Big 3 is kind of surreal. Baron Davis is balling out. You can watch Big Baby and Birdman on the same team. There are coaching matchups between Nancy Lieberman and Gary Payton. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, who turns 50 in March, scored 14 straight points to close out a win for his team this past weekend in Oakland.

The players in the Big 3 know the league will only go as far as they can take it. They eventually want it to be a worldwide brand and play in China. Jackson says he’s already hearing from current NBA players who are interested in joining the league when they retire.

“We build this league as we play,” Jackson says. “We have to come and compete every night. We have to be professional. We have to do all the right things to continue to have guys come in this league.”

The Big 3 wants to be the thing basketball fans turn to when the Finals are over. It wants to be sustainable. It wants to make “old guys playing basketball” into a viable business model.

If the Big 3 is going to prosper, it will be because the players make it something people want to watch. They might be getting there.