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It’s playoff week for the Big3, and Capital One Arena — the home of the Washington Wizards — will serve as the host on Saturday. Throughout the 2023 season, Big3 games have aired on CBS Sports.

For the last six years, the product has grown year over year. And the exposure has increased.

“We’ve got a great product, a lot of interest when it comes to comparing ratings with some of the sports that’s been around for decades,” said Ice Cube, the CEO and founder of the Big3.

Since 2017, the league has provided an alternative for basketball fans looking for something to watch in the summer. Former NBA players and international players have played three-on-three basketball in venues all over the country. The league has had partnerships with companies such as Adidas, CBS Sports, Monster Energy and Microsoft throughout its existence.

Yet still, the one major partnership the Big3 can’t seem to grow is the one with the NBA. The Big3 continues to increase viewership, but Cube has said on multiple occasions the NBA isn’t interested in investing in the product.

It’s left him with questions, frustrated and wanting answers. Especially with the Big3 featuring former NBA players but not being a direct competitor of the NBA.

In 2017, Cube and his business partner, Jeff Kwatinetz, asked the NBA to become partners in their new three-on-three league that would rely on the star power of retired professionals. According to Cube, the Big3 was offering 10 percent of his league as part of a collaboration that hasn’t happened.

“We have been supportive of the Big3 since its inception, but we declined to invest,” NBA spokesman Mike Bass told The Athletic earlier this year.

A level of tension remained as the Big3 kicked off this season in late June in Chicago. The relationship isn’t completely fractured, as Big3 games are played at NBA arenas. Cube, however, wants to work more with the NBA as a complementary piece to the basketball world, allowing NBA players to compete in the Big3 — an idea Cube said the NBA isn’t in favor of.

“My vision is, if the NBA was to ever come to their senses and work with us, (to) send players who might need to be a little more physical in the paint to come play in the Big3 in the summer,” Cube said. “(They could) learn different all-around skills that they can take back to their teams in five-on-five play.”

While the Big3 does not view itself as an NBA competitor, the thought of the league being in competition with the NBA has prevented some NBA investors from putting money into the Big3. Cube said some potential investors don’t want to be on the wrong side of the NBA, because opportunities to invest in sports teams aren’t plentiful.

Cube repeatedly has pointed out his 12-team league has better ratings with its games on CBS than more established sports leagues, but he’s also dismayed as to why the Big3 doesn’t receive more media attention. He also has said the NBA discourages sponsors, networks and media from covering and supporting his league.

To which Bass responded directly to The Athletic: “Those claims are not true.”

Dallas Mavericks guard Kyrie Irving on Instagram has shown his support for Cube and the Big3, saying Cube is “setting the example” and “leading” in his own way. Boston Celtics guard Jaylen Brown attended the Big3 games held July 30 in Boston and has expressed his support for the league.

Cube, however, would like to see more support throughout the NBA — particularly as an assist for NBA players.

“Not only, possibly, for their future, but (for) teammates who might not have the big contract who can use the Big3 as a way to continue their career,” Cube said. “I would love to see more of them on board, more current NBA players who already have a name in hoops.

“But if not, we’ll be here when they want to play.”

When the Big3’s 2022 season concluded, Cube noted progress. The league made headway and held ground after the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the 2020 season. The league is traveling around the country again after being based in Las Vegas and Texas post-COVID shutdown with recognizable names on the court such as Joe Johnson, Nick Young, Michael Beasley and Jason Richardson.

Two current NBA assistant coaches, Sacramento’s Leandro Barbosa and New Orleans’ Corey Brewer, are playing in the Big3 this season. Coaches include Hall of Famers Rick Barry, Julius Erving, George Gervin, Lisa Leslie, Nancy Lieberman and Gary Payton, as well as recently retired players Stephen Jackson and Gilbert Arenas. Games are played to 50, and you must win by two. Teams can have as many as six players on the active roster.

Lisa Leslie is the head coach of the Triplets in the Big3. (Monica Morgan / Getty Images)

Cube was inspired to go forward with the Big3 concept after seeing Kobe Bryant’s last NBA game in 2016, when he scored 60 points to lead the Lakers to a come-from-behind victory against the Jazz. He didn’t see a reason why players still couldn’t play and have their fans enjoy them away from the NBA.

Cube’s status as an artist has brought support from the hip-hop community, which has been made a big part of the league. Halftime entertainment has included multiple artists, and last August, the Big3 held its first All-Star and celebrity games that included rappers among the participants. The Big3 also is using this season to celebrate the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, leaning into Cube’s musical background and connections.

Public Enemy’s Chuck D, a Hall of Famer, is known for his rap career and his close association with many things in sports. He said what Cube is doing reminds him of how baseball used to have the old-timer games. For those who don’t go into coaching, where there aren’t enough jobs for every player and for players who are still competitive, he said being a part of the Big3 makes sense.

“Cube came with the Big3 and said these are names that y’all still know,” Chuck D said. “We could do something, at least, to see that these athletes are still brands. And you could still see the spirit of basketball in a different way. I thought that was genius.”

The notion of working with a sports league isn’t foreign to Cube. He already is working with the NFL, which partnered with his Contract With Black America Institute, to increase economic equity and partnerships with Black-owned businesses. The Big3 is a certified Black-Owned and Operated business.

The Big3 wants to eventually expand to where it puts teams in cities and has each team owned by its own ownership group. The league began that process last season. Former Denver Broncos wide receiver Jordan Norwood and his brother, Gabe, created The Whitelist, an NFT community that was able to purchase ownership in Power, one of the Big3 teams.

Norwood said it is a “hybrid” ownership model where the league still covers overhead and salaries, making ownership attainable to a wide range of investors. Rapper Snoop Dogg and Ken Howery, co-founder of PayPal, combined last year to purchase 25 Fire-Tier editions of the team Bivouac and, like Norwood, receive “ownership-like value and utility in the team.”

With ownership comes voting rights toward team actions, VIP tickets to all games and limited-edition team, league and championship merchandise and memorabilia. Fire editions also include exclusive intellectual property and licensing rights to team names, logos and merchandise. There are also strategy calls with coaches and team captains, as well as exclusive access to events included.

“To be frank, it’s something we dreamed about earlier this year; maybe we’d be in position to do something like this three, five or 10 years from now,” Norwood said. “But with what the Big3 did with their ownership NFTs and that whole process with their NFT sale, representing ownership was incredible and right up our alley. I think it’s something that’s really pioneering the space and changing the way ownership can be earned, purchased and acquired.”

The ability to bring in more investors remains key, and expanding the league from 12 teams to 16 remains a goal. Cube and Kwatinetz have used their own funds to invest in the league while still seeking more sponsors. Cube said the overhead for the Big3 is similar to that of a “shoe contract,” and the league is sustainable because of sponsors and investors. But the league is actively pursuing more sources of funding.

The Big3 did not disclose salaries, but coaches are paid the same. The pay scale is the same for all team captains, co-captains and drafted players. There is a bonus pool based on how teams finish in the standings. The league covers travel expenses.

“We’re able to continue because there’s not a big shortfall between what we spend and what we take in,” Cube said. “Once we close that gap or eliminate the gap totally, we’ll be in profit, and we’ll be rolling downhill.”

It’s not easy to start a new sports league. The original XFL had the backing of professional wrestling mogul Vince McMahon and NBC in 2001, but it lasted only a season.

Lieberman coaches Power in the Big3 and has been an assistant coach in the NBA. She said this stage of the Big3 reminds her of “trying to sell women’s basketball in the ’70s, ’80s, in college.”

Much of selling the Big3 is about exposure. That’s why going back to the 10-city touring model was important as it brought the product live to different cities beyond the games airing on CBS. The schedule for next season has not been announced, but in previous seasons, games have been played in Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Oakland, Dallas, Brooklyn and Atlanta.

“Just come out, and if you don’t like it, you don’t have to come back,” Lieberman said. “And if you do like it, come back, bring a friend, tell a friend. Really, I haven’t heard many people say they don’t like it; it’s everything fans want. Passion, caring, effort … this is what this league is all about.”

The league relies on constant innovation to keep the game fresh and attract new fans. The minimum age was reduced from 30 to 22 in 2020. The 4-point shot from 30 feet adds a different twist, as does “Bring the Fire,” which offers coaches one opportunity per half to challenge a call by having players go one-on-one.

“The competition, the level of play, is at an all-time high,” Big3 commissioner Clyde Drexler said. “We’ve gotten younger; it’s harder to make our teams. These guys go at it. They play with a lot of passion. It’s the best professional basketball in the summer, bar none.”

NBA veteran Amir Johnson said the Big3 competition has increased since he joined following the G League bubble in 2021. Jarrett Jack persuaded him to try the Big3, and with the 2021 season played in Las Vegas, where Johnson lives, it was a perfect fit.

Trilogy’s Amir Johnson (left) with Isaiah Briscoe (center) and Earl Clark. (Alex Bierens de Haan / Getty Images for BIG3)

It’s allowed him to play competitively without having to go overseas after a 14-year NBA career. That doesn’t mean, however, the games are just cardio runs on the weekend.

“The biggest thing is guys make the mistake of when they come to three-on-three, they think it’s going to be easy because it’s half court,” Johnson said. “But just look at the whole picture. You don’t have a chance to run up and down the court to warm up, so you have to be instantly ready to guard and play right away. You’re going to have to guard Gerald Green or Mike Beasley, someone (you) might not be used to guarding if you’re a big. You’re going to have to train to play half court just as hard as if you were in full court.”

Cube’s been an actor for more than 30 years and is still making music and touring regularly. But in the sports realm, his primary focus is to keep his league going at full speed. He remains confident in what the Big3 is building.

It’s survived for six years, and he only sees more good years coming — regardless of who supports the league.

“When everybody looks up and we’re making a whole lot of money every year, then everybody will want to jump on the bandwagon and want to be a part of it,” Cube said. “Then it’ll be on us: Do we want them or not? We may be like,’ Thank you, but no thank you.’”

(Illustration: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic; photos: Todd Kirkland and Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images for Big3)