Live Rust: Former NBA Stars Struggle to Shine on Opening Day of the Big 3

It starts with Allen Iverson.

If you’ve heard about the Big 3 (Ice Cube’s three-on-three basketball league), it’s because of Iverson. He’s one of the singular talents and personalities in NBA history, a cornrowed iconoclast who injected black culture into the white mainstream crossover by vicious crossover. The smallest MVP ever? Him. The permanent and rightful keeper of Tyronn Lue’s soul? Him, famously. The raison d’etre of the NBA’s stringent dress code? Also him. He didn’t just capture the zeitgeist; he was it. All roads lead to Rome; all basketball conversations inevitability turn to Iverson.

At least the 15,000 plus people who watched the Big 3’s inaugural set of games appeared to feel that way. While the Big 3 consists of eight teams and over 40 players, Iverson is the unquestioned center of gravity as the player-coach of 3’s Company. At the Barclays Center on Sunday, his jersey was by far the most popular, and he received the loudest ovation by several orders of magnitude during player introductions. When he first sat, the crowd chanted We Want A.I., until he obliged and checked himself back in.

He also wasn’t very good. If the Iverson of the early-aughts was a speeding menace — a comet? a bullet? a rain droplet speeding down a car window, engulfing others along the way? — well, he isn’t any of that anymore. Whereas he used to throw his body through thickets of stronger and sturdier men, his steps now carry a creaking awareness of how sore all this effort will make him the next day. In the nine minutes Iverson played, he took six shots; he made one. He scored two points. It was more tragic than a basketball game has any right to be.

“The playing part is not going to be what you expect,” Iverson admitted. “I’m 42 years old. I’ve been retired for seven years. You’re not going to see the Allen Iverson of old out there.”

No matter his performance, Iverson will consume much of the spotlight, which is a shame. Beyond what remains of Iverson, the Big 3 is something much weirder and more interesting. It's a time capsule of the mid- and early-2000s, albeit one that has been lovingly curated in 2017. I mean, Fabolous (Fabolous!) provided the halftime entertainment. The rosters are peppered with stars from this era. The Three Headed Monsters boast Rashard Lewis and Jason Williams; Mike Bibby and Ricky Davis are on Ghost Ballers; Jermaine O’Neal plays for Tri-State; Al Harrington and Kenyon Martin play for Trilogy; Stephen Jackson is on Killer 3’s. Chauncey Billups was supposed to play for the Killer 3’s, but he was absent on Sunday as he deliberated whether or not being paid millions of dollars to be the GM of the second best team in NBA was worth having to live in Cleveland and see Dan Gilbert every day. Moreover, the games didn’t have the vibe of a relaxed all-star game or exhibition. Instead, players routinely dove on the floor for loose balls and demonstrated considerable effort on offense and defense. In all four games, to borrow a Rasheed Wallace-ism, both teams played hard.

Adding to the intrigue, the rules of the games are a funhouse reflection of the NBA. For all intents and purposes, there is no clock: halftime is when the first team reaches 30; games are played to 60 (though teams must win by two), which led to the day’s best highlight when Deshawn Stevenson nailed a game-winning three for Power and high-fived Ice Cube as he triumphantly galloped around the court. In addition to the three-point line, there are three designated areas 28 feet from the basket where shots are worth four points. Free throws are different as well, but I’m not entirely sure how this rule works, even after I watched a cartoon Ice Cube explain it before the event began. Most important, this is a league where basketball is treated as a full-contact sport.

“Ice Cube wanted to allow hand-checking, but there’s a lot more than just hand-checking going on,” explained DerMarr Johnson of 3’s Company. “I saw a few guys wrestling each other to the floor with no calls.”

Still, the Big 3 has some flaws, the least of which is the fact that the event lasted nearly seven hours. To boot, there were instances where the Big 3 resembled nothing more than a gussied-up retirement circuit. The games were noticeably sloppy as players regained their sea legs after years of retirement. “I haven’t played in 12 years,” said Jerome Williams, whose jersey bore his famous nickname Junkyard Dog. “I’ve got 12 years of rust.”

As a result, the play at times transformed into an almost unwatchable morass of missed shots and questionable decisions, factors which were only compounded by the game’s physicality. In the day’s third game, Iverson’s 3’s Company and Brian Scalabrine’s Ball Hogs combined to miss upwards of 10 consecutive shots during a stretch in the first half and were roundly — and rightfully — booed. Rasual Butler took 26 shots that game, which was roughly 20 more shots than anybody needed to see him take.

Furthermore, injuries cropped up in abundance: Jason Williams screamed in pain after he appeared to blow out his knee on an awkward landing; Corey Maggette also suffered a knee injury; Kenyon Martin pulled his hamstring. Though the players are loathe to admit it — “My age had nothing to do with [my injury],” said Martin, “it was just a freak thing that happened” — it’s not unreasonable to connect the unusually high number of injuries with the fact that the players are generally in the fat part of middle-aged-ness.

Despite the insistence of Clyde Drexler, one of the many Hall-of-Famers to coach in the Big 3, this isn’t the most competitive basketball outside of the NBA. Nor is that really the point. The Big 3 is a joyful celebration of the basketball players rather than simply a celebration of basketball itself. And while it may be tempting to dismiss the Big 3 as a hardwood hospice for washed-up fogies, you shouldn’t. Yes, the players aren’t as sharp or explosive as they were 10 years ago; yes, the stagnant iso-heavy style isn’t as appealing as the NBA’s freewheeling synergy; yes, it’s worth watching all the same. Because when the players are having this much fun, it’s hard to be cynical. You can’t deny it