Starting, and growing, a professional sports league from scratch isn't an easy thing to do, but that's the exact task that superstar rapper and entertainer Ice Cube has undertaken with the BIG3. Cube co-founded the BIG3 in 2017, and he's been the face of the league since -- promoting games, recruiting players, and even performing some of his classic hits like "It Was a Good Day" in between contests.
Now, in the midst of its sixth season, the BIG3 continues to grow in terms of both attendance and overall viewership, and the league is even going international for the first time, as the 2023 Championship game will be played at the O2 Arena in London at the end of August.
In an exclusive interview with CBS Sports, Ice Cube discussed the growth and development of the BIG3, its future, what he perceives to be a lack of support from the NBA, and why he thinks it's tougher to play defense in the BIG3 than the NBA, among other topics.
CBS Sports: The BIG3 is in the middle of its sixth season. Not a lot of startup professional sports leagues make it that far. What has helped the league to be successful to this point?
Ice Cube: I think we started off with the right ingredients. It being three-on-three, which is very familiar to all basketball fans, and having some of the greatest players to ever play the game to endorse the league. [Guys] like Dr. J, Ice Man, Gary Payton, Rick Barry, Nancy Lieberman, Lisa Leslie, Clyde Drexler. Also having some great names people are familiar with come through the league.
We've had Allen Iverson, Chauncey Billups, Amar'e Stoudemire, Nate Robinson, Chris 'Birdman' Andersen, 'Big Baby' Davis, Ron Artest. So, we've had some great names come through the league. So I think that's another aspect [that has made the league successful]. And the game is getting better and better. It's fun to watch and fun to play, the rules are great. So, I think that's why we've been successful.
CBS: What needs to happen for the league to continue to grow in scope and success?
Cube: To grow it, I think it's time for us to sell teams and have owners, and to establish teams in certain cities. To have that kind of reach and backing and power of all of these people together will definitely grow the league. And we're reaching our arms internationally, so that's going to grow the league as well.
CBS: What has been the most satisfying part of watching the league grow over its early years?
Cube: Seeing guys back in the arena, seeing guys back where they belong... Guys have honed their basketball skills their whole life, and they're playing pro basketball, and that's what they're supposed to be doing. These dudes are 6'8", 6'11" -- they're tall guys who love to play, and providing a place where they can play and still make a little money is pretty cool.
CBS: Are there any plans for expansion in the league's future?
Cube: Yeah, we're going to expand. That will come as we sell teams.
CBS: From a fan's perspective, one of the coolest parts of the league is being able to continue to see guys who you watched for years. It used to be that a lot of players would kind of disappear from the spotlight after retirement due to a lack of opportunity, but the BIG3 allows those guys to continue their careers.
Cube: You realize that they're not out the game because they can't play anymore. They're out of the game because they might not be able to play 82 games in a year, or they might not be able to play back-to-backs or three games in four nights and all that kind of crazy stuff. They might not be able to do the NBA schedule, but don't get it twisted, these dudes still can play, especially half court to 50 once a week. They have plenty of time to get their bodies back in top condition.
So, I'm getting fresh athletes every week with the proper rest, and they have to sprint. It's the first to 50. There's no time to rest during the game. We have a great combination of getting the most you can out of top-notch athletes.
CBS: How important is it for the league to be back to a full traveling model after a couple of seasons with limited travel and exposure (due to the COVID-19 pandemic)?
Cube: It's great. It's what the model was built on. It's what the model was made for. It's great to be able to go from city to city to see the fans.
CBS: Part of the live atmosphere of BIG3 games that makes it unique is how you incorporate hip-hop into it. When the league was in Philadelphia a few years back you performed in between games, and I know you often have other artists come out and do the same in their respective cities. Basketball and hip-hop go together like bread and butter. How important was it for you to shine a light on that relationship between the two?
Cube: It was very important. They go together like macaroni and cheese. It fits, and to me it's the reason why these athletes are as big as they are. I don't know if [Michael] Jordan would be as big as Jordan is without hip-hop. Without hip-hop embracing the brand. They've always gone together, and for us it's about enhancing that and doing what I know I can do to make it great. We're still in the infancy stages of what we want to do with the league and the music and combining the two.
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CBS: Joe Johnson told me in an interview recently that it's harder to play defense in the BIG3 than the NBA because of increased physicality and a lack of help. Do you agree with this assessment?
Cube: Yeah. There's no help coming. In the BIG3 you have to have all-around skills. You can't be a specialist in the BIG 3. You can't just be a 3-point shooter, you can't just be a rebounder or a defensive guy. You have to be able to dribble, pass, shoot and defend at a high level. If not, you're going to get exposed. That's why it's the pros. That's why it's called the BIG3.
Not everybody who played in the NBA is going to be successful, and not everybody who didn't make it to the NBA is going to have trouble. It's its own thing, it's its own sport. It's like boxing versus MMA. You might be able to box, but that doesn't mean you can ground-and-pound, or that you could wrestle, that doesn't mean you could get a submission. It's its own thing.
CBS: You've been publicly critical of the NBA recently over what you perceive as a lack of support for the BIG3. Could you expand on that in terms of why you've been disappointed by the league and what you might hope to see in the future?
Cube: It's really about not hurting us behind the scenes with sponsors and networks. Calling us "competition" in their bylaws is not right, and we want that not to say competition. It's funny because they're just kind of holding the BIG3 to this standard. They're not doing it to [The Basketball Tournament], or SlamBall, or any of the other stuff that's come up. They're just doing it to the BIG3. So it's just a little unfair... At a certain point, it's really like if they don't want to work with us I understand that, but doing some of the things they're doing to hurt us is not cool.