As the NBA gears up for its last regular season hurrah in the form of the Finals, basketball as a whole is hitting its second wind. With the NBA Awards and Draft waiting in the wings and the Summer League to soon follow, fans have no shortage of basketball driven content ahead.
A staple of the coming summer season, blacktops and gyms across the country are readying for an influx of players as well. Joel Embiid got an early start on the courts of Philadelphia, while groups like the Drew League are prepping for their annual exhibitions that unify professional and amateur talent.
For the second straight year however, the BIG3 League is continuing its course through largely foreign terrain in professional hoops. The brainchild of rapper/actor/businessman Ice Cube and executive Jeff Kwatinetz, rosters comprised of US and International basketball veterans play in a travelling tournament, centered around 3-on-3, half-court competition.
In 2017, the BIG3’s inaugural season marked a point of growth in professional basketball. The season coincided with the International Olympic Committee’s decision to include 3-on-3 in the quadrennial proceedings, an effort FIBA’s secretary general Patrick Baumann suggested would broaden the competition’s viewership.
“It would certainly be a perfect fit,” Baumann told the Associated Press last summer. He added, “The best urban team sport is 3-on-3 street basketball. It’s a different skill set [than 5-on-5]. It’s really a 10-minute sprint, no coach, so you need to take the right decisions.”
BIG3, is building on the basketball tradition that began on the playground while exposing it to growing viewership. It’s first season, broadcast on the FS1 network, increased the channel’s Monday night audience from years past despite being broadcast on a 24-hour delay from the live event.
An all-inclusive experience, the BIG3 recreates the magic around professional basketball. Beginning with a player combine, teams are selected in the same vein as the NBA each June. The league has even pushed forward its own experiments – playing in the half-court set, the league runs a 14-second shot clock and a 4-point shot, adding a unique level of strategy to the blacktop sport.
With the BIG3 dedicated to the growth of the 3-on-3 game, I had the opportunity to speak with NBA and BIG3 veteran, and current president of the forthcoming Young3, Jerome Williams. Accompanying each of the BIG3’s nine summer stops, it’s youth league, the Young3, will be offering competition and learning opportunities for players ages 7-14 Thursdays before the BIG3’s marquee matchups.
Williams, who first made his career as a member of the Detroit Pistons, earned the moniker Junk Yard Dog for his voracious work ethic. Since retiring from the NBA, Williams has kept busy as one of the league’s global ambassadors, while starting his own foundation, the JYD project, which works towards empowering youth based in Henderson, Nevada.
Following a successful, third place season with Power in the BIG3 last year, Williams shifted gears to leading the Young3 initiative. Williams spoke on his excitement in joining the BIG3 and forging a new path in professional basketball.
“I was excited about the fact that we were the founding fathers, myself and everybody that played that first season. Just like there were a group of individuals that started the NBA and the ABA and the Harlem Globetrotters, those are the people that people look back on today and say, ‘man, they were catalysts. They stepped out, they filled stadiums.’ For us to start this inaugural season and partner with Ice Cube, to do this was historic.”
The Young3 originated following the BIG3’s first run, an initiative to both widen the league’s audience while providing a charitable opportunity to support the BIG3’s communities. Formerly a coach with Findlay Prep, Williams jumped on another chance to give back to the youth.
“They brought [the Young3] to my attention at the end of the season and asked if I wanted to be involved with it. I told them I would think about it, but it’s obviously something that I love to do with kids. That’s what I’ve done my whole career while playing in the NBA and before that. I just thought to myself this is another huge opportunity. When you look at the Jr. NBA and how much that has affected kids, the BIG3 creating its own Young3 incentivizes and helps to train the kids to reach the professional, Olympic level.”
Professional basketball, which has been localized to the 5-on-5 game can now take cues not only from the forthcoming Olympics and BIG3, but from volleyball as well. Williams drew comparison to the sport, citing the fundamental differences between indoor, team volleyball and its beach counterpart. 2018 marked the first 3-on-3 collegiate NCAA tournament, held in conjunction with the March Madness festivities, two years after the inaugural NCAA beach volleyball tournament.
“Some people are saying, ‘I didn’t even know there was 3-on-3 in the NCAA, I didn’t know there was beach volleyball!’ So, 3-on-3 is going to be on the scene for the next few years, and it’s going to get more and more popular. And I think it gives more and more kids opportunity, because you don’t necessarily have to be your prototypical basketball height and weight for 3-on-3”.
Williams continued to comment on the sheer energy and excitement needed to drum up support from kids and amateur athletes. The Young3 directly addresses that by building an arena for newcomers to enjoy the game from a different vantage point. Supported in part by Adidas, Young3 is also collaborating with local chapters of the Boys and Girls Club to spread the word of its program. Following the goal of “making something great,” according to Williams, Young3 channels the spirit of the sport, with a ball, a hoop, and a few kids, into an international opportunity.