The Next Big Thing (again)?

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In 1996, Allen Ezail Iverson took the NBA by storm with his modern blend of swagger and style.  Twenty-one years and one hall of fame career later, he’s back playing the game he loves, and ready to revolutionize it again.

Iverson has found a new home in the Big3, Ice Cube’s 3-on-3 basketball league.  The fledgling league just completed its third slate of games, which were held at the BOK Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The league moves to a different venue each week, with its games slated like a boxing card.

Big3 takes is played on a half-court, playground-style. The first team to 50 points wins. There are several fun wrinkles thrown in, such as a four-point circle for long range shooters.

The resulting product is one part Globetrotters, one part street ball and one part traveling circus. It’s a work-in-progress, but the games have been well-attended, with celebrities dotting the crowd.

The most-notable guest this week was Oklahoma Thunder star, Russell Westbrook. Ice Cube came down from his box to perform his own halftime show. The atmosphere was as much block party as it was sporting event.

The Big3 rosters run five deep, consisting of washouts and stars of yesteryear. Iverson, 42, is the player/coach for 3s Company. He managed a mere two points, Sunday, and his best ball is clearly behind him.

However, he’s not there to light up the league. He’s there to lend it credibility and to put fans in seats. After all, the man once-dubbed ‘The Answer’ is still revered among basketball socialites.

Iverson wasn’t just a good player; he became a pop culture sensation in part because of his appearance (tattoos and cornrows) that was revolutionary for a star of his time.

His arrival coincided with the proliferation of hip-hop culture in America. His brash attitude and checkered past seemed an extension of the streets portrayed in songs like 2Pac’s “Trapped,” and resonated in a way MJ’s corporate image never did.

It’s hard to build a league from scratch. It’s even harder, however, to affect big changes in a cumbersome enterprise like the NBA. Being a start-up allows Ice Cube to make changes on the fly. Big3 recently lowered the game-winning threshold from 60 to 50 points.

Rosters aren’t fixed, allowing players to slide in and out week-to-week. The league hopes that having players like Iverson, as well as other former stars like Chauncey Billips and Mike Bibby will convince others of their ilk to join up.

Basketball is unique in that its players hold immense power. It is hard to place a value on the effect landing a superstar like a LeBron James or Stephen Curry has on a city and a team.

And, fandom transcends geographical borders. Number 23 jerseys dot the landscape around the country, even in regions that harbor another NBA franchise. Unlike the NFL, it’s the back of the laundry that sells, not the front.

Big3 expands on that concept by removing geography from the equation entirely. If the league continues to rise in popularity, perhaps that would be enough to entice deep-pocketed sponsors such as Nike and Under Armor to take stake in teams (can you imagine Steph Curry with all that open court space?).

Anyone who doubts that starpower drives the NBA should take a peek at the ratings for this year’s Finals. For the third-straight year, it featured the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers.

Basketball fans want the best product and the high level of play this year’s Finals produced underscored the league’s glaring lack of drama in other areas – namely, the regular season.

Case in point, fans aren’t exactly busting down their garage doors for a Wednesday night, Hawks/Grizzlies affair. The season is too long, and features too many uninteresting teams.

Big3 features a much-shorter schedule (1o games) and single game weeks. This allows time for the product to breathe, and for hype to build. It’s a business model that has worked wonders for the NFL and one the NBA would be wise to consider.

Imagine, a regular season of 40 games (half its current length). To fill the void, they could take a page from soccer and schedule “friendlies” or hold smaller, invite-only tournaments.

Obviously, Big3 isn’t trying to compete directly with the NBA, but rather offer an entertaining alternative. That doesn’t mean, however, that the latter shouldn’t be taking scrupulous notes.

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