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BIG3 season is over, but Ice Cube remains on a basketball mission

BIG3 founder and recording artist Ice Cube speaks during the trophy presentation following the BIG3 three-on-three basketball league championship game Saturday in Las Vegas. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/BIG3/Getty Images)

LAS VEGAS — The BIG3 wrapped up its inaugural season on Saturday after 10 weeks of criss-crossing the country with its caravan of hall of famers, former all-stars and a handful of basketball legends. But whether they were in Los Angeles or Lexington, Ky., there was always one personality that loomed larger than all others.

With teams chock full of ex-NBA players, the fledgling outfit was known mostly for its famous frontman, as Ice Cube tirelessly promoted his 3-on-3 league, selling the unique product and telling anyone who’d listen that it’d be a highly competitive brand of basketball, not some summertime novelty act.

League founders are counting Season 1 as a big success and already know one important step the BIG3 needs to take moving forward.

Big3’s Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf has some thoughts on Colin Kaepernick

“We have to turn the corner at some point and not make it about me because I don’t play,” Cube said last week, “but make it about the BIG3. That to me is the next goal, for people to just concentrate on the basketball and the players we have.

“To me, once they start talking about rebounding and scoring, that tells us that the league is getting where it needs to me.”

Cube was courtside for Saturday’s championship game at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. He shook hands with fans, posed for selfies, chatted briefly on the television broadcast and helped present the championship trophy to Trilogy, a team that includes ex-NBA players Rashad McCants, Kenyon Martin and Al Harrington and capped off an undefeated season with a 51-46 win over the 3 Headed Monsters in the title game.

While upstart pro leagues come and go, reaching a second season is never a foregone conclusion. The BIG3 has already re-upped its contract with Fox Sports 1 and plans to be back next summer.

The league is the brainchild of Cube and entertainment executive Jeff Kwatinetz, both of whom felt there was a void on the summer schedule and a huge appetite among basketball fans to again cheer on NBA players.

While they hoped fans would come out to see stars like Allen Iverson, Gary Payton, Clyde Drexler either play or coach BIG3 teams, it was on Cube to serve as the face of the league and introduce the 3-on-3 game to fans.

“When you launch something, certainly having Ice Cube as a personality, having some stars like Allen Iverson, those are great hooks to get people’s attention,” Kwatinetz said. “But ultimately it lives or dies by the sport itself being exciting and captivating.”

Saturday’s championship capped a 10-week season, which included eight regular season games and playoffs last weekend in Seattle. The league averaged about 11,000 fans per stop. Each week was broadcast on Fox Sports 1, though not until a full day after the games were played. The league debuted with 400,000 viewers for its inaugural slate of games, but after the second week, the regular-season ratings never topped 200,000, dipping to a low of 129,000 midseason.

Still, the league was broadcast in more than 30 countries and in a relatively short period, Cube helped build the BIG3 into a recognizable brand. He says the first season “to me, was really all about survival.”

“Doing this season was incredibly eye-opening,” he said. “Trying to create the market and promote a league at the same time is a pretty daunting task when you really look at it from the outside.”

The players took notice of all the work. They all sing Cube’s praises and many say they signed up because Cube was involved.

“I don’t think it’s going to do anything but get better,” said George Gervin, the Hall of Famer who served as a BIG3 coach. “With the leadership of Cube, everything he told us he was going to do, he did. … It can’t help but to be bigger and better next year.”

League officials feel some momentum and say they learned from any growing pains. Next season could feature new faces and a deeper talent pool. Former players and fans alike didn’t know what exactly to expect early on, and Kwatinetz said many took a “wait and see approach.”

“There’s naturally a lot of skepticism,” he said.

The quality of play improved as the season progressed, and players say they started hearing increasingly from old friends wanting to get involved. “Definitely got a lot of calls from ex-teammates,” said Ricky Davis, a member of the Ghost Ballers team who played 12 seasons in the NBA.

Fans on Saturday were engaged in the action, a fast-paced half-court game where the first team to 50 points wins. Watching from courtside were UFC President Dana White, NBA star James Harden, former football player Terrell Owens, former heavyweight boxing champion Evander Holyfield, NASCAR’s Jeff Gordon and Cedric the Entertainer.

Still, Cube, seated next to rapper 50 Cent for the entirety of the championship game, was the biggest star in the building,

“I guess I’m on a mission right now, so I can’t sit back and smell the roses so to speak to analyze an accomplishment,” Cube said. “It’s just, I’m still kind of got my nose to the grind and getting it done.”

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