CHARLOTTE — After Cuttino Mobley retired from the NBA for health reasons in 2008, he missed basketball. The guard had played at the highest level for 10 seasons, but he quickly learned he longed for the sense of belonging he had when he was a part of a team.
“What we miss a lot when we leave the league is the camaraderie,” Mobley said. “The competitiveness. Just watch out for the Big3, that’s all I have to say.”
Mobley, like many of the over-30 gathering of former NBA players in Ice Cube’s new 3-on-3 league, has found a home again. He feels that camaraderie and that brotherhood again, at last.
And fans have found a sense of returning to familiar comforts, too, in seeing former NBA stars on the court again — even if more than a few steps slower.
The game has quirky rules like a 14-second shot clock and a 4-point shot that counts if a player is in one of three circles stationed near halfcourt. It already has adjusted the rulebook, now playing all games on a first-to-50 basis instead of first-to-60 employed in the league’s debut in Brooklyn a week ago. That affair lasted 5-½ hours and made whittling down footage for television the next day a nightmare. Sunday’s event was a more manageable 3-½ hours.
No, the quality of basketball isn’t astounding. And two players — Jason Williams and Corey Maggette — already have been lost for the season because of injuries suffered in the first event.
But Spectrum Center, the second stop of a 10-city Big3 tour this summer, was crammed full of 10,651 people — many wearing throwback jerseys dug out from the back of closets as they sought to recapture the game of yesteryear. There were Shawn Kemps and Alonzo Mournings, Penny Hardaways and Scottie Pippens.
And, of course, there were more than a few Allen Iverson jerseys.
Iverson is the marquee attraction of Big3, a player-coach for 3’s Company whose face is all over a promotional video on the website. Last week, in the league’s debut, he scored two points on 1-of-6 shooting and had two assists.
In Charlotte, Iverson sank his second attempt, an open jumper. But a couple plays later, he actually blew by defenders for a wide-open layup … and missed. He finished with two points on 1-for-4 shooting in 11 minutes, spending most of his time on the “coach” side of his player-coach role — despite fans chanting his name and pleading for more minutes.
“I think it’s important for the fans to know that I was all in for this thing to be a coach in it, then I just thought it would be a cool idea, me and Cube we talked about me getting on the floor a little bit,” Iverson said. “Obviously, you see that don’t sit too well with some of the fans because they want to see me play. I’m not Allen Iverson at 25 anymore. I’m 42 years old and have been away from the game for 6-7 years. For you to think you’re coming to see a game where Allen Iverson is ‘The Answer’ for real-for real, it’s not going to happen. (But) I felt like it would be a great idea for the fans to just have those flashbacks, to have them memories of coming to support me like they’ve done all my career.”
Fans appear to savor those flashbacks, and players say this is a well-run league behind the scenes, willing to make adjustments if something isn’t working (like playing to 50 points instead of 60 — a fact players had to remind referees of in the first of the four games played Sunday afternoon).
Celebrities have been early fans, too, as LL Cool J made his second straight appearance, former Carolina Panthers receiver Steve Smith sat courtside, and Ice Cube popped into the arena at halftime of the final game — as the crowd oohed and ahhed.
Players are competitive but also interact and are jovial. In the second contest’s post-game press conference, Gary Payton, the coach of one of the teams in the first game, burst into the room to listen to Mobley, DeShawn Stevenson and coach Clyde Drexler muse about the state of league and the NBA. They bantered back and forth about how young players now are too chummy and what the emergence of “Super Teams” has done to the NBA.
“This is better than the NBA,” offered Drexler, a coach of the team called Power. “This is more fun because we’re older and we can enjoy it more. When you’re young, it’s life or death. Now, you have a better balance, a better focus. You get to have fun. And you’re around guys you’ve known 30, in my case, 40 years. So, it doesn’t get any better. When I see The Glove (Payton) or Ice (George Gervin) or Julius (Erving), that’s our fraternity.”
At last, the players feel a sense of belonging, again. And fans appear to feel at home, too.
“Make no mistake, we love the NBA and that’s the reason we’re all here,” Drexler said. “The NBA is phenomenal and it’s the greatest thing to ever happen to any one of us. We look at the Big3 as an extension of the NBA and we can still have fun. That’s what makes it so great.”