Ice Cube on BIG3 basketball coming to SLC: ‘I don’t know if there’s anything that’s gonna roll into Utah that’s gonna be better than this’

LL Cool J, second from front left, and Ice Cube watch the action as The Power plays the Ghost Ballers during the first half of Game 1 in the BIG3 Basketball League in Philadelphia, Pa., Sunday, July 16, 2017. (AP Photo/Rich Schultz)

By any measure, Ice Cube has already had an incredibly successful career in the entertainment industry, from his early days in the pioneering gangsta rap outfit N.W.A. to an acting résumé that includes such credits as “Boyz n the Hood,” “Friday,” and “21 Jump Street.”

He’ll be the first to acknowledge, though, that capturing that same degree of achievement as a sports impresario is proving elusive. With the BIG3 basketball league that he co-founded coming to Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City this Saturday, though, the lifelong hoops lover is doing what he can to change that.

“When you’re in sports, and you’re a big-time fan like me, it’s fun. That’s what it’s all about,” Ice Cube told The Salt Lake Tribune in an exclusive interview. “It’s down and dirty trying to make it work, but it’s one of the most interesting things I’ve ever done in entertainment. It’s cool.”

The BIG3 features a roster full of former NBA players spread out over 12 teams, who battle it out 3-on-3 in games to 50 points over the course of a nine-week regular season and a two-week playoff tournament.

Now in its third season, the BIG3 has had its ups and downs, which Ice Cube will readily acknowledge. Still, he’s proud that his initial vision for the league — “a game that we all consider backyard, playground, schoolyard, and elevate it to the professional level by using players that people know and respect” — has come to fruition.

“I’m happy with the product. What you see is great,” he added. “… It’s a pretty cool event — something fresh, something new. Our game’s a little more intimate than NBA games because everyone’s right on top of the court, so there’s not a bad seat in the house. If you’re a basketball-head in the dog days of summer, I don’t know if there’s anything that’s gonna roll into Utah that’s gonna be better than this.”


When • Saturday, 7 p.m.

Where • Vivint Smart Home Arena

Format • The BIG3 basketball league features 12 teams of former NBA players competing in 3-on-3, halfcourt games to 50 points. The league also features a 4-point shot area. The SLC event (Week 6 on the league’s schedule) will feature three matchups: 3’s Company vs. Killer 3s; Ball Hogs vs. Triplets; and Bivouac vs. Aliens. Former Jazz players Joe Johnson, Al Jefferson and DeShawn Stevenson will be among those competing.

Tickets • Prices range from $15 to $375 and can be purchased at Ticketmaster.com.

TV • CBS Sports Network

That said, the league hasn’t been without its challenges. It took some time to figure out the best scheduling format. Beyond that, there’s the typical challenges you’d expect with a fledgling sports enterprise — namely, getting people in seats and eyes on television sets.

The BIG3 ultimately reached a deal with CBS Sports this season to broadcast its games, but that doesn’t mean it’s been a panacea for a league trying to carve out its niche.

“If you’re not [professional and college] football or basketball, you’re probably having the same issues. We’re trying to make sure the sport is talked about — in ways that don’t involve me, or don’t involve a story about the league that has nothing to do with basketball,” Ice Cube said. “It’s just fighting for attention in the sports world — we have to clamor for that. It’s just an ongoing thing that we have to deal with as a league, to let people know how cool it is and try to grow the sport.”

And the cool factor may ultimately be what enables the league to thrive. Sure, there’s an element of nostalgia, with, say, former Jazz players Joe Johnson, Al Jefferson and DeShawn Stevenson among those who’ll be playing in SLC this week. Ice Cube acknowledged “We do what we can without going overboard” to get former NBA players, college players, and hometown players performing in front of crowds who know and love them.

But the recognition component will only get the league so far. And so Ice Cube & Co. have endeavored to make a BIG3 weekend a fun and entertaining event worthy of a fan’s time and money.

For starters, he said, “It’s a lot looser than it would be at an NBA event,” with players sitting among fans in the crowd, posing for selfies, signing autographs, chatting them up. Furthermore, every ticket gets you three games, which go by fast and furious, combining to equal the length of roughly one NBA game. There’s entertainment in between, with a strong focus on the league’s hip-hop roots. Then, of course, there’s simply the uniqueness of the on-court action, what with the intrigue of four-point shots, and, at its most basic level, “Seeing 7-footers play 3-on-3 basketball is just an amazing sight in itself.”

While this Saturday’s games at Vivint Arena can all be seen on CBS Sports Network, Ice Cube is encouraging those interested to check it out in person (many tickets have been halved to $15 apiece, for what it’s worth). First off, he said, “because it’s a different experience in the arena than it is on TV,” but also because, with the league’s schedule rotating through sites across the country, “you never know when we’re coming back to Salt Lake.”

Ice Cube knows his league is far from perfect. There’s yet more tinkering to do with the scheduling. The live broadcast needs some work. He’s bringing in people to help him figure out better marketing and promotion. There are no current plans to expand again next season, he said, because “I don’t think we’re ready to do that” until those aforementioned issues have been resolved.

That said, he’s convinced that, in spite of all those issues, what fans experience right now is still more than worth it.

“We feel confident about rolling into Salt Lake and putting on a good show,” he said. “… That’s really what it’s all about — the players you know playing the game you love.”