What if it wasn’t all a Dream (Team)? Five 1992 Olympic what-if scenarios — 25 years later Dominique Wilkins’ injury, Jordan sticking to his word and Shaq over Laettner. What if?

Want to feel nostalgic? Great. Better yet, want to feel old? Twenty-five years ago today, the 1992 U.S. men’s basketball team won Olympic gold. Canonized as “The Dream Team,” the squad curb-stomped an entire world of competition, and its international impact is eternal.

The Dream Team opened the NBA’s door into China — and the world’s love affair with the game of basketball. Their Olympic tuneups weren’t as much games as they were red carpet ceremonies as they laughed, galloped and, in Toni Kukoc’s case, smothered the life out of opponents, beating them by 44.3 points per game — second only to the 53.2-point margin of the 1956 squad anchored by Bill Russell. The Dream Team’s song is one to which the entire world knows the lyrics — thanks to the documentaries, features and books in the quarter-century since their summer excursion. But even a crew with some of the game’s most iconic names — Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird — isn’t immune to the “what if” game. It makes for a psychedelic voyage into a parallel universe.

What if Team USA had taken gold in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea?

This is, by far, the most important question involving The Dream Team. America winning bronze in the ’88 Games was a watershed moment. The Soviet Union defeated the United States 82-76 in the semifinals (there’s a Russia/America-beating-us-at-our-own-game joke that will not be told right now). Up until 1988, only collegiate players were allowed in Olympic play. That talk soon shifted. “Personally, I would like more of a chance to compete,” Team USA and then-Georgetown head coach John Thompson said. “I’m also an advocate of professionals playing in the Olympics.”

Not everyone was for the change. Bill Wall, executive director of the United States Amateur Basketball Association, touched on philosophical issues: “Do you want to watch the best players beat everyone else?” It turns out the answer was a resounding yes. In Munich, on April 7, 1989, FIBA voted 56-13 to allow pro players to participate.

Many, like Boris Stankovic, FIBA’s secretary general, saw it as Olympic basketball’s “triumphant entry into the 21st century.” Stankovic was a chief proponent of allowing NBA players access, as they were the only professionals barred worldwide. One of its most vocal critics, however, turned out to be the United States Amateur Basketball Association, which took the stance that pro players’ involvement eliminated its opportunity to participate.

So, did America’s bronze medal showing in the ’88 Games lead directly to the introduction of NBA players? Perhaps not 100 percent, but it undeniably aided a process already in motion. Put it this way: If anything defines Big Sean’s Last night I took an L, but tonight I bounce back, it’s Team USA basketball 1988-92. It’s also fair to say that if America had won gold in 1988, the push for NBA stars may never have happened.

NBA players in the Olympics are the norm these days, but in the immediate aftermath of the decision, the desire to play was slightly better than 50-50. Superstars such as Isiah Thomas, Magic Johnson and Karl Malone didn’t hide their excitement. “[I’d] go in a heartbeat and pay my own ticket,” Malone said. But a 1989 poll revealed only 58 percent of NBA players would play if afforded the opportunity. The biggest one to say no? Jordan. Which brings us to the next point …

What if Michael Jordan had stuck to his word and not played in the 1992 Olympics?

Let’s get the elephant out of the room. The Isiah Thomas/Jordan factor was a real issue — a beef with origins in the 1985 All-Star Game, known in hoops circles as the “freeze-out game.” How do we know Jordan didn’t want anything to do with Thomas as a teammate? He said it himself. “That was one of the stipulations put to me [on the team] — that Isiah wasn’t part of the team,” he said in a 2012 Dream Team documentary. The Thomas exclusion remains a thrilling subplot of ’90s basketball because of how the selection committee did whatever it had to do to get Jordan while sacrificing Thomas.

The Detroit Pistons’ floor general wasn’t one of the first 10 players selected. The Olympic selection committee began choosing players shortly after the 1991 playoffs ended. It was in those same playoffs that the Pistons, swept by Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference finals, infamously walked off the court before time expired in Game 4. Thomas was seen as the linchpin in one of the most infamous examples of pettiness in sports history. But even with Thomas on the outside looking in, Jordan still wasn’t a lock. Peep the timeline:

April 1989 Jordan says he’s not interested in playing in the Olympics again (he won gold in 1984). The thought of giving up another summer didn’t appeal to him.

May 1991 In one of the more revealing yet often forgotten interviews of his career, the ’91 MVP once again states his hesitation to Pat Riley. The season was long enough, and adding the Olympics would only shorten recovery time. But he doesn’t slam the casket shut either. “The only reason that I would wanna go is,” he says, only semi-joking, “if we feel that we certainly can’t win with the team we put out there.”

“Do you want to watch the best players beat everyone else?” It turns out the answer was a resounding yes.

July 30, 1991 — Agent David Falk denies that both of his clients, Jordan and Patrick Ewing, are undecided about what to do the next summer.

Aug. 1, 1991 — Playing in his first competitive golf tournament at the Western Amateur in Benton Harbor, Michigan, Jordan seemingly deadens any hope of Olympic dreams. “There are a lot of professionals who want to play and, being that there are a lot of professionals that haven’t played — and I’ve played — I don’t mind giving the other guys an opportunity,” he says. “Right now it’s a closed door for me.” For the golf aficionados wondering, he shot an 85 that day.

Aug. 10, 1991 — “I’m working on him,” Magic Johnson says. “I even told him I’d give him a million dollars if he’d do it. But so far he hasn’t changed his mind.”

Aug. 25, 1991 — Few remember the attacks on Jordan’s patriotism because of his reluctance to play in the Olympics. Three weeks after his statement about sitting out, Jordan reconsiders, promising to make the decision in a few days but saying it would be his and his alone. “Not one forced on me by what somebody else says or wants,” he said.

Sept. 4, 1991 — Thomas says if he’s not invited to the ’92 Games later that month he will not blame Jordan. “While I cannot speak for Michael,” Thomas says, “I can say that such a feud does not exist.”

Sept. 24, 1991 — The selection committee releases the names of 10 players invited to form the 1992 Olympic men’s basketball team: Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, Ewing, Johnson, Malone, Chris Mullin, Scottie Pippen, David Robinson, John Stockton and, yes, Jordan. Jack McCloskey resigned from the selection committee over Thomas’ snub, calling the omission “ridiculous.” As for Jordan’s response? “If I had anything to do with the selection, I would’ve selected my mother and my sister. I didn’t have anything to do with it.” Riiiight.

March 18, 1992 — By now, Jordan is openly stating he wants to play. But not until the money ceases looking funny. Jordan’s camp was unhappy about marketing rights — in particular, the official Olympic T-shirt that bore semblances of all team members. He had no issue with USA Basketball, a nonprofit organization, making money. He did, however, have beef with the NBA making coin. It was a subtle but undeniable example of what The New York Times at the time called a “deteriorating relationship with the NBA over the issue.” Jordan was adamant that money wasn’t the motivation for holding out. However, “This is a business,” he says. “This is what happens when you let professional players in.”

March 20, 1992 — Turns out that headache lasts only 48 hours. Jordan’s agent, David Falk, confirms that a compromise will be reached, and Jordan will be in Barcelona, Spain, that summer. USA Basketball had secured the face it so desperately coveted. Without Jordan, Team USA likely still wins gold. But it begs the question, is the NBA the global international force it is now if Jordan stayed stateside in the summer of 1992?

What if Shaquille O’Neal had been chosen over Christian Laettner as the Dream Team’s college player?

Love him or hate him — and many did both — Laettner’s star power was undeniable heading into the Summer Games. His resume at Duke was drunk with achievement: back-to-back national championships in ’91 and ’92, a three-time All-American, Final Four MVP and National Player of the Year in ’92. Combine all that with one of the most iconic plays in college basketball history, and Laettner’s stock was sky-high. Surrounded by elite talent that trumped his, it’s beyond understandable why he barely got much tick in the ’92 Games. That said, if you ever want to win a bar bet, ask who averaged the fewest points on the Dream Team. Chances are most will say Laettner (4.8), who went on to have a solid NBA career, averaging 12.8 points and 6.7 rebounds over 13 seasons. The correct answer, though, is Stockton (2.8), as the future Hall of Famer missed the first four games with a broken leg.

“I’m working on him,” Magic Johnson said. “I even told him I’d give him a million dollars if he’d do it.”

But let’s keep it a buck. This is Shaq we’re talking about. In 1992, the feeling was post-up centers would have difficulties in the trapezoid-shaped lane of the international game. Hindsight is 20/20, but it’s violent to envision what a 20-year-old O’Neal would have done to the likes of Angola or Germany. Seriously, picture this: Johnson leading the break, with Jordan and Pippen on the wings and a young, nimble 20-year-old O’Neal as the trailer:

It’s fun to imagine young O’Neal running fast breaks in Barcelona, because we already know how destructively poetic young O’Neal was running fast breaks in Orlando with Penny Hardaway. O’Neal would later receive his own gold medal at the ’96 Olympics in Atlanta, but the four-time NBA champion didn’t like his ’92 omission. “I was pissed off. I was jealous,” O’Neal said in 2012. “But then I had to come to the realization that I was a more explosive, more powerful player. Laettner was a little bit more fundamentally sound than I was.”

What if Dominique Wilkins never ruptured his Achilles?

The Original ATLien was one of the more entertaining and beloved players in the ’80s and into the ’90s. His 47 points in Game 7 in Boston Garden vs. Larry Bird and the Celtics in 1988 remains one of the all-time great playoff performances (despite being in a loss). He won two dunk contests, in 1985 and 1990. Even Jordan admits Wilkins was robbed in 1988 when he lost in Chicago. “I probably would’ve given it to [Dominique],” Jordan said years later. “But being that it was on my turf, it wasn’t meant to be.”

Wilkins is also one of five non-centers in NBA history to average at least 26 points for a decade — the other four being Jerry West, Jordan, Allen Iverson and LeBron James. In layman’s terms, Wilkins was that deal. The issue with Wilkins’ legacy, however, is what plagues Chris Paul today — his teams never advanced past the second round. But by the start of 1992, there seemed to be momentum building for Wilkins to become the 11th professional player to be added to the Dream Team. Unfortunately, Wilkins ruptured his Achilles tendon against the Philadelphia 76ers in January 1992, ending his season and whatever shot he had at making the Olympic squad. At the time of his injury, he was putting up 28.1 points per night.

How the story played out: Portland’s Clyde Drexler was announced as the final NBA player to make the squad in May 1992. Wilkins eventually played on the second iteration of the Dream Team two years later, a dominant squad in its own right. But we’re all left to wonder how differently Wilkins’ Hall of Fame career might have been remembered. What an acrobatic light show the fast break of Johnson, Jordan and “The Human Highlight Reel” would’ve produced in Barcelona! It’s the second time we missed out on a Magic and Dominique tag team — the Los Angeles Lakers had the chance to select Wilkins No. 1 overall in the 1982 draft, opting instead for James Worthy (a selection that worked out extremely well for the Lakers in the ’80s).

What if Magic Johnson had been unable to play?

For context, only 263 days had passed between Johnson’s announcement that he had HIV (Nov. 7, 1991) and Team USA’s first Olympic game (July 26, 1992). In the immediate aftermath of his announcement, America began to emotionally distance itself from Johnson. Advertisers and marketing agencies ceased using him in their campaigns. How sick was he? Would he wither away in front of our eyes? And should he even be allowed to play basketball? The debate became one of the most polarizing of its day.

“If Magic Johnson is prohibited from participating in the Olympics,” a New York Times response to the editor ran in February 1992, “then the accepted risk factor for all sports should be re-evaluated.”

“Americans have always regarded our Olympic athletes as role models for our boys and girls, which Magic is not,” another stated. “Let him use his energies and money setting up a trust fund of a few million dollars to pay the medical bills of the women he may have infected.”

On Feb. 3, 1992, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) ruled that athletes with HIV were eligible to participate. Later that same week, Johnson not only participated in the NBA All-Star Game in Orlando, Florida, but he also took home MVP honors with 25 points, nine assists and a spine-tingling 3-pointer that has since transcended sports. Johnson, of course, went on to become one of the faces of The Dream Team and a beloved executive, broadcaster and ambassador of the league.

But what if history were different, and the IOC had ruled differently? Not only would that have been tragically inhumane, but athletes with HIV being ruled ineligible means no Magic Johnson. No Magic Johnson means no Larry Bird and no Michael Jordan. No Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan means no Dream Team. One decision quite literally changed the world.

Ice Cube’s BIG3 league is not novelty or nostalgia MVPs, a protester, misfits — these ballers have something to prove and are playing to win

Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf is 48 years old and he’s in an LA Fitness about 15 miles west of Atlanta. He’s getting frustrated. Abdul-Rauf is not happy with the way his jumper is falling. So he’s pushing, relentlessly, with the same behind-the-back dribble. Then two more dribbles to the baseline. And then a jumper about 15 feet from the basket. Abdul-Rauf drills for an hour and a half, shooting from midrange, from the 3-point line, from the corner. Shooting from the wrong foot, shooting off balance.

He’s made 23 of 25 shots. But Abdul-Rauf does a special kind of math: “Nope! It doesn’t count! Don’t count my shots if they hit rim!”

When he’s done shooting, he battles Deaundrae Ballard, a four-star recruit headed to the University of Florida this season. Abdul-Rauf, who has been training Ballard and prepping him for his college career, squares up with the novice, who’s at least 6 inches taller. Three-pointer. Wet. Repeat. The sounds of other basketballs hitting the gym floor disappear. The other ballers getting in morning workouts have stopped to watch. Another 3. Swish. His gray sweatpants and royal blue shirt are drenched in sweat. It’s also dripping from his salt-and-pepper goatee.

Former NBA player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, who will play in the BIG3 league, works on his handles while training for the start of the league.

Kevin D. Liles for The Undefeated

Abdul-Rauf shoots for two more hours. He’s done some variation of this routine every weekday since he was a Louisiana State University standout. But he’s going harder now than he has in a long time. The former Denver Nugget scoring machine, who was Colin Kaepernick before Colin Kaepernick was Colin Kaepernick, is gearing up for another chance at the national stage. He’s got a new team, the 3-Headed Monsters, with teammates Jason Williams, Kwame Brown, Rashard Lewis and Eddie Basden. And he’s got a new league to conquer. Abdul-Rauf is getting ready for the BIG3.


The phrase “dog days of summer” originated more than 5,000 years ago as a way to describe the months when the Dog Star, Sirius, would make itself most visible. Some believed The Dog was the cause of July and August heat. For the past century, afternoon baseball games have been a hallmark of those hot and lazy summer days, as fans flock to fields across the country to pass time with the heroes of the diamond. Yet, over the past 20 years or so, baseball has had an ever-decreasing impact on American culture, especially for African-Americans, who as of 2013 make up only 9 percent of Major League Baseball fans, far behind the black fanship of professional basketball and football.

For black folks, the dog days of summer, the season between June’s end of the NBA and September’s beginning of the NFL, are even more dogged because of the lack of sports they care to watch. That’s where Ice Cube and his BIG3 come in.

“Summer is boring as s—,” Ice Cube said at a January news conference announcing the BIG3, billed as America’s 3-on-3 Professional Basketball League. The league features former NBA players, most notably Hall of Famer Allen Iverson, in half-court games. It’s set to tour over the summer and to culminate in a championship game at Las Vegas’ T-Mobile Arena on Aug. 26. The league, which launches on June 25, comprises eight teams (with names such as “Power” and “3’s Company”) of five players each: three starters and two reserves. All are coached by legends such as Julius “Dr. J” Erving and Clyde Drexler.

“I feel great going into opening night,” Ice Cube said recently via mobile phone. “Fan interest is there. We have the teams and the talent to pull this league off. It feels good.”

From a distance, the BIG3 may seem like a novelty gig, a chance for nostalgia ballers to hit a few crossovers for YouTube and Instagram before retreating back into retirement. But a closer look at the league reveals passionate players, a brain trust and an organization that aims to be America’s second major pro basketball association.

Actor/rapper Ice Cube addresses the crowd at the 2017 BIG3 basketball league draft at Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino on April 30 in Las Vegas.

Sam Wasson/Getty Images

“We want this to be a viable [career] option for players who feel like they still got game and don’t want to go overseas, or who don’t want to do all that damn running up and down the court,” said Cube. “We hope to have an exciting season, and a championship game, with teams who deserve to be there.”

“I haven’t played against a lot of these guys, and they’re in their early 30s. By the grace and mercy of God, I didn’t have any problems.”

BIG3 is a real league. The competition is real. And the results are as unpredictable as they are exciting. Concepts for the BIG3 started on opposite sides of the country. On the East Coast there was Roger Mason Jr., a 2002 second-round draft pick for the Chicago Bulls who played for 10 years as a journeyman with teams such as the Toronto Raptors, San Antonio Spurs and the New York Knicks. After his final stint with the league in 2014, Mason joined the National Basketball Players Association as deputy executive director. While there, he spearheaded efforts to ensure that retired players had access to adequate health care.

Mason also has a passion for entertainment and for evolving the NBA’s tech thumbprint. Mason was the mastermind behind the inaugural NBA Player Awards show in 2015. It aired on BET, was a huge success and is a precursor to next week’s Drake-hosted NBA Awards on TNT. The BET version was executive-produced by Jeff Kwatinetz (an interesting guy), founder of entertainment company The Firm. Kwatinetz is also COO of Ice Cube’s Cube Vision film production company.

Mason had an idea he wanted to run by Kwatinetz: The NBA was seemingly headed toward a 2017 lockout (that was avoided), and Mason wanted to give players and fans something during the downtime. “My vision was a 3-on-3 tournament with active players,” said Mason. “It would give them something to do and keep games going. Then I learned that Cube and Jeff had been working on a concept for an actual league for about a year.”

The BIG3 teams don’t represent particular cities. Instead, the league will travel from Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, to Charlotte, North Carolina, to Los Angeles, eight cities in total before the Nevada championship. Each stop will feature four games so every player gets seen. Think And1 Tour meets NBA basketball meets Harlem Globetrotters.

“Obviously, Cube and Jeff had been in the entertainment world,” Mason said. “And the idea of a touring league, similar to a music tour, was brilliant. I was all in to jump in with them after that.”

It was up to Cube, Mason and Kwatinetz to make the league familiar to fans while embracing rules that would make the game different, and innovative. The first team to 60 points wins. Halftime starts after the first team scores 30 points. There’s a four-point shot spread out over different areas of the court beyond the 3-point line (Ice Cube’s idea). The BIG3 features the return of legalized hand-checking, taking the ball outside of the paint after defensive rebounds. Once the rules were set, the trio set out to find established names. Chief among them was Iverson.


Allen Iverson was BIG3’s golden goose. Secure him and the league had its transcendent star. The 2001 NBA MVP and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer was a human cultural landmark at the turn of the 21st century. His cornrows, baggy shorts, tattoos and hip-hop swag made him an icon. His name still resonates with NBA fans who remember the time he stepped over (now Cleveland Cavaliers head coach) Tyronn Lue in Game 1 of the 2001 NBA Finals and put Michael Jordan on skates in 1997. Even now, whenever Iverson shows up in public, whether it’s to retire his jersey in Philadelphia, or to conduct an interview, fans become enamored all over again. So grabbing The Answer was a major coup, even if he was reluctant to play at first. BIG3 is using his star power, producing a video series documenting his road back to basketball. Iverson obviously won’t be the same MVP he was in 2001, but any flashes of his previous greatness would make the BIG3 a must-watch spectacle.

“Iverson had some things going on overseas that didn’t go as well as he thought,” Mason said. “So I had to reassure him that this was as professional as it gets. And we let him know we’d work at his pace, so he can do what’s comfortable for him.”

Cube himself has been keeping tabs on Iverson’s preparedness. “I saw him in January and he looked good, but I saw him a few weeks ago and he looks more chiseled, and even more in shape,” he said. “His flavor and his style and what he brings to the league will be huge for us.”

Creating new pro leagues is hard. Vince McMahon’s XFL was set to be an offseason professional football league and flamed out after its first season. Donald Trump’s United States Football League was a disaster. The American Basketball Association, formed in 1967 and possibly the most renowned competitor to a major league, lasted nearly a decade, starred Dr. J, and helped revolutionize the way basketball was played. The ABA merged with the NBA in 1976.

Terry Pluto, columnist at The Cleveland Plain Dealer and author of 1990’s Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association, believes the era of leagues competing with the NBA is over. “The goal of the ABA was always to merge, never to exist on its own,” Pluto said. “And it came along at the right time. There will never be another ABA because of the timing. In 1967, there were only 10 [NBA] teams … 11 men on most rosters … 110 pro basketball players. The international game was nothing back then. Now, there’s basketball all over the world, and the U.S. has 30 teams and the D-League. I don’t see much future in anything new.”

For black folks, the dog days of summer, the season between June’s end of the NBA and September’s beginning of the NFL, are even more dogged because of the lack of sports they care to watch.

One reason it’s so difficult to battle established leagues is the fan bases that have followed teams for decades. Starting new franchises and getting fans to buy in is a major hurdle. That’s where the BIG3 has an advantage: It’s using players such as Iverson and former Sacramento Kings guard Jason “White Chocolate” Williams, a fan favorite. These guys are franchises in their own right, with their own followings. It’s more about them than the team, which has been at the heart of the NBA’s recent success and can be a driving force in BIG3’s longevity.

NBA legend Allen Iverson signs autographs before the NBA All-Star Game as part of the 2017 NBA All-Star Weekend on Feb. 19 at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans.

Chris Marion/NBAE via Getty Images

That’s the secret to BIG3. Former NBA players bring a level of expertise that surpasses leagues looking to use minor league players or former college stars. So while the BIG3 may not revolutionize basketball in the way the ABA did, it’ll remind fans of the NBA they loved in the ’90s and early 2000s, which is just as valuable. “It’s a good product because the basketball IQ is off the hook,” said Ice Cube. “These guys just knowing how to play the game is the draw.”

There’s also another important incentive for players to perform at their best: money. Yes, BIG3 is a real league with real contracts. Each player has signed a $100,000 contract for the year. The Basketball-Related Income is 52 percent of the league’s revenue, to be split at the end of the season. The championship team gets the lion’s share of the money. Each subsequent team gets a smaller cut. So players have the incentive to take the game seriously.

But the biggest reason to expect the games to be competitive and intense is that the BIG3 is full of players who are out to prove doubters wrong. For every Chauncey Billups or Mike Bibby who wants to play versus his peers, there’s a Ricky Davis or Rashad McCants whose off-the-court reputations led to the premature demise of their pro careers. “I’m not in the league now because of executive reasons,” said McCants, who will be playing on Trilogy with Kenyon Martin and Al Harrington.

McCants was drafted 14th in 2005 by the Minnesota Timberwolves after leading North Carolina to an NCAA championship the year before. By the ’07-’08 season, McCants was averaging just shy of 15 points per game and shooting 45 percent from the field. He was, however, outspoken and, fairly or not, had earned a reputation for being difficult to coach. And he was also the first athlete to publicly date a Kardashian, appearing as a guest in 2009 on Keeping Up With The Kardashians while dating Khloe.

Rashad McCants of the Minnesota Timberwolves goes up for a shot against Yao Ming (No. 11) and Chuck Hayes of the Houston Rockets during their game on Dec. 20, 2008, at Target Center in Minneapolis.

David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

By 2009, just four years into his career, McCants was out of the NBA despite averaging 10 points a game. “Me being out of the league has nothing to do with my play. To not get calls for four years? Not even a meeting?” McCants also came under fire in 2014 for comments about the athletic program at UNC. He’s spent the last few years bouncing around international leagues and sees the BIG3 as a chance to show owners that they were wrong to pass on him — and to also give them a chance to rectify their mistake. There’s an outside chance that someone like McCants could put on a show good enough to land back in the NBA. It’s an outcome BIG3 leadership fully encourages.

“If players get looked at by an NBA GM,” Cube said, “our league isn’t going to do anything to stop anyone from going back to the NBA, or any other league for that matter. We want this to be for the players. Really, we just want them to have fun.”


“Let’s go! It’s great to be around you guys!”

For McCants and other former players interested in joining the league, the first step to a championship was a combine and draft that took place in Las Vegas in April. McCants took center stage by breaking the ice: “I’m out here killing!”

The combine was an invitational for former NBA players: to run a few scrimmages so that player-coaches for each team — Gary Payton (who is just coaching, unfortunately), the aforementioned Iverson, Billups among them — could get a glimpse of their options and draft accordingly. The combine started tentatively enough, with players engaging in some one-on-one games. But mostly they were just feeling each other out, trying to determine how hard they wanted to go. “[My comment] got everybody’s attention,” McCants recalled. “It stole the show of me being the head of the pack and ready to go.”

On the other side of the court, there was a graying, slim participant quietly nailing jumpers. He was also dominating his one-on-one matchups. As he played, players took notice. It’s really him? But …

People were surprised to see me out there,” said Abdul-Rauf. “More than anything, they were surprised to see how I look. My stamina is still up. I look like I can still go out there and do it.”

BIG3 is a real league. The competition is real. And the results are as unpredictable as they are exciting.

Abdul-Rauf’s story has become part of sports lore. He was drafted by the Nuggets in 1990 as the third overall pick and soon became known as one of the league’s most feared streak scorers, infamously dropping 51 points on John Stockton’s head on a frigid December Utah night. The Mississippi native’s scoring prowess was so legendary that Phil Jackson tweeted in February 2016 that Stephen Curry reminded him of a young Abdul-Rauf. Then in 1996, it all came crashing down.

Denver Nuggets guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf stands with his teammates and prays during the national anthem before the game against the Chicago Bulls on March 15, 1996, in Chicago. Abdul-Rauf, saying that the U.S. flag was a symbol of “oppression and tyranny,” was suspended Tuesday for sitting down during the national anthem. Friday was Abdul-Rauf’s first game back.

AP Photo/Michael S. Green

That’s when the star point guard decided not to stand for the national anthem, citing that the flag and what it represents was in conflict with his Muslim faith. This prompted the NBA to suspend him for a game, costing him $32,000. The league eventually let him bow his head and pray during the anthem. By the end of that season, he was traded to the Sacramento Kings. He was out of the league by 2001, unable to even get meetings with other teams. There’s no question his protest caused his career to end — and that’s even more apparent by the fact he’s closing in on 50 and still giving buckets to players a generation younger than him.

“The [NBA] already knows the truth,” Abdul-Rauf said of his exile. “When I talk to people in the street, it’s common knowledge what was done to me. I can never get those contracts back. But God has blessed me to have my quickness and stamina.”

That quickness and stamina wowed his competition and coaches at the combine. “I was curious to see if I could get my shot off,” he recalled. “I haven’t played against a lot of these guys, and they’re in their early 30s. By the grace and mercy of God, I didn’t have any problems.” Abdul-Rauf is the oldest player in the BIG3.

Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf trains for the start of the BIG3 league at LA Fitness.

Kevin D. Liles for The Undefeated

While Abdul-Rauf was showcasing his skill and endurance on one side of the court, leading him to be drafted 17th (out of 24 players) by Payton’s 3 Headed Monsters, McCants was engaged in 3-on-3 scrimmages that were beginning to get heated. A referee made a questionable call in a game involving McCants, Corey Maggette, Stephen Jackson and others. Players got in the ref’s face, players got in each other’s faces, and the scrimmage deteriorated into a full-on scrum. The physicality and competitiveness set a tone for how the games might be played: physical NBA-style basketball that encourages trash-talking and ruggedness.

“A lot of times in [NBA] practices, players would play 3-on-3s,” said Mason Jr. “Some of those battles were the best battles no one ever saw. We’re unlocking these battles. … They’re competitive, high basketball IQ. It’s tough because you’re on an island defensively, so you have to step it up.”

What people may not realize is the fact that even though games are half-court and involve six players instead of 10, the cardiovascular toll can be greater than in a traditional game. For one, there’s a 14-second shot clock, which means attempts are going up rapidly and players are scrambling for rebounds. Also, no one can hide on defense. Defenders have to square up and create stops without much help. And with just six players on the court, everything is more spread out, so players have to cover more ground. Just shooting around? It won’t be enough. Players will have to show up to games in the best shape they’ve been in since they were in the NBA.

There’s definite potential for viral crazes, as Twitter videos are perfect for a league where a legendary point guard might end up face-first on the gym floor after a slick crossover. This works to the BIG3’s advantage, as the threat of embarrassment is going to pressure players to show up on June 25 ready to do business. “I don’t expect anyone to take this lightly, because they’re gonna get clowned if they do,” said Ice Cube. “Nobody wants to leave their legacy on the BIG3 court. Dudes are going to come out there and play with pride because that’s what I want to see.”

It’s impossible to predict the long-term success of a league like the BIG3. For Cube and Mason, if players get a chance to show off their talent and fans are entertained, then the BIG3 will find a winning formula. For Abdul-Rauf, the sustainability of the BIG3 means a chance to do something altruistic for members of the exclusive NBA fraternity — en route to making those summer days less dogged for fans.

Former NBA player and current BIG3 player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf trains at LA Fitness.

Kevin D. Liles for The Undefeated

“For some people, pay is important,” he said via phone while on his way to yet another workout — and with a sureness he’s gained as a public speaker over the past decade. “You don’t know who this will help down the road. This could … last four or five years. Taking it seriously could help someone who’s struggling … now they can make a little money and get back on their feet. At the least, people might say, ‘We didn’t know he still had it.’ ”

Jerry West joins the Los Angeles Clippers in front office role

After winning another title with the Golden State Warriors, Jerry West announced that he is joining the Los Angeles Clippers in a move that will revitalize their front office.Even as the Golden State Warriors cruised to the 2017 NBA title, there were rumblings that there would be a shake-up in the…

Niecy Nash’s ‘Claws’ is the future of television The veteran actor is flourishing in an unapologetic lane she created for herself

Niecy Nash is having a moment.

Finally. After 22 years of working in Hollywood. After hearing the kinds of feedback that would send even the most confident person into an emotional tailspin — Nash has the lead role in one of the most provocative summer TV series since … well, ever.

In TNT’s new Claws, Nash portrays Desna, the owner of a South Florida nail salon. There are so many sharp curves in the first few episodes, viewers will be grasping — and gagging — for air. The series comes to the network from a team of executive producers that includes Rashida Jones, and critics so far are impressed by Nash’s dramatic range.

“When I entered the business,” said the mom of three in her familiar and melodic voice, “I had challenges with people hiring me because I was chubby. ‘She has a cute face, can’t she lose weight?’ And, I’m like, ‘No, she can’t because she’s about to have three babies.’ The industry was very polite, but they told me: ‘You do sitcom. You’re a sitcom girl. That’s what you do, and that’s your range right over there.’ ”

So Carol Denise Nash worked. And she collected accolades like a daytime Emmy for Style Network’s Clean House (for which she was producer/host), and Emmy nominations in 2015 and 2016 for her role as Didi Ortley in HBO’s Getting On. Nash went after roles — such as her big breakthrough in Comedy Central’s Reno 911! — no one thought she should ever read for. And importantly, the Los Angeles native entered rooms with her head held high, and her self-esteem intact.

Niecy Nash in the show CLAWS

Wilson Webb/TNT

“That’s why it’s called self-esteem, and not them-esteem,” said Nash. “I didn’t need anybody to believe in what I felt like was the call of my life,” she said. “I didn’t need my father to believe it, I didn’t need my friends to believe it, I didn’t need the people who looked at me like,Oh, my God! You bringing three kids to audition? Yes, I sure am, and I’m gonna get it. Watch. Hashtag: Booked it.” She said she often felt bad when people wanted her to get her teeth fixed. But: “Nope, that gap ain’t going nowhere. Nope. Sorry. Too bad. I was unapologetically who I was.”


And now, in the midst of one of the most watched NBA Finals of all time, Nash’s new series, Claws, is premiering. The diverse cast of women she leads is hot with the type of badassery we’ve yet to see from Cleveland Cavalier LeBron James and his crew. “Maybe we could get some men who would never have watched the show otherwise,” said Nash of all of the Claws promos airing during the Finals. “They may be like, ‘What are they doin’ over there?’ We can invite them very politely to our party!”

Set to run at the tail end of this annual celebration of athletic masculinity, Claws is a series about women who go up against men in violent and bold ways. It’s a fantastic and rare dynamic. This is not a role that casting directors, years ago, would have brought Nash in to read for. But Claws — in which Nash rocks sexy looks boldly and unashamedly, and has intense sex scenes with a young lover — is exactly where she’s supposed to be. “She has the heart, and the soul,” said showrunner (and former ER and Criminal Minds producer) Janine Sherman Barrois, “and the humor.”

Niecy Nash in the show CLAWS

Wilson Webb/TNT

The show is a dark and twisted comedy centered on manicurists. Nash’s character is the owner of Nail Artisan of Manatee County salon, and she desperately wants to escape the temporary life of crime for which she’s signed up. She’s hoping for a cash payout that will allow her to take her nail business to the next level, but as these things go, that plan gets remixed. A life of crime ain’t going away anytime soon. Acrylic fill-ins and dope nail art be damned — it’s time for unexpected action in the money-laundering business. “You just don’t see women that are that strong, and provocative, and three-dimensional,” said Barrois. “Normally they’re archetypes. You just don’t see people that are this fierce. She’s everything women strive to be.”

“I didn’t need the people who looked at me like,Oh, my God! You bringing three kids to audition?’ Yes, I sure am, and I’m gonna get it. Watch. Hashtag: Booked it.”

The imagery of this series is powerful and striking. A black woman “of a certain age,” as Nash often says with a cackle, moves in and out of each scene in her tightly fitting, curve-accenting wardrobe, demanding to be heard on matters of all kinds. And she does all this with a diverse band of friends: a conservative ex-con white woman, a black and Asian vixen, a married white woman with two children (one of whom is a black daughter) and a lesbian Latina who drives her current lover so crazy that the lover is stalking her. “These type of characters don’t come along every day,” Nash said. “We’re doing things that typically have been reserved for a male storyline.”

The imagery behind this series is powerful, as well. Two women — Barrois, who is black, and Jones, who is biracial — are calling the shots. And everything from the writer’s room to the extras looks like the world that Barrois, Jones and their producing partners Eliot Laurence and Will McCormack live in.

“When we started casting,” Barrois said, “we wanted to — not in a contrived way, in a real way — show the human experience through five different women from five different walks of life. We believe that that’s real. We’re at a time right now where you’re seeing a lot of women and a lot of people of color in high positions. The more that happens, the more you’ll see more images change, and more stories reflecting that. It’s important. Our point of view is essential. When you have a multiethnic writer’s room, you have all different points of view coming into play.”

Niecy Nash in the show CLAWS

Wilson Webb/TNT

Being on set for this show is unlike anything Nash has experienced. And she loves every bit of it. “I am so tickled when I go to work and I see women leading the charge: Rashida Jones and Janine, and not too long ago we had Victoria Mahoney directing us, which was amazing. It is so completely delicious,” Nash said. “One of the girls who’s my stand-in on the show said to me, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this! I’ve never been a part of something where there are so many black women bossing everybody around!’ ”

Barrois remembers that day well. It was special for nearly everyone around. “That was a very moving day on set. I remember when we were walking across the set with Victoria, people — some stand-ins, some extras — came in and said, ‘You guys inspire me. This is inspiring.’ Because you saw a leading lady, you saw a showrunner, you saw a director, and you saw they were all black women. That’s huge. That’s huge! Mind-blowing,” Barrois said. “We’re trying to make it the norm. The more we normalize it, the more it will continue to happen.”

So perhaps it’s Hollywood that is actually having the moment? Perhaps the industry has caught up to what real people navigating life look like and this series is a direct response to it? “Whenever you’re a woman and you’re a person of color, you’re trying to move up the ladder. Those are the demons you are fighting with every day: being sort of undermined, being counted out and being told you can’t get something. That’s been a theme in my career, and I’ve always said [to] the people who told me no, I’m going to get a yes,” Barrois said. “There has to be some sort of inner belief that’s bigger than the societal belief.”

Nash certainly believes it so. It’s what has guided her all these years. “The three words I’ve always lived by, especially at the beginning of my career, were ‘No Matter What.’ Whatever the price was, I was willing to pay it because I believe what I believe,” Nash said. “And the most important thing for me right now is to continue to raise the bar to challenge myself. To challenge myself in this process. Just to continue to push myself in ways to say, ‘You can do this. You can do that. You can try this.’ ”

Who should replace Jerry West on a new NBA logo? The choice is yours