NBA retirement is not the same retirement you or I will experience.
When NBA players retire, they’re in the twilight of their athletic prime, but they’re smack dab in the middle of their lives. While “traditional” retirement happens at the age of 65+, NBA players retire in their 30s and very rarely their 40s (looking at you, Vince Carter). Their livelihoods are based on an occupation that has a limited shelf life and requires 100% of your time, effort, and focus.
When that livelihood is taken away, a player can suddenly stare at a lifetime left to go without a purpose.
There are plenty of cringe-inducing stories that come from this. Players leave the game they’ve known their whole life and don’t have an outlet to expend their energy. As a result, some players stay active until they’re completely athletically overmatched, and the final memory of a great player is one of their most vulnerable. On the flip side, some regret leaving as early as they did, wishing they had a competitive outlet in which to participate.
“My time away from basketball is still basketball. Still developing and teaching so I’m still kind of living it” Jermaine O’Neal told Grizzly Bear Blues when asked about retirement.
“We were raised to be athletes since we were 6. So when I first retired, the first 6 months was probably the hardest time of my life. Because everything about my regular routine for 18 years just changed.”
“To get this opportunity to play every week and come into these locker rooms and come into these arenas. It’s truly a privilege and you don’t take that for granted.” O’Neal added.
In comes the BIG3.
The BIG3 is a 3-on-3 basketball league at its core. There’s no prior NBA experience requirement, but you couldn’t tell by the rosters. Every team has multiple players with several years of NBA experience that are now retired. Ice Cube and BIG3 have attracted stars to come play in the inaugural season, including Allen Iverson, Jermaine O’Neal, and Stephen Jackson. The coaches are even more star-studded - Julius Erving, Clyde Drexler, and Gary Payton are all coaches, while Allen Iverson is a player/coach, splitting duties for his team, 3’s Company.
There are a handful of players that could physically play right now, but most of them have seen their last NBA minutes. If they are a few years removed from the NBA, why make the move to a professional basketball league now?
“[After retirement] I think physically I could have jumped straight into the BIG3. I think it’s going to be a great outlet for guys.” Al Harrington told Grizzly Bear Blues. “I know a couple of guys who are on the cusp of getting a deal and the first thing they ask is “what’s up with the BIG3?” So I think it’s going to be a great landing spot for guys that think they’ve got something left in the tank.”
And these players DO have something left in the tank. The most surprising and encouraging element of the BIG3 is the absolute competitiveness of the play. It’s easy to predict this as a glorified YMCA pick-up league and the older players have absolutely nothing to prove. It was a concern at the start of the league, especially considering the early word that the players would go 70% and play uninspired.
That was not the case. Players were scrapping for loose balls, fighting for rebounds, and wanted to win. They don't have a Larry O’Brien Trophy to vie for, nor are there the multi-million dollar contracts currently being given out in the NBA. In the BIG3, the players stress the fellowship that they sorely missed by playing in the NBA: playing for one another and being a part of a group that aims for a greater goal, whatever that may be.
Al Harrington, continuing his explanation, told us that the BIG3 is a great place to enjoy “the camaraderie, the locker room environment, and be able to play in front of fans.” It’s an important sentiment, and one that’s repeated by fellow BIG3 members as well as Harrington’s Trilogy teammate Rashad McCants.
The camaraderie helps. When the NBA season is at its most grinding, it's what the players lean on. In the BIG3, it's everything.
“It’s lit! It’s lit!” McCants exclaims about the team’s group chat. Rashad interrupts Trilogy’s head coach Rick Mahorn during a statement on the team’s closeness, and how it helps them win games.
Mahorn goes on to explain “They’re already talking about the game. We know their tendencies. We know this team shoots threes so we have to be up on them” as an example of their preparedness. “They don’t execute it sometimes and that’s when you bench them” Mahorn lightheartedly jabs, “but it’s just the fact that they’re always in the know and they know what they need to do.”
“One of the biggest things as we retire and go into that next chapter is that brotherhood” said O’Neal.
The BIG3 and its players have a mutually beneficial relationship, which can't be said of all leagues. The NFL seemingly makes sure their players are as interchangeable as car parts. The NBA is star-driven, but only for a select few. Players are dependent on the BIG3 like other leagues; they get a competitive outlet, a family to be around, and a chance to play basketball. But the BIG3 needs the players just as much as they need the BIG3.
The BIG3 is a brand-new league. It needs the name recognition and legitimacy that the former All-Stars and Hall of Famers can provide. And it’s apparent that the BIG3 knows this. They keep their players in the loop with all their decisions and gain feedback from them as the league tries to grow.
“I feel real positive about what the BIG3 is doing” said Jermaine O’Neal. “The best thing about this versus any other league is that the players have true input on a weekly basis. I think that is important to make sure the product is good for the consumer and those who pay the money to come out.”
The NBA is too competitive and cutthroat for a player to compete longer than his body allows. Sometimes a player’s time in the NBA expires before they’re ready. Such is life with a competitive job that relies on athleticism. But the BIG3 is not the peak of professional basketball. They can afford to have older players. And those older players crave the new challenge. Whether it be missing teammates or missing structured competition, retired life isn’t as fulfilling as their NBA careers.
The BIG3 provides a happy medium for basketball fans and its players. Fans get to enjoy professional basketball in the summer filled stars of yesteryear. Players get to enjoy the brotherhood and competitiveness while transitioning into a fully retired life. If the BIG3 continues to help any player that has brought us joy in the past find newfound joy in their own lives, the BIG3 will have a real chance at long-term success.