Jason Williams is on the way to his rec-league basketball game. It’s the championship game, he says, and he has just received a bit of bad news. One of his teammates – “my shooter” – won’t be there.
“I need shooters around me,” Williams says over the phone. “People say they can shoot, but once that popcorn starts poppin’ they can’t shoot, man.”
As an NBA point guard for 12 seasons, including his first three in Sacramento, Williams threw passes to some of the best shooters in the sport. At 41, the games he plays in these days usually aren’t the kind where they sell popcorn. But that could change this summer.
Williams is one on a list of former NBA players set to compete in the new BIG3 League, an eight-team, 3-on-3, half-court league founded by entertainment star Ice Cube that is scheduled to kick off June 25 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
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The league is for players 30 and over. Games will be played to 60 and start with a half-court shoot-out instead of a tip-off. The court will feature a four-point shot. The rosters include former NBA players Allen Iverson and Chauncey Billups as well as ex-Kings Mike Bibby and Bonzi Wells. The story of Williams’ involvement begins as you might expect.
“Ice Cube just texted me out of the blue one day,” Williams said, “and asked me if I had any interest.
“I said, ‘For sure.’ It’s still basketball. I was a fan of Ice Cube’s growing up, and now to be able to do something with him is kind of like a dream come true.”
Some elements of the BIG3 still sound surreal, but the league has a schedule featuring games on 10 consecutive Sundays beginning June 25, each in a different city (not including Sacramento). It has a TV broadcast deal with Fox Sports. And last weekend, it held a player combine and draft in Las Vegas to round out its five-man rosters.
Williams will play for the “3-Headed Monsters” along with Rashard Lewis – his former teammate with the Orlando Magic – former No. 1 overall pick Kwame Brown, Eddie Basden and ex-Kings guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, who’s now 48. Their coach is Gary Payton. As co-captain, Williams was already on the team and helped make the selections.
“I got my Geoff Petrie on,” he said, referencing the former Kings general manager.
In Sacramento, Williams was part of the early-2000s teams that Sports Illustrated dubbed “The Greatest Show on Court.” He won an NBA title with Miami in 2006 and is still remembered for his exciting, improvisational playing style that earned him the nickname “White Chocolate.” He played his last NBA game in 2011, with injuries limiting him late in his career.
So why do this?
“Well, I’m a competitive person, and I still love basketball,” Williams said. “And just to be back around the fellas. I think that’s one of the biggest things that I miss, now I’m retired, is just being on the bus rides, on the plane rides, in the locker room, shooting the (breeze) with the guys. I don’t really get that now.”
Williams stays busy raising his son, 15, and two daughters, ages 12 and 8, in Orlando, Fla. He might miss one or two of his daughter’s softball tournaments this summer, he said, but the one-game-a-week BIG3 schedule works for the family.
“Also my littlest daughter, she really never got to see me play,” Williams said. “So this will give her kind of a sense, a little bit, of me playing basketball.”
How good of a sense? Though years removed from delivering his last NBA no-look pass, Williams said he feels he’s in “really good shape, man.” He said he plays competitively a few times a week and is in the gym almost daily in some capacity.
He’s also realistic when asked what level of play people can expect from this fledgling convergence of ex-pros. The pre-draft combine, for example, offered a range of fitness levels. Some of the players looked to be in great shape – others, not so much.
“I can really only answer that from my own perspective,” Williams said. “I’m going to give it my all. And I think my team’s going to do the same thing. We didn’t draft anybody that’s not wanting to win. I want to win.
“I know Stephen Jackson and Chauncey Billups (co-captains of the “Killer 3’s”), they’re going to have a good team. Stephen Jackson is the same level as me of competitiveness, and he wants to win, too. So I don’t know how the other guys are going to be. But I think it’ll be OK – barring injuries.”
The 3-on-3 format presents its own test, with fewer players to cover the same amount of half-court on defense. Williams said players will have to “have our heads on straight and our game plan down.” He knows Lewis from their time in Orlando, but the rest of his teammates are about as new to him as the idea of this league is to everyone else.
“I’m excited to play with Mahmoud Rauf,” Williams said. “Kwame Brown looked like he was in the best shape of his life. I mean, he looks like he deserved to be a No. 1 pick.
“But there wasn’t no popcorn poppin’. So we’ll see.”