I GUESS YOU could call me the creator.
Kevin LuBahn failed miserably to stifle the grin that curled his lips as he said the words. It was July 18, 2008, and he was standing courtside in Portland’s Rose Garden, answering a reporter’s questions about the basketball game going on behind him, a souped-up hoops remix that LuBahn had designed and dubbed 3BA.
We’re not a league yet.
This was the first stop in a five-city exhibition tour designed to introduce fans—and, let’s be honest, potential investors and franchise owners—to the concept: a professional, full-court version of three-on-three basketball that tournaments like Hoop It Up had popularized on playgrounds across the country. The players LuBahn had recruited for the tour, mostly former college stars who lacked either the size or the consistent outside jumper to make it in the pros, were perfect for a run-and-gun game that could produce scores almost twice what you’d find in an NBA or NCAA contest.
This is highlight reel entertainment.
LuBahn was pulling the tarp off of his creation in a pro arena for the first time, and instead of managing expectations or projecting cautious optimism, he was visibly giddy and promising an above-the-rim revolution. Hair slicked back with mousse, eyes on fire, head bobbing and shoulders swaying, he was all swagger—a sports-world salesman pitching the Next Big Thing. His pride had as much to do with a sense of Mama-I-made-it accomplishment as it did with the excitement of the public unveiling: This was the culmination of more than a decade of work, a passion project that he’d doggedly pursued while the rest of his life burned up around him. In five weeks he and the rest of 3BA’s six-person operations team would bring the tour—complete with an appearance from Sonics legend Shawn Kemp—to Seattle, LuBahn’s home for the better part of his 48 years. Twenty more exhibition dates would follow in 2009, he said, and 3BA’s inaugural season would tip off in spring 2010 with at least eight teams.
Everybody that gets involved in it loves it. In the 10 years that I’ve been doing this, I have never once had anybody tell me that this is never going to make it.
After years of coming up short, he’d finally made it to the pros, and it was overwhelming. In sports-world cliche terms, the game was his to lose.
A video of that interview with a national basketball reporter offered the only images of Kevin LuBahn I’d seen before meeting him at a coffee shop in Queen Anne in June, but it wasn’t very helpful for identifying him when he walked through the door. His shoulders folded in toward each other. His hair, absent any product, rose from a part on the left side of his head and then slumped down over his forehead. His eyes were dark and sagged at the corners; seconds after he sat down, they would redden and start to mist. The only features vaguely recognizable from the video were the peaked cheekbones that made him a dead ringer for Willem Dafoe. He introduced himself as Kevin LuBahn, but he wasn’t the man from that video.
All things considered, though, it was hard to begrudge him the makeunder. Those 20 exhibition games scheduled for 2009? Never happened. As of our meeting—two months after 3BA’s maiden season was originally scheduled to start—the organization had yet to even announce its first franchise. And then the kicker: Six weeks earlier, LuBahn had been fired from 3BA International and, along with a fellow 3BA executive, sued for a mess of alleged corporate misdeeds.
At a table in the middle of Uptown Espresso, he insisted that 3BA’s case against him was a sensationalized version of the truth. And as he laid out his side of the story—the parts that he agreed to discuss, anyway—his mood ranged from sorrow (“This was for my kids,” he half-whispered at one point. “This was my legacy”) to anger (twice he leaned across the table and grabbed my right shoulder while making a point) to outright paranoia. Halfway through our four-hour conversation, he admitted that he’d almost called me the night before to cancel the meeting because he suspected that Claunch had sent me to extract damaging quotes that could be used against him in court.