When Rashad McCants arrived in Las Vegas in late April, he wasn't all that interested in the gambling, the clubs, or the social scene. He was determined to prove he could still play basketball at a high level.
Along with a number of other former NBA players, McCants was there to participate in a tryout for the BIG3, a new three-on-three summer league founded by rapper/actor Ice Cube that begins play this weekend in Brooklyn; games mostly will be broadcast on FOX Sports 1. McCants was there to play, but not just for that. He wanted to show off his skills, and maybe regain some of the nascent star power he enjoyed at his fleeting peak.
McCants was a McDonald's All-American in high school, an NCAA tournament champion at the University of North Carolina, and a first-round pick in the 2005 NBA Draft. He's best known today for washing out of the NBA after four seasons and for his pariah status at his alma mater. In 2014, McCants told ESPN that he didn't write his own papers and took bogus classes while playing at North Carolina. The school is currently under NCAA investigation for academic fraud, but others have denied McCants' claims, labeling him a malcontent.
While McCants' reputation took a hit in NBA and college circles, he continued to stay in shape and play overseas. Now 32 years old, the 6-foot-4 shooting guard demonstrated in Las Vegas a few weeks ago that he's still an effective player. A team called "Trilogy" selected McCants with the first overall pick in the BIG3 draft; Trilogy co-captains Kenyon Martin and Al Harrington chose McCants ahead of ex-NBA veterans such as Reggie Evans, Kwame Brown, DeShawn Stevenson, Larry Hughes, and many others.
"I wasn't surprised at all, honestly," McCants told VICE Sports. "I prepared six, seven months prior for the opportunity. When you're thinking about me and who I am, my confidence has definitely always been ahead of my time. I just knew that I just needed to go out there, be in shape, and everything else will handle itself."
McCants will compete in his first BIG3 game on Sunday, when the traveling league debuts at Barclays Center. From there, games will take place each of the next nine Sundays in various U.S. cities, culminating with a championship on Aug. 26 in Las Vegas that will be televised on FOX. The other games will be broadcast on tape-delay on FS1 on Monday nights. The halfcourt games will be played to 60 points, and teams have to win by two.
McCants doesn't believe that playing well will help him get a NBA training camp invitation.
"It's been seven years, man, and I haven't gotten a call from anybody in that time," he said. "I'm not looking to get a call now. I'm just focused on helping this league expand and helping other players know that it's a league that could be beneficial for their careers."
While he's under no illusions about whether he'll get the chance, McCants still believes he could make an impact for an NBA franchise. When he looks around the BIG3's talent pool, he believes that he's not alone in that regard.
"I've always been prepared to play in the NBA," he said. "If you look at the Finals and you look at the talent that's out there, there's definitely a spot for somebody like me, there's a spot for somebody like Stephen Jackson, Chauncey Billups, and a whole bunch of guys that are in the BIG3."
By most accounts, the abbreviated nature of McCants' NBA tenure had more to do with his perceived personality quirks than his talent, which few people have ever questioned. Coming out of high school, he was a consensus top-10 recruit in a class that included future NBA All-Stars Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, and Amar'e Stoudemire. At North Carolina, McCants led the Tar Heels in scoring as a freshman and sophomore and was the second-leading scorer as a junior on a loaded team that won the 2005 national title and produced four first round NBA draft picks. He finished his three-year career averaging 17.6 points per game, shooting better than 48 percent from the field and making more than 41 percent of his three-pointers.
Even in college, though, McCants dealt with questions about his attitude and aloofness. During a local television interview in October 2004, he compared his time at North Carolina to serving a jail sentence because of the regimented schedule he had to follow. He apologized for the comments a few days later. The next month, he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated's college basketball preview issue with the tagline "Mystery Man." The article detailed how even teammates were perplexed by McCants's moodiness and noted that then-Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson cut McCants from the U.S. junior national team despite believing that he was the top player at a training camp.
"Rashad was our best shooter, our best post-up player, our best creator," Sampson told the magazine. "He's a good kid who's going to be a lottery pick. But the area of the game where he'll make his biggest improvements is on teammate issues."
Similar criticisms followed McCants in the NBA. He underwent microfracture surgery on his knee after his rookie season with the Minnesota Timberwolves in June 2006 and only appeared in 37 games the next season. He averaged a career-high 14.9 points per game during the 2007-08 season, but clashed the next season with coach Kevin McHale and was benched for 30 percent of the team's games.
In February 2009, the Timberwolves traded McCants to the Sacramento Kings. He finished the year with the Kings and averaged 10.3 points in only 19.4 minutes per games. "He's a talented guy who played hard," Kevin Love, McCants' teammate in Minnesota, told ESPN in 2010. "But he seemed to have his own agenda. I'm a fan of his as a player, but maybe not so much as a person."
McHale was even more direct about McCants' prospects.
"He has to grow out of his old mentality," McHale told ESPN in the same article. "If he doesn't, he won't play in this league again."
As it turned out, McHale was prophetic. After his short stint with the Kings, McCants became a free agent at age 24 and never again appeared in another NBA game. During the past eight years, he has played in 14 games with the Texas Legends of the NBA Development League, most recently in 2013, and in professional leagues in Venezuela, Lebanon, China, Mexico, and other countries.
In an interview with the Charlotte Observer in May, McCants speculated that his former relationship with Khloe Kardashian might have led teams to question his commitment, saying it cost him $60 million to $70 million. But he was much more diplomatic earlier this month when he spoke about his career with VICE Sports.
"I'm pretty satisfied," McCants said. "I don't think everybody else is satisfied. I think everybody else thinks I should regret. I guess that's the question: should I regret making it to the NBA and averaging 15 points? Maybe I should've averaged 20. It would've given me more of a leeway not to try to keep answering these types of questions. But I feel like I was a success in the NBA. I could've done more, but unfortunately I didn't get the opportunity to do more."
McCants' relationship with North Carolina remains strained, too. Soon after McCants alleged he took phony classes as an undergraduate, the school distanced itself from a player who had a major role in a national title run. McCants has never backed off of his allegations, but it's not something he wants to discuss. "That's not something that I want to really talk about, honestly," he said. "You can ask the next question."
Does McCants still root for the Tar Heels, who won another NCAA tournament championship in April?
"I try to watch them when I can, but I've been so busy with everything else, entertainment-wise." he said. "I don't really get a chance to watch. But I did hear that they won the championship. Congratulations to them."
When McCants isn't playing overseas, he lives in Los Angeles and has dabbled in music, film, and television production. He doesn't have any major entertainment industry credits yet, but he idolizes Will Smith, a rapper turned actor who succeeded in a highly competitive field.
"He's that inspiration to say, 'There's no limitation for what you can do,'" McCants said. "I definitely took it as motivation and just tried to take those opportunities and make the most of them."
McCants also remains involved in basketball, working as a fitness trainer and skills development coach. He said he enjoys teaching, helping young players improve, and discussing what it takes to succeed. Recently, he helped run a camp in Chatsworth, California and spoke to a group of high schoolers.
"He's always talking to kids, always giving them information," said Jamal Lovell, a friend of McCants who trains players with him. "He does a pretty good job of encouraging kids, not being hard on them but just building confidence within them. I think he's done a great job, man, NBA or no NBA. A lot of guys do that stuff because the NBA says you've got to do it. But this is who Rashad is."
When McCants heard about the BIG3, he reached out to Stephen Jackson, an old friend and NBA veteran who's serving as co-captain of the Killer Bees team. Jackson told league commissioner Roger Mason, Jr. that McCants was interested in competing.
On Sunday, McCants's team will face Jackson's in the final game of a quadrupleheader at Barclays Center. McCants's teammates include Martin, Harrington, James White, and Dion Glover, while Jackson's teammates include Billups, Hughes, Reggie Evans, and Brian Cook. That's a lot of NBA experience, and and a lot of pride. All no doubt will be looking to upstage each other. But McCants might have more at stake than anyone else on the floor. He weighs 220 pounds, only eight more pounds than his NBA playing days, and claims he's stronger than ever. He wants to show that he belongs.
"To be able to close a chapter in my career where I can end it on being on a national stage and having everyone see my talent for the last time is a good feeling," McCants said. "It's a good feeling to be able to re-surface and have these interviews because I feel like my voice was kind of taken away from me not playing for seven years. This is an opportunity for me to say how I feel. Say my piece, and end on a positive note."