Requiem for Three
Last week, Glenn Robinson took another small step in the most unnoticed retirement in the history of sport . If the absence of fanfare seems unfair, it is also unsurprising. Despite being physically present for over 10 seasons, Robinson’s moral significance was exhausted in just three. His 1999-2002 seasons with the Bucks were the one and only time that Robinson’s single-minded dedication to the jump-shot was successfully translated into an effective team offense. But as historians of the millennial era will doubtlessly note, the story of the Big Dog is also a story of the larger, more mysterious animal he helped inspire: I am speaking of course of The Big Three.
The Big Three of Robinson, Ray Allen and Sam Cassell was forged in the summer of 1999, and disbanded just three years later. In their first season, they went 42-40 and lost in the first round. In their second season, they transformed into the league’s #1 offensive team, went 52-30, and came within a few baskets of making the NBA Finals. Then in their third and final year, they regressed back to .500 and failed to make the playoffs, despite adding a fourth All-Star to their roster (Anthony Mason) during the previous off-season. How should we understand the Big Three’s tumultuous tenure, and the role of the Big Dog therein?
When considered in the abstract, nothing about the Big Three makes even the slightest bit of sense. The majority of great teams have been built around 1 or 2 centers of gravity, with additional talent organized into supporting roles. The 80s Celtics are the notable exception. Yet given the particulars of the Milwaukee triumvirate, the precedent they provide is little more than numeric. Though glory and power was equally distributed among Bird, Parish and McHale, their contributions on offense were differentiated by both personality and position. In contrast, Allen, Robinson and Cassell seemed to have sprung from a single, interchangeable mold, and appeared functionally, positionally, and even stylistically indistinguishable.
Perhaps more than any team in the history of professional basketball, Milwaukee was forced to construct its identity without a single, meaningful precedent or guide. The only principle available to the team was that of “The Big Three” itself. Indeed, if any thesis should emerge from these reflections, it is that the Three-as-Spirit was no less important than the Three-as-Flesh. Whereas most teams can define success against existing objective models, the Big Three offense was sui generis. The only idea to which the Big Three could appeal was its own understanding of what the Big Three should be. Put somewhat differently: Milwaukee’s offense succeeded only when Robinson, Allen and Cassell could believe in the Big Three, and believe in themselves as part of it.
The players’ faith in the Big Three was by no means guaranteed, and was often undermined by objective and subjective pressures. Among the later were ambiguities inherent in the Big Three itself. When the nickname was first introduced, the sole rationale was that Cassell, Robinson and Allen combined for 60% of Milwaukee’s offense. But whether this was a function of actual offensive prowess, or merely a consequence of a crappy bench always remained unclear. This inherent ambiguity in the value of the Big Three was coupled with an inherent ambiguity in its boundaries. Insofar as 60% was an arbitrary cut-off point, why shouldn’t there be a Big Four (based on 75% contribution) or Big Two (43%) instead?
These inherent, subjective ambiguities – when triggered by unfavorable objective events – had the potential of undermining the Big Three’s faith in itself, and thus to derail their collective achievements. For instance, the selection of Robinson and Allen – but not Cassell – to the 2000 All-Star Game triggered a subjective crisis over the boundaries of Big Three membership. After starting the season an impressive 25-20, the Bucks spiraled into one of the worst loosing streaks in years, loosing 9 of 11 games after the All-Star announcements.
Depending on whom you talk to, Cassell sulked after he was left off the team and didn't distribute the ball, or Allen and Robinson got a little too full of themselves after their selections and never gave the ball up once they had it – The Capital Times (Madison)
The absence of any rational and objective logic underlying the Big Three’s offense meant that team chemistry lived or died with players’ faith in the Big Three itself. When the subjective coherence of this belief was undermined, the 2000 season was essentially lost. Two years later, when the Bucks signed Tim Thomas to a $65 million contract and then added Mason - a former All-Star - to Bucks’ starting lineup, the boundaries of the Big Three were once again blurred to the point that Cassell, Allen, and Robinson could no longer command it. This in addition to injuries and infighting made the third and final Big Three season even worse than the first.
The second season was the closest the Big Three would come to an unconditional faith in its own self-determination. And throughout this season, no player’s faith was as strong as Glenn Robinson. Ray Allen may have been the spark behind the Big Three, and Cassell the glue, but Robinson was its chief architect and prophet. When George Karl threatened to bench one of the three (it didn’t matter which) in order to teach them a lesson about teamwork, Robinson was defiant. Speaking in what can only be described as the 9th person, he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:
You can't afford to bench one of the Big Three…When he says benching one of the Big Three, I don't know why. I know the chemistry of this team is shooting jumpers. That's our identity. That's what we are”
And while Robinson often resisted sharing with Allen and Cassell as individuals, sharing with the Big Three was an entirely different story. Commenting after one game, he told reporters:
"It was one of the better games for the Big Three," he (Robinson) said. "I like the games when I see all of the Big Three with 20 points or more. When we score like that, it's hard to beat us”.
Given how closely Robinson identified with the Three, it makes sense that his post-Three fortunes would be the dimmest. Interestingly, all three players went on to form Big Threes with their subsequent teams (as defined by 60% offensive contribution). Yet while the recent era has seem its share of imitators, none can rival the original Big Three, or the Man who once inspired it. And if the owl of minerva flies only at dusk, our understanding of both has only just begun.