3BA might be the next big thing in professional basketball: full-court, three-on-three hoops played at breakneck speed. But even the game’s back-and-forth action can’t compete with the off-the-court legal drama.
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.
He had yet to hire an attorney, he was still unemployed, and he’d driven here in his father’s decrepit pickup. To use another sports cliche, he was a man on the ropes.
“It’s really heartbreaking,” he said, his eyes welling up again. “Maybe I’m a little bit overly exuberant about how much impact I can have. But I saw this stuff all over the country, becoming a fabric of the community.” He shook his head. “This is the part where I was probably naive. What happens to people who get involved with a project that looks like it’s going to be very profitable? What changes in them?”
LuBahn grew up in North Seattle, near Carkeek Park. His first love was football; he didn’t start playing basketball until junior high. “The very nature of football is aggressive,” he says. “That didn’t bother me, because if you put me on the field and tell me to stop someone, it’s either going to be me or him, and I’m going to give it my best shot.” His solid ball-handling skills and height secured him a spot on his high school basketball team—he was six-foot-three as a freshman—but his collegiate career was short-lived; he says he walked on at Seattle University in 1980 and quit shortly thereafter. (The school, however, has no record of his being on the team.)
He was a baller and a gym rat well into his 30s, spending his nights waiting tables and his days driving around the city looking for competitive three-on-three games. And having never really made it in college ball, he treated those pickup games like they counted. “He wears his emotions on his sleeve,” says Jude Augustine, a friend who played with LuBahn and worked with him for several years at Wild Ginger. “There are a lot of guys who are just out there and don’t really care. Kevin was one of the guys in a pickup game who would chase down every loose ball and get on you if you weren’t playing defense.”
A four-game tournament in April 2006—held at the Emerald Queen Casino because they could get the floor space for free—was a disaster.
But he was an idea man, too. He ran an art gallery out of his downtown apartment in 1997, and a Seattle Times profile published that year described him as someone without “an idle synapse in the planning portion of his brain.” So as middle age dulled his skills on the court, he started searching for ways to stay connected to the game. And after experimenting with an athletic apparel line that he named Insane in the Lane, he had “a vision.” “I saw it,” he says. “I saw what it was, and I saw where it could go.”
“It” was professional three-on-three basketball. Unquestionably the three-on-three world was and still is a massive, untapped market for anyone interested in launching a league. Hoop It Up hosts two-day amateur tournaments across the country every summer, and Spokane’s annual Hoopfest—the largest three-on-three tournament in the world—attracts upwards of 200,000 players and spectators every June. But unlike the league LuBahn had envisioned, they consist of half-court games populated by a motley mix of scrubs and wannabe playground heroes. Not only would 3BA be played on a full court, putting a premium on speed, quickness, and stamina, it would be designed exclusively for serious, top-flight players. The way he saw it, with each of the NBA’s 30 teams carrying only 15-man rosters, there were more than enough former college players to stock 3BA.
But most important, 3BA would be a sport built on, as LuBahn repeated in each of our conversations, “fiscal responsibility,” where families of four could afford to sit somewhere other than in the nosebleeds and watch skilled athletes who earned modest salaries and played for, above all else, a love of the game. “One of the original impetuses behind the design was that I was tired of listening to these guys complain about their multimillion-dollar salaries playing a freaking kid’s game,” he says. “Here’s my philosophy: If you make even $50,000 or $60,000 to play a kid’s game, my advice to you is to go home, get on your knees, and say, ‘Thank you, God.’ Because you’re blessed. You’re straight-up blessed.” (It bears noting that while LuBahn had no plans to make the players rich, a 2006 3BA business plan predicted 2011 per-team revenues north of $35 million, with a profit margin over 33 percent.)
And so in 1998, he got to work, designing a logo for the league, drafting the rules of the game, and studying intellectual property law. Because he was developing a new game with new rules, he figured he was in a position to copyright the concept and own it outright—something the creators of, say, football or traditional five-on-five basketball had never done. That way when the time came, he could roll it out in other countries to create a truly international league, which he’d also own. To a guy who’d spent most of his adult life working front-of-the-house restaurant jobs, the potential for merchandise licensing, television contracts, and corporate sponsorship deals was dizzying. “When you look at the business model, it’s powerful,” he says. “If you can walk into Nike and say, ‘I’m going to give you China, I’m going to give you the European Union, I might even give you India, and I’m going to give you the U.S.,’ we’re talking some very, very, very fat revenue streams.”
That was the plan, at least. And for the next several years, it remained little more than a plan. LuBahn secured the copyright for the rules and a trademark for the 3BA name and logo in 1999 and 2000, but other responsibilities were pushing the game aside. He’d married his girlfriend, Laura, in 1997, had his first child later that year, and then had his second in 2000. He was a family man now, and by all accounts
a dedicated one. 3BA would have to wait.
In fall 2004, Ramone Sanders was selling cars for Bill Pierre Ford in Lake City and moonlighting as a model. But that just paid the bills. Like LuBahn, he was a hoops head, and after years of hustling in Seattle gyms, he’d built up a dream team of local basketball connections that he says included former Sonic Shawn Kemp.
It was a connection he didn’t even know he had, though, that would pull him into 3BA’s orbit. Sanders’s wife worked with Laura LuBahn at Metropolitan Grill, and one day she came home with a tip: “Hey, my friend’s husband is starting a new basketball company. You should talk to him.” But before Sanders even had a chance to give it much thought, LuBahn showed up at the dealership to pitch him the idea. Sanders didn’t need much convincing. It was a chance to turn his love of basketball into a career, and in LuBahn he’d found a kindred spirit. For the next year the two bonded over basketball as they met nightly to plan their first exhibition. “When Kevin wasn’t at Wild Ginger, he was constantly working on this 3BA thing,” Laura says.
It was virtually impossible to find anyone who could address issues as they arose because no one knew who was in charge.
3BA debuted in August 2005 with a four-game tournament at Judkins Park, just two blocks from LuBahn’s Central District home. LuBahn had purchased two professional-grade baskets and finagled a free playing surface from Sport Court that he, Sanders, and two other friends set up on the park’s tennis court. Given their financial limitations, the exhibition was a mild success, in part because they had managed to recruit well-known local stars like University of Washington alums Donald Watts and Jamie Booker to play. With virtually no advertising, the tournament drew around 300 fans, although it’s hard to say how many came specifically for the games and how many had stopped by on their way to Umoja Fest, an African heritage festival that was running concurrently in the park. Whatever drew them to the court, it didn’t matter to LuBahn and Sanders. “We just wanted to get the game out there to be seen, in the hopes that we could find an investor or some sponsors to get things going,” Sanders says.
Off the court, though, the topic of money—and what they’d do once they had some—dominated the pair’s conversations and started to undermine their friendship. Sanders says LuBahn promised him 10 percent of the company and a $52,000 salary once they found investors. He says they also discussed making Sanders the CEO because he had the managerial chops that LuBahn lacked. Sanders drafted one employment agreement after another in the hopes of locking LuBahn into the deal, but LuBahn refused to sign them. “We’re like brothers,” he told Sanders. “Why don’t you trust me?”
Sanders’s money complaints were just a minor nuisance for LuBahn, who was dealing with his own mounting personal problems. He was struggling with a painful gall bladder condition that made it difficult to work. Three months earlier his brother, Brett, had died. (Initially, he would only tell me that Brett passed away tragically, but in a subsequent conversation he suggested it was suicide.) And on top of that, his marriage was imploding, and Laura wanted out. He blames the split on “middle-age crazy,” saying she just “didn’t want the kids, didn’t want the house, didn’t want anything.” Laura won’t elaborate on the cause, but she will allow that Kevin’s obsession with 3BA was a factor.
Less than a year later and with a costly divorce looming, LuBahn had spent close to $15,000 of his own money on 3BA and racked up between $150,000 and $175,000 in debt to pay for equipment and other expenses. Yet he had nothing to show for it. Another four-game tournament in April 2006—held at the Emerald Queen Casino because they could get the floor space for free—was a disaster. The bleachers were all but empty, and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer was there to cover it all; the resulting article described players walking to the court through a haze of cigarette smoke. Laura moved out of their house, Kevin sold it that December, and he and his daughters packed what little they had left and moved to Walla Walla, where he’d found a job as a restaurant manager in the Marcus Whitman Hotel. He wasn’t wild about the gig—it proved to be more responsibility than he wanted, and it got in the way of 3BA planning—but it came with free lodging in the hotel for him and his children. It also offered an emotional escape. “I saw it as a way to get out of Seattle and get away from everything that was difficult for me at that particular time and start a new life,” he says.
Back on the other side of the Cascades, Sanders kept
looking for investors and did his best to drum up media support for 3BA, but the game was all but dead. They even discussed selling the rights to the idea online.
Four months after moving to Walla Walla, LuBahn began dating a local woman, Brenda Beamer Ford. He’d spotted her in the hotel one night in March 2007 and was instantly drawn to her. But she was accompanied by a man that night, and despite the strong attraction, LuBahn didn’t need the drama inherent in chasing someone who was already spoken for.
When he bumped into Beamer Ford at a vision clinic in downtown Walla Walla, she told him that her date that night wasn’t actually a date. He was Larry Claunch, a wealthy retirement community developer whom she routinely introduced as her brother. LuBahn later learned that Claunch had no family of his own, and Beamer Ford’s parents had informally adopted him decades before. (LuBahn wasn’t the first to mistake the nature of their relationship. A friend of Beamer Ford’s admits to being so confused by their closeness that at one point she flat-out asked Beamer Ford if she and Claunch were dating.)
Even though a year had passed since the last 3BA event, LuBahn was still obsessed with the game and talked about it daily as if it were one of his children. It dominated his conversations with Beamer Ford, and after months of listening to him preach its potential for domestic and overseas profitability, she floated the idea that Claunch might want to invest. LuBahn had struggled for years to find funding in Seattle, and here he was, in Walla Walla of all places, about to stumble into what would prove to be a large sum of it. The three met in June 2007, discussed 3BA’s business model, and even attended Spokane’s Hoopfest together, where Claunch saw firsthand the passion that three-on-three basketball could inspire in fans. Shortly thereafter, he invested $200,000 and signed on as a part- owner. “It wasn’t like you were inventing something brand new,” Claunch says. “It’s almost like a gift to be given a business that already has this huge grassroots following.” It was good timing for LuBahn. He’d been fired from the hotel in May.
Back in Seattle, Ramone Sanders was ecstatic. But when LuBahn called him to discuss their next steps, the long-smoldering fight over money flared up again. Sanders says LuBahn asked him what he wanted now that they had funding. Sanders replied, “Everything that you promised me”—in other words, the CEO position, a 10 percent ownership stake, and a $52,000 annual salary. LuBahn refused, his voice rising as he fired back, “What, you’re not going to let me run my own company?” They screamed at each other for 25 minutes until Sanders realized that without an employment agreement he had no leverage, and walked away. LuBahn claims Sanders didn’t like the fact that Claunch was going to own part of the company. And although he waffled when I asked about the salary and ownership percentage that Sanders claims he was promised, he insisted that he never offered to let Sanders take over as CEO. “He felt that since I had allowed him to be in charge while I was in Walla Walla that meant that I could no longer call the shots in my own company that I paid for, that I basically built,” LuBahn says.
Sanders and LuBahn had at one point called each other brothers, but the closest they’ve come to talking since then came in August 2008, when Sanders posted a 350-word anti-LuBahn screed on the Seattle Weekly website. “He is a liar and a cheat and if you support this man you’re supporting one of the true business criminals in this world,” Sanders wrote, under the pseudonym “The Truth.” Sanders hadn’t even heard about the lawsuit when I called him in June. And he had only one thing to say about it when I told him: “What goes around comes around, you know what I mean?”
With Claunch’s money, 3BA—now incorporated as 3BA International—began to look from the outside like a professional organization. The full-time staff had expanded to six, including Beamer Ford and a former Sonics sales executive. Claunch had also hired as consultants a Portland financial planner with ties to China, and Kevin Ellis, a friend of LuBahn’s who played college basketball and had connections in the Pacific Northwest sports community. Through one of Ellis’s connections, the organization recruited Portland native and retired Los Angeles Lakers star A. C. Green to act as the face of 3BA International. NBA executives who reviewed 3BA’s business model, with its potential for international expansion, thought it was genius. And by summer 2008, the organization was ready to produce a national exhibition tour with stops in Portland, Los Angeles, Chicago, Memphis, and Seattle.
From the inside, though, it was a team without a leader. Beamer Ford acted as de facto president, but her history with Claunch and her relationship with LuBahn—which was increasingly unstable and unpredictable—complicated the vague reporting structure. (Claunch admits there wasn’t much of a hierarchy to speak of. “There were so many things to be done,” he says, “that everybody just did their thing, and I kind of monitored it all.”) A contractor who worked with 3BA at that time says it was virtually impossible to find anyone who could address issues as they arose because no one knew who was in charge.
The 2008 tour reflected that dysfunctional dynamic. A source close to 3BA says plane tickets, rental cars, and even venues were booked at the last minute, increasing overhead by as much as 30 percent. Ticket sales were weak—fewer than 2,500 people paid to attend the Seattle game—and aside from a few articles in Seattle and Portland newspapers, 3BA International was far from gaining mainstream legitimacy. Claunch, Beamer Ford, LuBahn, and Ellis—who came on as a full-time employee after the 2008 tour—were negotiating deals with potential investors but failed to produce one signed contract. Then the recession of 2008 forced the organization to scrap a 2009 exhibition tour and replace it with a half-dozen promotional appearances by the Lakers’ A. C. Green and 3BA’s executives. Multiple sources say 3BA blew through between $4 million and $5 million of Claunch’s money from 2007 to early 2010, and yet a spring 2010 launch seemed a stretch, at best. “Larry, Brenda, Kevin LuBahn, and Kevin Ellis are all responsible for the mismanagement of the situation,” the source says. “They can all point fingers at each other, but the bottom line is that they all had a part in it.”
But LuBahn was 3BA International’s main agent of chaos. “Kevin is brilliant,” the contractor says, “but you know what they say about creative, brilliant people: There’s a dark side to them, too.” LuBahn was prone to violent mood swings, and as the 2008 tour rolled on, staff members watched helplessly when he raged at venue employees who didn’t give him the respect he thought his position commanded. “They don’t know who they’re dealing with,” he would yell. “I’m Kevin LuBahn! I created 3BA.” “When Kevin is on a high note, he’s amazing, very personable, very wonderful,” the contractor says. “But when he’s on a low note, he’s degrading to himself and everyone around him, and he’ll suck people down with him.”
By the beginning of 2010, it was clear to almost everyone involved that 3BA International needed new leadership. So when a group of investors from Texas that included two former NBA executives started sniffing around, Claunch booked a flight to Houston to meet with them. Shortly thereafter he hired two of them as consultants: Robert Barr, the senior executive vice president of basketball affairs for the Houston Rockets for a six-year stretch in the ’90s, during which the team won two world championships; and Garry Merritt, the Rockets’ onetime team counsel. This was the move, Claunch thought, that could bring street cred and real pro basketball experience to the nascent league and finally get it up and running.
It also sent the already emotional LuBahn—whose relationship with Beamer Ford was dissolving—over the edge. It was the Ramone Sanders situation all over again, a perceived power grab perpetrated by outsiders. “He’s a control freak,” the source says. “So when these Houston guys came in, he realized that he was being cut out as a decision maker.” LuBahn denies feeling threatened: “To me, they were guys that had valuable experience, and they were guys who had contacts or purported to have contacts.”
But within three months, Merritt’s and Barr’s roles had changed from consultants to full-time employees: The former had been promoted to commissioner of the league, and the latter was now cochairman of 3BA International. In addition, Claunch added Bruce Oneil, a former college coach, and John Prewitt, a bank president, to the staff. And then they began cleaning house. Almost everyone but Kevin Ellis and LuBahn were let go, but LuBahn lost all of his perks, including an apartment that 3BA International had paid for.
That’s when LuBahn, who prided himself on his ability to get the drop on defenders on the playground, made his move. In late April, he held two conference calls with Ellis and two other associates, in which he laid out plans to split from 3BA International, launch another three-on-three league named 3BA Global, and poach any investors who had shown interest in purchasing a 3BA International franchise.
Then, on April 28, he threw 3BA a brushback pitch. That night, he sent a rambling email to Garry Merritt, suggesting 3BA International had been plagued by questionable business practices. He didn’t specify what they were—and he wouldn’t give me any details—but he warned that if “some kind of resolution that is satisfactory for all parties involved” couldn’t be reached, he would expose them. “My reluctance to give of myself comes from many months and several years of duplicity and a lack of honesty and integrity,” he wrote. “It is not my intention to bring the whole thing down, however this team will provide the exact information to the right parties if necessary.”
The next day, LuBahn was fired. A letter delivered to his apartment by 3BA International’s attorneys informed him that he’d been terminated for “serious misconduct” but said 3BA was willing to forgo a lawsuit if he would stop pursuing his rival league and agree to a settlement. He relented, but the talks broke down a week later after LuBahn balked at the organization’s offer: $60,000 and a small ownership stake in the company that would decrease as other investors bought in. The negotiations grew so heated that LuBahn filed for a restraining order against Merritt on May 17. In it, he claimed that Merritt threatened him with a “bloodbath” if he wouldn’t sign the agreement. “In addition,” LuBahn wrote in the report, “he informed me that he had contacts in Washington that would insure [sic] that I would never be heard from again.” (Merritt declined to comment on the negotiations or 3BA’s offer.) The next day, 3BA International filed suit, accusing LuBahn and Ellis of misappropriation of trade secrets, tortious interference with business relationships, libel, and fraud. And they had particularly damning evidence: Not only had prospective franchise owners informed Merritt and Beamer Ford that LuBahn had tried to lure them away, he had also typed up minutes of the conference calls about his plans to defect and left them on 3BA International’s company server.
LuBahn continued to insist to investors and even in court proceedings that he was 3BA’s creator, that he owned the trademarks and copyrights to the name and the idea, but he was either lying to himself or everyone else: When Larry Claunch agreed to invest in 3BA in summer 2007, he looked into LuBahn’s financial history and found that not only had Kevin and Laura filed for bankruptcy earlier that year, but they hadn’t claimed the trademarks and copyrights in the filings. Claunch had insisted that LuBahn reopen the case to straighten out the potentially actionable oversight and bring the new organization aboveboard. Then in September 2008, just weeks after 3BA International’s last exhibition game in Seattle, Claunch finalized the purchase of the 3BA intellectual property. LuBahn sold him what amounted to the last 10 years of his life for just $5,000.
3BA International announced revised plans in July to finally launch its first season in 2011, and left the door open to more exhibition games this fall. (Merritt wouldn’t confirm it, but court documents suggest that Shawn Kemp was considering purchasing a franchise.) Yet after more than a decade of tirelessly insisting that professional three-on-three basketball could work, after spending years as its only cheerleader, Kevin LuBahn would have no part in those plans.
As far as Claunch was concerned, it was LuBahn’s own fault. “The people that know me are blown away by how far I went to try to get Kevin to calm down and enjoy this,” Claunch said in mid-July. “To this day, I have no idea why he did what he did.”
Sports commentators have a term for implausible comebacks orchestrated by underdog teams that have no business competing with the big boys: a Cinderella story. And inexplicably, it may apply to LuBahn’s 3BA saga. The first time he and I spoke, he seemed both devastated at having lost his grip on 3BA and strangely at ease. “There comes a point when you have to be able to let go and say it’s okay,” he said. “And you have to be able to believe that the finalization of the creation is more valuable than any petty game that you could have. There are other things I can do. I’m a talented guy.”
In subsequent conversations, though, he grew stubborn, insisting that the game had been stolen from him. Then in our second-to-last interview, he began using the pronoun we when referring to 3BA. He said repeatedly that he still loved Beamer Ford. And when I asked him to explain the change of heart, he said he was confident that he would be able to work things out with the organization and actually return to the fold, although he didn’t explain—or seem to know—how.
His rosy hopes for a happy ending were, to say the least, baffling. He was being sued by his former employers for trying to sabotage their business, and he had accused a coworker of making veiled death threats against him. When I called Merritt to ask him what he made of LuBahn’s dream of rejoining the organization, he declined comment, but just days earlier, Claunch had shown no indication that LuBahn had any future with 3BA. “I liked Kevin. I wanted him to be successful,” he said. “But Kevin was his own worst enemy.”
Maybe not. Just before this article went to press, a Seattle Met fact-checker called Claunch to double-check the details of 3BA’s inner turmoil, and Claunch confirmed all but one: LuBahn was no longer definitively out. I called him for an explanation, and although he was hesitant to talk, he did say that just in the past few days he’d begun to consider dropping the suit and inviting LuBahn back. “I don’t like battles,” he said. “I just think he was a little misguided for a while there.”
The next day, Beamer Ford called to clarify what Claunch had said. LuBahn wouldn’t have a position with 3BA, but she’d brought him and Claunch together to discuss a settlement that would involve giving LuBahn an ownership stake in 3BA International. She denied that it was an attempt to prevent LuBahn from revealing the improprieties that he claimed to have seen while with the organization and then asked that I not make the settlement public. She and Claunch had yet to tell Merritt or Barr about it.
LuBahn, on the other hand, stopped answering his phone. Evidently he’d learned to quit while he was ahead.