UPDATED to include comment from the Qatar government’s communications office.
Big3 basketball league founders Ice Cube and Jeff Kwatinetz are suing a group of Qatari nationals for $1.2 billion, claiming the investors boasted of connections to the royal family and its riches, but paid little more than half of the money they agreed to invest in the 3-on-3 professional basketball league.
In a suit filed Thursday in Los Angeles Superior Court (read it here), the plaintiffs accuse the investor group of defamation, libel, and interference with contractual relationships. The complaint alleges that one of the investors spread a false and harmful rumor about Kwatinetz, referring to the league’s African-American players as “Rich Nigg*s,” racist language he said he “never had and never would” use. It also claims the investors told players and outsiders that the league was poorly managed.
“When Ice Cube and Jeff Kwatinetz pursued their lifelong dream of starting a basketball league from the ground up, and invested their personal assets and time in doing so, the last thing on their list of plausible concerns and impediments would be the malicious and reckless conduct of foreign actors and compromised agents and actors working on their behalf,” they argue in the lawsuit.
The Big3 founders say the success of the league’s initial games in June 2017 vindicated their vision for taking the sport from the playground to a professional setting, and attracted new sources of financing to help expand the league.
A trio of investors emerged: Ahmed Al-Rumaihi, a former Qatari diplomat and head of Qatar Investments; Faisal Al-Hamadi, managing partner of Ory Capital; and Ayman Sabi, a Libyan-born American citizen who claims to be a board member of the Qatar Investment Authority. Together, they formed Sport Trinity, an investment vehicle whose benefactor, the suit alleges, is Sheikh Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Sau Al Thani, chief executive of the Qatari Investment Authority.
A spokesman for the government of Qatar said Al Thani, who is named in the suit, was not an investor in Big3 or in any way involved in the company which is the subject of the lawsuit. The Qatar Investment Authority has no involvement in the investments, nor is a party to the case. The allegations in the lawsuit only involve individuals and private companies.
“Touting their love of basketball and their familial connections and relationships with the royal Al-Thani Family in the State of Qatar, and thus access to vast resources and capital, defendants were brought to Big3 as passive investors and introduced by the league’s former president and commissioner,” according to the suit.
Kwatinetz and Ice Cube, whose given name is O’Shea Jackson, expected their new investors to play a passive role. Instead, the investors began to insinuate themselves into the league’s affairs, showering select Big3 employees with lavish gifts, hosting parties on yachts and in their Los Angeles mansions, extending use of their expensive cars, and bragging about their association with the league’s celebrity investors and NBA stars.
Even as the investors maintained an opulent lifestyle — Al-Rumaihi lost $700,000 in a single night of gambling in Las Vegas after the Big3 finals last summer– they refused to pay the millions they owed to the league.
“These members and associates of the royal family made excuse after excuse for not paying, all of which is documented in text messages and emails, where the blame for their failure to fund the millions they owed to Big3 ran the gamut from their ‘sinuses,’ ‘hiking,’ it being a ‘long day bro,’ and to bad press regarding Qatar associations with alleged funding of terrorism,” the suit claims.
Big3’s attorney, Mark Geragos — also an investor in Big3 — argues that only later did the investors’ true intentions become clear. After making repeated demands to pay the balance of the $11.5 million they pledged to the league, Kwatinetz was confronted after a memorial service in February for Big3 player Rasual Butler.
According to the lawsuit, Al-Rumaihi waited in his Bentley for the service to end, then approached Kwatinetz on the sidewalk. In view of the grieving friends and relatives, Al-Rumaihi promised the financing “would be worked out.” When Kwatinetz asked if the balance, believed to be $4 million, would be wired the following Monday, Al-Rumaihi proposed a surprising counteroffer: He demanded a 25% stake in the league, for Ayman to be named chief operating officer and to be afforded “respect as a royal family member,” according the lawsuit.
Kwatinetz responded that respect came with honoring one’s financial commitments “and refraining from constant lies,” prompting an angry response.
“Al-Rumaihi became incensed and loudly screamed at Mr. Kwatinetz and threatened his life and his family, noting, ‘You don’t know who I know in LA and what they’re capable of,'” the suit alleges. “‘You should think of your safety and the safety of your family.'”
Kwatinetz and Ice Cube hired a law firm to demand the payment that was due in July 2017, the suit says. That matternow is in arbitration. The civil suit is a separate action, seeking a jury trial to recover approximately $20 million per player in harm to Big3 and its founders’ reputations.
The Big3 is an eight-team 3-on-3 pro basketball league founded by Cube and Kwatinetz – who left the Firm in October to focus on the league, CubeVision, and a civil rights law career, joining Geragos & Geragos.
Fox Sports airs Big3 games. The league debuted on Fox on a Saturday in June, drawing nearly 400,000 viewers. Fox Sports would renew and expand its TV contract with the league two months later. Big3’s 2018 player combine and draft airs next month on FS1, and its 10-week sophomore season tips off June 22, with all games airing live Friday nights on Fox or FS1.
“In its inaugural year, the league provided competitive, entertaining basketball that really resonated with fans, as evidenced by its television ratings on FS1 and packed arenas across the country,” Fox Sports Head of Business Operations David Nathanson said in announcing the renewal deal in August.
Erik Pedersen contributed to this report.