Ice Cube's BIG3 Slammed With New Lawsuit Alleging Steve Bannon Friend Created Hostile Workplace

Cubed Basketball_Illo - THR - H 2018
Illustration by: Alexander Wells

BIG3 Basketball, the league of three-on-three halfcourt play co-founded by rapper-actor Ice Cube, may have been intended as a daring new venture that would revive the careers of some famous basketball legends and to gather excitement by taking the sport back to its playground roots. Instead, BIG3 has been the subject of a nasty legal feud dripping with political intrigue. Now comes a new lawsuit filed on Monday from the league's former chief creative officer Kainoa Henry, who says Ice Cube's business partner Jeffrey Kwatinetz created a hostile workplace by incessantly talking about the greatness of Donald Trump's former political advisor Steve Bannon, while also behaving in an Islamophobic fashion. Henry now says his resignation was all but forced, and adds that before he quit, Kwatinetz told him that two of the league's investors were under investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and how they were tied to Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner. Henry is now suing Ice Cube and Kwatinetz for putting him in this situation and allegedly breaking promises and making false representations to him along the way.

Until today, the legal strife surrounding BIG3, which has featured retired NBA stars including Allen Iverson, Julius Erving and Gary Payton, has been a mainly two-sided affair.

On one end is Ice Cube (real name:  O'Shea Jackson) and Kwatinetz who began the league and are pursuing Ayman Sabi and Ahmed Al-Rumaihi for allegedly shortchanging them of promised millions and committing defamation through the attribution of racially charged comments and false statements about the operation of the league.

On the other is Sabi, a Palestinian-American, and Al-Rumaihi, a Qatari who once ran that country's public investment fund and has become a figure of special interest of late thanks to connections to Trump's embattled personal lawyer Michael Cohen. According to court documents, Sabi and Al-Rumaihi via limited liability company Sport Trinity agreed to invest $11.5 million into BIG3, along with an additional $9 million in sponsorship funds, and now allege Kwatinetz never implemented basic corporate governance.

Befitting the name of the league, Henry arguably becomes the third big party in this developing dispute. He's the one furious about being caught in the crossfire of a geo-political barn burner. With his own story to tell — the guy who allegedly attempted to broker peace between the BIG3 executives and investors without success — Henry backs up certain allegations from both sides, although quite obviously more to the benefit of Sabi and Al-Rumaihi as he's ultimately suing Kwatinetz and Ice Cube for allegedly breaching contract, tortiously interfering with his deals, and discharging and retaliating against him.

Read the full complaint.

According to his complaint filed today in Los Angeles Superior Court, Henry has worked in the entertainment industry since 2004, previously worked with Kwatinetz at the production and talent management company The Firm (where he represented Snoop Dogg, among others), and joined BIG3 in 2017. There, adds Henry, he cultivated sponsors like Adidas and was in charge of maintaining key athlete relationships including with Iverson. In fact, Henry alleges that Ice Cube's production company hired him to direct and produce a documentary about Iverson's return to basketball.

Henry also says that Kwatinetz tasked him with serving as an "ambassador" between the league and the new investors. 

"During the time that Henry was getting to know Sabi and Al-Rumaihi, he developed close relationships with them and determined that they were everything Kwatinetz originally said they were," states the complaint. "As a result, Henry was blindsided when Kwatinetz turned on Sabi and Al-Rumaihi, accusing them of investing in the League simply to get close to Bannon, accusing them of being connected to terrorism, and making numerous outlandish statements. Kwatinetz's statements were completely inconsistent with Henry's personal experience with the investors."

Kwatinetz and Bannon have been friends for many years. The latter was once a partner in The Firm.

If Bannon's loose connection to a three-on-three basketball league wasn't apparent from the get-go — and why should it have been? — that changed upon an explosive declaration that Kwatinetz, represented by famed attorney Mark Geragos, filed last month in the defamation case against his league's two investors.

Kwatinetz recalled a hike he took with Al-Rumaihi in January 2018. During the hike, Al-Rumaihi allegedly requested Kwatinetz set up a meeting with Bannon to tell him that Qatar would underwrite all of Bannon's political efforts in return for support. At the time, Bannon had just been ousted from Trump's circle thanks to inflammatory comments published in Michael Wolff's book, Fire & Fury. Bannon was a vocal critic of Qatar, and if one accepts Kwatinetz' account, al-Rumaihi believed he could change Bannon's attitude about Qatar by throwing him some money. Under Kwatinetz' view, the investment in the BIG3 was a front to obtain geopolitical influence.

In his declaration, Kwatinetz said he was offended by al-Rumaihi's request and told him that neither he nor Bannon would take a bribe. Kwatinetz adds that Al-Rumaihi laughed and replied, "Do you think [Michael] Flynn turned down our money?"

(Sports Trinity denied statements in the declaration as "pure Hollywood fiction.")

Flynn, of course, was Trump's first National Security Advisor, who has pled guilty to lying to the FBI and is now cooperating with Mueller in the ongoing probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Reportedly, Mueller has been interested in meetings between Trump allies and leaders of Gulf States like United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, who have attempted a blockade of Qatar and have relationships with the Russians.

Whether or not Kwatinetz story checks out, Henry asserts that his former boss turned on his investors at some point and became increasingly Islamophobic. 

"Worse yet, Kwatinetz started making more and more outrageous accusations against the investors," alleges Henry's new complaint. "Kwatinetz claimed that his sources in the 'intelligence community' notified him that Al-Rumaihi and Sahi were under federal investigation for supporting terrorism, consistently referred to the investors as 'Qatari operatives,' and stated that Sports Trinity was an agent for the Qatari government interested in infiltrating American businesses and strong-arming them, completely ignoring Sabi is an American citizen."

According to the complaint, Heny attempted to mediate the conflict during the last NBA All-Star weekend in February to no avail and that Ice Cube was unwilling to challenge Kwatinetz. The situation continued to escalate. Kwatinetz and Al-Rumaihi had a confrontation with each other at a funeral for a former NBA player. Henry says he kept hearing Kwatinetz slur the investors and felt the need to get out of the middle of Kwatinetz's conflict with Sports Trinity.

"After Kwatinetz asked Henry to lie and support Kwatinetz's accusation of criminal threats against his family's life, Henry was left with no choice but to resign," continues the complaint. "Kwatinetz also told Henry the Sports Trinity investors were under investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, were tied to Jared Kushner, were tied to terrorists and that they were corrupt. Kwatinetz informed Henry that an independent investigator would be contacting him, and he wanted Henry to lie and tell the investigator that the investors were corrupt and that they had corrupted Roger Mason, the original Big3 commissioner. Henry refused, and, on information and belief, it turned out the so-called independent investigator was a close associate of Kwatinetz's long-time business partner and lawyer, Mark Geragos."

Henry says he suffered retaliation as a result of not standing behind Kwatinetz.

The plaintiff wanted to continue work on the Iverson documentary, but alleges that in March, Ice Cube made it clear this wouldn't happen despite contractual obligations. Henry says Kwatinetz has attempted to poison his business relationship and long-time friendship with Ice Cube and accused him of being "compromised" by Sports Trinity. Kwatinetz allegedly has made false statements to Iverson and others to destroy his reputation.

Henry, represented by Aaron Liskin and Shawn Holley at Kinsella Weitzman, is seeking at least $2 million in damages.