TOKYO — It’s not the sport you see being played at the park by old men, or on television by a bunch of retired NBA players. Olympic 3x3 basketball is completely different, more fast-paced and intriguing, a sport the United States has been slow to embrace.
The US women’s team, made up of four WNBA players, finished undefeated in pool play and is the favorite in the medal round at these Games.
The US men? Well, they aren’t here. They didn’t qualify. Meanwhile, much smaller countries with much smaller player pools such as Latvia, Poland, the Netherlands, and Belgium are vying for gold.
Which raises the question: If the US claims to have the most basketball talent, why couldn’t it throw together four professional-caliber players and win gold?
It’s not exactly that easy.
The US men were eliminated by the Netherlands in the Olympic qualifying tournament in Austria in May. They went 3-2 and finished in sixth place in a 20-team field, with the top three qualifying for Tokyo. That US team consisted of Joey King, Kareem Maddox, Dominique Jones, and Robbie Hummel, with Hummel the lone player with NBA experience.
Canyon Barry, the son of NBA great Rick Barry, was unable to play in that tournament because of a back injury. And as their US five-on-five brethren are learning the hard way, it’s difficult to throw together a team and flourish against experienced international competition.
The 3x3 style has grown popular in Europe with a World Tour, a challenger series in several major cities with independent teams vying for prize money, and also a world ranking system. In other words, the world is far ahead of the US in this 3x3 thing, and the men’s team falling short of qualifying was indicative of that.
“You’ve got to really practice this a lot, a couple of years to know the ins and outs, build chemistry with your teammates,” Netherlands player Dimeo van der Horst said. “It’s really tough if you just come together for the summer.”
The US men actually won the 3x3 World Cup in 2019, beating the Netherlands on that run. But two players from that team were unable to play in the Olympic qualifying tournament, and the US suffered as a result.
The FIBA 3x3 game features one 10-minute period, a 12-second shot clock, and no stoppage of play after baskets. The first to 21 or whichever team is ahead when the period ends is the winner. It’s a hectic pace that’s physically demanding and requires great strategy. Of course, a team consisting of James Harden, LeBron James, and Kevin Durant probably would dominate any opponent, but that doesn’t mean they would immediately have great chemistry.
Kelsey Plum, a guard for the Las Vegas Aces, said she and her US women teammates are learning as they go. It may seem as though the US women take the 3x3 tournament more seriously than the men, putting together four WNBA players, but again, it’s not that simple.
The women conducted a tryout camp for players who had been approached about playing. The commitment began before the pandemic, with ex-Celtics assistant Kara Lawson named head coach. By the way, Lawson cannot instruct the players on the floor; she can only watch, as in tennis.
“For me, this was an opportunity; I would not pass this up,” Plum said. “We’re still learning. It’s super entertaining. I think people have been introduced to it because of the Olympics, which is cool. It’s a new phenomenon to people, especially back at home.”
What’s fascinating is that the US women were seeded eighth in the eight-team field, as the four players had such low personal rankings because of their lack of 3x3 experience. But what sold WNBA players on the experience was the shot at a gold medal. None of the four players — Plum, Allisha Gray, Stefanie Dolson, and Jackie Young — were selected for the five-on-five team, so this was the next-best alternative.
“When I was asked would I like to play 3x3 and they explained what it was and a chance to go to the Olympics, I said yes,” said Gray, who plays for the Dallas Wings. “I just learned along the way. It’s basketball, at the end of the day.
“In competition like this, it’s way more physical. The biggest thing about this game is if you make a mistake, you don’t have time to think about it. You have to get to the next play.”
Netherlands guard Jessey Voorn was a member of the country’s national team, played professionally for 12 years, and then was approached about the 3x3 opportunity last September. At 31, he decided his body could no longer weather the rigors of the five-on-five game, so he decided this would be an alternative. But it wasn’t a smooth transition.
“For me, the adjustment to 3x3, I underestimated, it’s a different game,” he said. “It’s quicker. Conditioning-wise, it’s a lot tougher. It’s like the fourth quarter or overtime in every single 10 minutes you play.
“It takes more than just skills. When the fatigue kicks in, that’s when you get tired. That’s when you make mental mistakes. This is the most important thing about 3x3: Can you survive the last couple of minutes?
“That’s what I love about this game. It’s a beautiful opportunity. I’m proud to represent my name, represent my country.”