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Three-on-Three Olympic Basketball Won’t Be As Cool As It Sounds

Unless it features the world’s best five-on-five players, the competition will probably just be … OK

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The official list of medal events for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo was released Friday. On the grand scale, the most important takeaway is that these Olympics will have more women’s events than any before. Previously, only men got to do the 1,500 meter swim at the Olympics; now women will get to do it too, which means we’ll get to see Katie Ledecky in a race she won by 29 seconds at the 2015 World Championships. But the thing that’s drawn the most attention is the addition of three-on-three basketball, which means 2020 will be the first time the Olympics have featured any basketball event besides the traditional game.

Here is an artist’s rendition of the 2020 Olympic three-on-three basketball gold-medal match:

Congrats to Olympic gold medalist Nelly. I can’t believe he stole Australia’s Double Gamebreaker!

At face value, changing up the structure of Olympic basketball is a great idea. Olympic basketball has gotten a little boring. The novelty of having NBA players in international competition has worn off since the days of the Dream Team. A huge number of players that should’ve been on America’s men’s team declined to participate in the Rio Games, and the United States still won the gold-medal game by 30 points. The women’s team has won 49 consecutive games at the Olympics. The United States would still be favored to win a three-on-three tournament — we have the best players — but at least it would be in a new, exciting format.

Besides, the possibilities seem awesome, right? Every tweet about the addition is littered with replies pitching hypothetical American teams. It would be so cool to see a three-on-three game featuring Steph Curry and LeBron James and Anthony Davis, or Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant and LeBron, or really any combination of the best 10 players in the NBA.

But we’re probably not going to get LeBron James. While the idea of Olympic three-on-three basketball is awesome, I suspect that the way it will be executed may be a little bit underwhelming.

The hope here is to invent another beach volleyball. Traditionalists gawked at the addition of beach volleyball to the Olympics in 1996; it seemed like a cheapening of an existing Olympic sport in order to add bikinis. Fast-forward 20 years, and the sport has proved its worth. Beach volleyball is perennially one of the most popular sports at the Olympics, and it produces a partylike vibe around its venues in each city. In many countries the game’s stars have become more famous than regular volleyball stars. It also appeals to younger fans, a demographic the IOC desperately craves. In 2016 the IOC added skateboarding and surfing to the Tokyo Olympics, and at this point the Winter Olympics are about 40 percent X Games. These new events will probably attract more excitement than staid Olympic events like equestrian, velodrome cycling, and modern pentathlon.

Three-on-three hoops is a clear attempt to recreate that success. Like beach volleyball, it’s a formalized version of a game played informally across the globe. And it will be played outside, on blacktop-like surfaces, with an emphasis on creating a fun environment for fans. (The press release indicates the game can be played in "iconic locations with an efficient and compact temporary stage," or "shopping malls.")

What we’ll see in Tokyo is technically "3x3," the set of rules created for three-on-three basketball by FIBA, the international governing body of basketball. Some aspects of it look like pickup ball: It’s half-court, with 1s and 2s instead of 2s and 3s. Some don’t: There is a referee, there are foul shots, there’s a 12-second shot clock, and, instead of make-it, take-it, the team that allows a basket has to clear the ball beyond the 2-point arc after scores.

FIBA tries hard to make it clear that 3x3 is "street" — the organization’s secretary general, Patrick Baumann, referenced Rucker Park when talking about the decision to add the sport to the Olympics. Unsurprisingly, the attempts by an international sporting federation to mimic American black youth culture are heavy-handed. Just watch the final of last year’s World Championships in Guangzhou, announced by somebody who has decided the three players for the Serbian team are named "the Maestro," "Sub-Zero," and "Bullet" while a T.I. song plays during free throw attempts.

One problem, though. When asked about the prospect of LeBron’s participation, Baumann said that "our objective is to have similar and fantastic stars that come out of 3-on-3." That’s worked for beach volleyball, in part because beach volleyball requires its own unique skill set. Beach players have to cover more ground and do virtually everything well, whereas regular volleyball has players who specialize in making defensive plays or setting up teammates for spikes. The best beach volleyball player in the world is not the best indoor volleyball player in the world. While the rules of 3x3 will weed out some types of players — it’s designed to create fast-paced, positionless basketball, so maybe rule out any post-up centers — the skills required for success will remain largely the same. The best 3x3 player in the world is probably LeBron James, even though he has never played in a 3x3 tournament.

Baumann’s statement indicates that the event likely isn’t going to feature NBA superstars. I would expect FIBA to limit Olympic participants to players who have participated in the 3x3 World Tour or at least participated in FIBA-owned qualifying events. And that explains the whole reason for this thing: FIBA wants to make money. Basketball is massively popular around the globe, but FIBA doesn’t make any cash when you’re watching the NBA. Its soccer counterpart, FIFA, is drenched in billions because people care about the World Cup. But nobody cares about the Basketball World Cup; even interest in Olympic basketball is waning. As much as we love basketball, we don’t love anything owned by FIBA.

This is where 3x3 comes in. FIBA operates the 3x3 World Tour, with a set of pro 3x3 ballers playing at stops around the world like Saskatoon and Mongolia and everywhere in between. FIBA could never run a five-on-five league that anybody would care about, but 3x3 is an attempt to carve out a niche the organization can occupy.

FIBA will tell us the players who participate in these events are the best three-on-three basketball players in the world. But we know the best three-on-three players in the world are in the NBA, not these players, who can’t get more lucrative basketball deals and are therefore able to participate in a slew of three-on-three tournaments. In the above clip from the 2016 world championship, Team USA’s best player is Myke Henry, who played at Illinois and DePaul and averaged 3.5 points in the D-League last year. This year’s 3x3 world championship is about to start in Nantes, France, and America’s team features players who played at Princeton, Brown, Lehigh, and Northwestern. As one of the world’s 11 Northwestern basketball fans, I would like to take this opportunity to discuss Craig Moore, who is apparently one of America’s best 3-on-3 players; he also participated in the 2014 World Championships in Moscow, in which the U.S. finished 14th. Bleacher Report caught up with him — he works in finance these days — and here’s what he said:

"When I was six I thought I could be the best in the world," Moore says. "But that faded as I grew up. Now just to have an outside chance at playing in the Olympics is…is…well, it’s almost too good to be true."

Hypothetically, gold medals go to the greatest athletes on the planet. Moore openly admits he is not that. Perhaps FIBA will allow NBA players, or get better at attracting talent to 3x3 in the three years before the Tokyo Olympics. If not, the three-on-three Olympic basketball tournament will be an odd sideshow for fringe basketball players.

With all that in mind, if the Olympics ever add an NBA Street Vol. 2 tournament, I will win the gold medal because I am the greatest NBA Street Vol. 2 player on the planet. Grab your sticks and meet me in my childhood bedroom if you want to challenge me. I will not pay for your airfare home after I whoop you.