clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Can Team USA Field a Team of Randos and Still Win 3x3 Basketball Gold at the Olympics?

It looks like the United States won’t be deploying LeBron James or Steph Curry in the new event at the Tokyo Games, but a podcast producer and a commentator might be able to get the job done just as well

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

A G-Leaguer, a college basketball commentator, a health care entrepreneur, and a podcast producer are officially the men’s three-on-three basketball champions of the world. Led by former Purdue star Robbie Hummel, Team USA won the 3x3 World Cup in Amsterdam last Sunday, taking down Latvia 18-14, putting them in the driver’s seat to win a gold medal in the inaugural three-on-three tournament at next year’s Olympics.

Hummel was drafted 58th overall by the Timberwolves in 2012 and finished 12th on the team in total minutes in 2014 and 11th in 2015. I was pretty sure he’d retired from professional basketball, since I’d seen him announcing college games on the Big Ten Network. Sure enough, he had retired. But he’d been recruited to join a three-on-three team featuring Damon Huffman (a former guard at Brown, whose LinkedIn indicates that he stopped pursuing basketball full time in 2013 to found a health care business) and Kareem Maddox (a former forward at Princeton, who now produces a Shark Tank–esque podcast called The Pitch for Gimlet Media).

I was bewildered when I Googled “Kareem Maddox” and found a podcast producer. Surely, there were two people named Kareem Maddox—one the former Princeton player who helped nearly upset Kentucky in the 2011 NCAA tournament and was now playing in the three-on-three world championships, and another who produced a podcast. (Sort of like how I never signed the Declaration of Independence.) But nope: same guy.

The Ringer employs several podcast producers, and I used to be proud to call all of them my colleagues. Several of our podcast producers take part in the site’s weekly pickup games, and I have been scored on easily by literally all of them, but none of them has ever won a world championship. The closest person we have on staff is Mark Titus, who has demonstrated neither the desire nor ability to compete for Olympic gold in any sport. Is The Ringer really gonna go out like this? I can barely muster the energy to go to the office in the morning knowing our podcast team would get simmered and sautéed on the court by Gimlet Media.

Anyway, back to the very real world of three-on-three world championships. Maddox and Huffman played for a team that had won back-to-back national championships, but hadn’t won gold internationally until this year. That’s when they were joined by Hummel and Canyon Barry, the son of Hall of Famer Rick, who played for Florida and the College of Charleston and is now with the Iowa Wolves in the G League. The result was complete domination. Team USA was the only undefeated team in the whole World Cup, outscoring their opponents by an average of 9.1 points per game—pretty impressive in games that end as soon as a team scores 21 or more points. Their point differential of 64 was the best in tournament history.

Perhaps the part-time nature of the champions seems fitting for three-on-three, a game primarily played when you don’t have enough people for a full game, and there’s a guy shooting on the other end of the court and you don’t want to ask him to move. But over the past few years, FIBA—think FIFA, but with a B for “basketball” instead—has been set on creating a formalized version of three-on-three for international tournaments. It’s the same thing that once happened with beach volleyball. Once played exclusively by regular people in casual pickup games, the international governing body of volleyball realized that the outdoor two-on-two version could be marketed as a fresh, sexy version of their sport and began sanctioning international events. They eventually got the sport into the Olympics.

3x3—think “three-on-three” but with an X for “xtreme” instead—is FIBA’s pet project. Without a signature event to generate cash—you’re probably not going to watch the FIBA World Cup in September—FIBA is all in on 3x3, holding events across the globe as part of its 3x3 World Tour. The branding seems like a 20-years-too-late attempt to cash in on the And1 Mixtape Tour. Virtually every FIBA press release about the game makes sure to call it “urban,” and the games feature an announcer spouting colorful nicknames. But it’s tough to seem street when Canyon Barry is shooting underhand free throws.

Regardless, this sells really well to the IOC, which is desperate to make the Olympic Games feature events actually played by members of the general public after 120 years of Greco-Roman wrestling and velodrome cycling. They have added skateboarding and surfing for the 2020 Games and, this week, provisionally added break dancing for 2024. 3x3 fits in with the Olympics’ rebrand as The Fancy X Games.

The Olympics are supposed to honor the best of the best: the person who wins the long jump? They can jump longer than anybody else on earth! The person who wins at archery? The planet’s best archer! To argue that 3x3 was worth inclusion in the Olympics, FIBA had to argue that 3x3 was truly its own event—not just in vibe, but in terms of skill. When the IOC approved the event, FIBA secretary general Patrick Baumann was asked whether LeBron James would participate, and he responded by saying “our objective is to have similar and fantastic stars that come out of 3-on-3.” The winners would be The Best 3-on-3 Basketball Players On Earth, not five-on-five cast-offs.

But Team USA has thrown a wrench into the argument. After flopping at the first five 3x3 World Cups, the U.S. sent a squad with more five-on-five talent than any they’d previously assembled and crushed it. Which raises the question: If a retired NBA 12th man, an occasional G League starter, and a podcast producer take home gold in Tokyo, is that evidence that they’re three-on-three icons, or a sign that the new form of Olympic basketball is just watered-down hoops?

Everybody has the same first question when they hear there will be a three-on-three basketball tournament at the Olympics: Who’s on the team? If I had to make a U.S. team, I’d pick Kevin Durant, LeBron, Kawhi Leonard, and Steph Curry. (Curry would be a defensive liability, especially in a game with virtually no help defense. But 3x3 goes by 2s and 1s, not 3s and 2s, so shots from behind the line are even more valuable than they are in the NBA. I want a shooter.)

However, it doesn’t seem like that’s going to happen. When 3x3 was officially announced as an Olympic sport, I wrote about how FIBA was likely going to limit the event to players who participate in official FIBA-sponsored 3x3 events. In theory, that’s not true: While qualification for the Olympics will be based on performance in FIBA-sponsored 3x3 events, the Olympic teams will be selected by a committee. But in practice, thus far, it has been true. (The women’s team won the first two 3x3 World Cups thanks to rosters stocked with WNBA stars like Skylar Diggins, Chiney Ogwumike, and Jewell Loyd, but with the tournament taking place right in the middle of the WNBA season, sending top players recently hasn’t been a priority. Last year a team from the University of Oregon finished fifth; this year the U.S. women failed to qualify.)

From 2012 to 2018, the United States picked its World Cup squad by holding a minimally publicized 3x3 national championship played in front of almost nobody at USA Basketball headquarters in Colorado Springs, with the winning squad sent in its entirety to the World Cup. That system didn’t yield great results. Team USA medaled just once in the first five World Cups, taking silver in 2016 thanks to a team that happened to feature current Golden State Warrior Alonzo McKinnie, who, at the time, was playing in the second division in Luxembourg.

Last year the U.S. didn’t even qualify. This year there was a slightly different approach. The national championship tournament was held outdoors in Las Vegas, but it wasn’t a direct path to the World Cup. Technically, the event was considered the 2019 national team trials, with a selection committee reserving the right to decide which four players would make the national team. While a team of Hummel, Maddox, Huffman, and a former Princeton guard named Dan Mavraides won the tournament, only Hummel and Maddox were named to the World Cup team. USA Basketball announced that Huffman and Mavraides were being bumped for Barry and Briante Weber, who played in 45 NBA games with five different teams. (Weber was eventually swapped back out for Huffman for undisclosed reasons.)

Armed with a full-time minor league basketball player in Barry and a legitimate ex-college star in Hummel, the United States dominated. In the group stages, they beat the defending champions, Serbia, as well as a Dutch team that was hosting the tournament and was ranked no. 2 in the world. In the semifinals, at one point, they took an 18-1 lead on Poland. (Games are to 21, so if you’re down 18-1, things aren’t going well.) And then they took the gold over Latvia.

Before the U.S.’s championship run, Serbia was completely dominant in the 3x3 world. The Serbians were led by a 6-foot-3 guard named Dusan Bulut who has never played five-on-five at a level higher than the second division in Serbia, but was a legitimate 3x3 star, with his own mixtapes and everything. Bulut and Serbia won four of the first five 3x3 World Cups, including undefeated runs in 2016, 2017, and 2018, as well as three 3x3 World Tour championships. With unique skill sets finely tuned to the game’s modifications and a wealth of familiarity with the style of play and with each other, the Serbians became a powerhouse. Bulut and the Serbians seemed like confirmation of FIBA’s claim that 3x3 was its own sport that could develop its own stars.

But Team USA’s win calls that theory into question. Hummel, the tournament MVP, had never played 3x3 before 2018. Barry hadn’t played 3x3 before May, and had never played with his eventual championship teammates before joining them in France for a tune-up tournament two weeks ago. I’m sure USA Basketball picked them because their skill sets were well-suited to 3x3, but it’s worth noting that the successful five-on-five players in the tournament were also the best 3x3 players.

As it turns out, the fact that America’s 3x3 players have non-basketball jobs has less to do with the quixotic ideal of streetball and more to do with the niche nature of 3x3 thus far. There is a bit of money in 3x3, but for the most part, professional basketball players have to pursue actual professional basketball opportunities, leaving the task of crisscrossing the globe in pursuit of 3x3 glory to guys using vacation time from their day jobs to moonlight as potential Olympians. (It seems telling that thus far, America’s most devoted 3x3 players have Ivy League degrees.) After all, nobody knows this is going on. The 3x3 World Cup wasn’t even available on TV in the United States. (You had to pay $12.99 to FloHoops to watch.)

But when the ball is tipped—err … checked—in Tokyo, the anonymity of 3x3 will be over. The world will be watching, and they’ll be laughing if Team USA is just the 2014 Dartmouth basketball team getting crushed by Slovenia. So it’s fascinating to consider how USA Basketball will proceed. It would please FIBA if the United States sent a team like the Hummel-led squad that just won gold to Tokyo. That would help prove that years of participation in 3x3 helps players hone a unique skill set that can’t be developed in five-on-five leagues. But if Barry, an occasional starter in the G League, can be one of the best players at a 3x3 World Cup, I’m confident a few random NBA players or G League stars with a month or two of 3x3 exposure will lay waste to the competition and bring the U.S. an Olympic gold.

Maybe that’s to be expected. 3x3 at the international level didn’t even exist 10 years ago. Of course, in the early stages of the sport’s existence, the best players will be ones who developed their skills in the traditional form of the game. Maybe in 50 years, 3x3 will be a mainstream alternative to full-court hoops with its own stars, and we’ll look back on the 2019 season as a strange prototype when fringe full-court hoopers and part-timers could win gold.

But that’s FIBA’s problem. All Team USA needs to worry about is getting that gold in Tokyo, whether by 3x3 aficionados or the G League All-Star team. There is one solution that would satisfy everybody, though: USA Basketball will hold a 23-city series of 3x3 qualifying tournaments ahead of the Tokyo Games, promising no prerequisites for players to sign up and that all participants will be eligible to be selected to the Olympic team. I’m urging our podcast producers to show up at these qualifiers and make America’s 2020 Olympic team. They can prove that they are the native 3x3 stars FIBA promised, while also proving that The Ringer is better at basketball than Gimlet Media.