TOKYO — Anyone who’s ever scored a Fadeaway 3 in a pickup basketball game knows that there are two surefire ways to start a fight on the playing field.
Talk nonsense about someone’s mother.
Or call an offensive foul.
At the start of 3-on-3 halfcourt hoops at the Olympics on Saturday, Netherlands’ Arvin Slagter set up a vicious pick on Serbia’s Dejan Majstorovic that sent Majstorovic crumpling to the ground.
A whistle rang. A referee dressed in a slate-gray T-shirt and black shorts clenched his hand into a fist, stretched out his arm, and made a call that would blow the fist an entirely different way than in a real street game. “Crime!” He called foul as he shouted.
No one argued. It was one of many indications that this Olympic version of urban “streetball,” as the sport’s higher-ups sometimes call it, is slightly different from what is happening on blacktops in America and the rest of the world.
Different, yes – but it’s still great fun to hear these players say it.
“3-on-3 is basketball in a very intense way,” said Slagter’s teammate, Jesse Worn. “But it’s not streetball.”
The Olympics like the idea of ”streetball” because they’re doing whatever they can to inject a busy summer schedule with a sport that will attract a younger, more international audience. Skateboarding, surfing, sport climbing and, three years from now in Paris, break dance (in the ’80s, they want their boom boxes back) are among the new sports selected to serve this mission.
At least in a way, 3-on-3 is fitting the bill perfectly. The United States does not have an American team from the men’s side of the eight-team Olympic bracket in the sport invented and proven. It has a women’s team from Mongolia.
It doesn’t have fans, at least not in Tokyo, where they are not allowed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
It has DJs. They were in the house all day, spinning records — Daft Punk, Kanye West and more — for the empty stands that, someday, would be replenished.
The games take place on a gray court located under a cone-shaped canopy that covers the middle of an area designed to seat 7,100. Even in the shade, the heat index broke 90 degrees (32 Celsius) on a hot afternoon near Tokyo Bay.
“I’ve said they just call it ‘streetball’ because of the environment,” said USA center Stephanie Dolson, a former UConn star who was the sixth pick in the 2014 WNBA Draft.
“They have music playing. There’s a commentator on the sound system saying “Big Mama Steph!” You’re outside and the weather can play a factor. It’s streetball that way.”
The Olympic version is like a pickup game this way: 3s from the back of the arc are worth 2 points and 2s from the inside are worth 1, and teams must clear the ball before the arc after a rebound. The first team to hit 21 wins, but to kick things off, if no one hits that number in 10 minutes, the one who’s next wins the game. Six out of the 12 matches on the first day ended this way.
Minutes after a harsh offensive foul, Serbia registered a massive 16–15 victory over the Netherlands. Tough defense in a 3-on-3 game? This is another difference from your typical playground shooting festival.
The man who defeated the Serbs is Dusan Bulut, the world’s top-ranked player. In Serbia’s victory “The Bullet” scored 4 points and had three “highlights” – an official stat that combines ‘key assists’, drives, dunks, blocked shots and buzzer beaters.
“It’s not just a game and it’s not just a game,” said 35-year-old Bulat, who grew up playing in the streets of Novi Sad. Play sweet court and ball or hang out with friends. It’s a way of life for us.”
This way of life is slowly changing. But if the multimillion-dollar business of the Olympics has bothered any of these players, it was unclear on the first day of this edition’s reception on the big stage.
“I started playing 3-on-3 last September because of the Olympics,” Woorne said. “I underestimated it, to be honest.”
That said, it’s more physical, much faster and far more organized than any pickup game on the road.
As if to cement the idea that the sport has indeed reached the big time, when the American women, who created the tournament, virtually watched French President Emmanuel Macron and US First Lady Jill Biden on Saturday night . empty stand.
“She brought all that energy,” USA’s Kelsey Plum said of Biden. “We asked him to come back.”
Although not for their next match. In another unique twist not seen in the traditional 5-on-5 version, 3-on-3 teams often play multiple games in a single day. Just hours after the US beat France 17-10, Biden had gone ahead, while Dolson & Co came back to beat Mongolia 21-9 to finish 13 minutes (in real time) in a contest.
It could have been faster.
But twice in a game, the referee blows the whistle, makes a tee with his hand and his index finger, then moves his finger in a circle as if he’s cranking a movie projector.
Turns out, not even an Olympic playground can escape the dreaded TV timeout.
Welcome to 3-on-3, Big Time.
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