Why you should care

Defying skeptics, 3-on-3 basketball is scoring crowds, sponsors and sporting talent.

In the summer of 2017, when Ice Cube and Jeff Kwatinetz unleashed their joint venture to launch a 3-on-3 basketball league with recently retired NBA players, Brian Mahoney, an AP basketball reporter and former DI head coach, was among many who were skeptical. Not only was 3-on-3 seen by some as a children’s game for the park, but the BIG3 basketball league incorporated gimmick-like rules such as a four-point shot and was dolling out players that most fans saw as past the point of relevancy.

“I thought, ‘Oh gosh, are these guys really going to make an event of this?’ ” Mahoney recalls. “And they did.”

As it turns out, the 3-on-3 game actually created a competitive, entertaining product that excited fans. The first event was met by a packed arena and nearly 400,000 televisions viewers, making it one of broadcaster Fox Sports’ top 10 all-time basketball telecasts. And the success of that game is part of a larger embrace of 3-on-3 basketball across the globe, a shift that could redefine the way millions think of the sport. FIBA, the sport’s international authority, launched a 3X3 World Tour event in 2012. In response, USA Basketball asked Scott McNeal, the founder of the legendary 3-on-3 Gus Macker basketball tournament that peaked in the 1990s, to meet with them on how to come up with a plan for developing 3-on-3 basketball in the U.S.

The U.S. has joined FIBA’s 3X3 World Tour, bringing legitimacy to the game. The International Olympic Committee has announced that 3-on-3 basketball will be a part of the 2020 games in Tokyo. The financial incentives are increasing rapidly. When the 3x3 World Tour started, there were only six events. Today, the number of events has increased to 10, the overall prize money is $1 million (U.S.), and the BIG3 is earning the approval of some of its doubters.

I never thought it would be in the Olympics.

Brian Mahoney, AP basketball reporter and former DI head coach

“I thought it was good basketball,” says Mahoney of the first BIG3 event.

To McNeal, the 3-on-3 game appears in the midst of a rebirth. He would know. He started the tournaments in his parents’ driveway in 1974 and has since showcased his tournaments across the country, popping up in towns both large and small for anyone to play in. Many recreational players lost interest in the game after their “call your own foul” rule led to the game becoming too physical. Participation was down for over a decade.

But now, FIBA’s and the BIG3’s involvement is pushing the game into uncharted territories — places that Gus Macker’s neighborhood brand of basketball could never reach.

Though the prize money is growing, it’s not yet enough to bring 3-on-3 onto the big stage. The most any one team can win on the World Tour is $370,000. Four players can participate for any team in a competition, so the maximum prize money works out to $92,500 each — none of which is guaranteed. To win this much a team would have to win all nine World Tour Masters events and the World Tour Final. As Craig Moore, the only United States 3X3 player to participate in the World Championship twice, puts it: “The cash prizes are great, but it’s not enough for me to supplement living in New York City.”

For this reason, top players like Moore still have day jobs and train for 3-on-3 before and after work. His team has backup players, in case some can’t make it due to life’s day-to-day obligations. Moore hopes that won’t be the case for long — especially now that he and his 3-on-3 teammates have committed themselves to growing the game as much as possible.

Recently, he and his teammates spent the weekend teaching top college basketball seniors at the 3X3U National Championship how to play 3-on-3 basketball. This tournament is another example of the growing publicity the game has received in recent years, and it also exposed some of college basketball’s top players to the game. Not all of these guys will make it to the NBA after graduation, and increasing prize money of 3-on-3 presents an alternative route to playing basketball professionally.

There’s still one obstacle that stands in the way of 3-on-3 becoming a major sport: It’s not the pinnacle of basketball, and the threat of its best players moving onto the 5-on-5 when they get an opportunity is real.

When Myke Henry finished playing college basketball in 2016, he didn’t have many opportunities to continue playing the game at a high level. He chose to play 3-on-3 for USA Basketball and excelled. Henry ended up being the MVP of the 2016 USA Basketball 3x3 National Tournament and was the second-leading scorer in the World Championship that fall. In January 2018, he made his NBA debut for the Memphis Grizzlies. Henry likely won’t be available to compete in 3-on-3 in the upcoming Olympic Games, but that doesn’t mean his time playing 3-on-3 wasn’t valuable. “It’s definitely a confidence booster,” Henry says. “I called myself ‘Buckets’ in 3-on-3 because I was hard to guard.”

As 3-on-3 basketball grows and becomes more financially viable, it may become the preferred option for skilled basketball. As beach volleyball has shown, highly skilled players can turn their professional careers to what has traditionally been a recreational game. Growing popularity could also open the door to 3-on-3 becoming a high school or NCAA DI sport, which would further feed into the game’s draw.

That dream may appear distant, but many had never imagined 3-on-3 basketball would get even this far. “I never thought it would be in the Olympics,” says Mahoney. “I guess if it can get there, it can get anywhere. Nothing would shock me.”

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