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Pinnacle of the journey: USAB 3X3 look to qualify for Tokyo 2020

The USAB 3X3 team will compete at the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Austria May 26-30.

Brauna Marks

The USAB 3X3 team stands on a practice court in the Red Bull 3X3 House with their coaching staff. (Credit: USA Basketball)

After over a year of dismay, sporting events are finally beginning to return to some feeling of normalcy.

While fans return to arenas and stadiums, the largest sporting event of all looks to invite a global audience into recognizing the many dreams that were put on hold last year.

Four men are looking towards that horizon, hoping to amplify the narrative around three on three (3×3) basketball at the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Austria from May 26-30.

If they finish in the top three, it would be the team’s first appearance at the Olympic Games.

“It feels like the pinnacle of a journey,” Kareem Maddox said about heading to qualifiers.

A non-traditional perspective of competitive basketball

Five on five (5×5) has been the traditional way for U.S. basketball to soak in the spotlight at the world games — Dream Team ring a bell? As the sports world evolves, so does the ball-to-hoop method.

The 3×3 method proves to be a completely different perspective of competitive basketball. For starters, it’s played on a half court instead of a full court. Other differences in play include a 12-second shot clock, no 3-point line and only one substitute player. The level of competitiveness seems incomparable to the traditional view of the game.

“The NBA is a different animal … there’s nothing like it. Three on three is very different from all of that,” Robbie Hummel said of his time with the Minnesota Timberwolves and playing overseas. “I’m not sure what I’ve ever done to prepare me to play this sport.”

Canyon Barry, Dominique Jones, Maddox and Hummel are proving that basketball in a non-traditional setting can be played at the highest level. And most of what they have experienced in the last year, has been non-traditional.

These four athletes are currently living under one roof in Los Angeles in preparation to prove their mutual passion worthy.

“Chemistry is 90 percent of the game,” Maddox said on the importance of living together. “You, by extension, are playing for the same thing that everyone is playing for and knowing those things makes the bond a little stronger.”

Under precaution of an ongoing pandemic and the need to train and increase chemistry, the USAB 3X3 team came up with the idea of staying together in one place. Red Bull teamed with USA basketball to create somewhat of a super house to accommodate the players and their goal. The “3X House” provides the team with an all-inclusive living and training environment, including two half courts and access to other training necessities.

“It’s been an interesting kind of mix, it’s always a process trying to figure out what you want to run, how to play to your strengths and just kind of putting the time in to mold a team together,” Hummel said. “It’s been a challenge, but I think we’ve done the best we can and we’re certainly working hard.”

Overcoming adversity amid the COVID-19 pandemic

While the team’s dreams were put on halt after the 2020 Olympics were postponed to 2021, each athlete faced restrictions to the game of basketball and simple gym access.

“A couple of my teammates are from [L.A.], so when they were living here, they were like look ‘We drove to three or four parks and there are two-by-fours zip tied across baskets,’” said Barry, a 3×3 FIBA World Cup gold medalist.

Across the country in New York, Jones experienced similar setbacks.

“They took the rims off the court [in New York]. Just to get into a gym, you know, nobody was letting people in gyms, like even gym memberships weren’t letting people use basketball courts,” Jones said. “It was a really dope setup for USA Basketball and Red Bull just to partner up and grant us this opportunity to grow as a team.”

Adversity may have hit but this group is well-versed to bounce back. The roster holds a heavy number of accolades between each of the men. Three have been named MVPs during their 3×3 tenure, and all four secured gold for the USA between the 2019 FIBA World Cups and 2019 Pan American Games.

“They are a bunch of talented, hard workers. I have nothing but respect for my teammates,” said Jones, a member of the inaugural 3×3 Pan Am Games team that won gold in 2019. “Iron sharpens iron and I think that’s what we’re doing here.”

The USAB 3X3 team has traveled the world to compete in weekend tournaments while balancing life, family, a pandemic, the responsibilities of full-time jobs, and learned how to bring in every aspect of the basketball game into their skill set.

“I think 10 years from now it could be an NCAA sport,” Maddox said. “I think on the youth level, 3×3 could be a really good tool for development of players. The players have to be really versatile; they have to be able to dribble, pass and shoot.”

If these men continue to blaze such a path, they will be a true set of pioneers, creating more chances for other players to become Olympians. It would also be dream worthy for the players who did it first, to win it all.

“I hope to bring home a gold medal, that’s always been the goal from day one. So, whatever we can do to make that happen, that’s what we’re going to try to do,” Barry said. “We’re going to give it our best effort and try to represent the U.S. in the best way we can, and hopefully that means the National Anthem being played in Tokyo.”