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Olympics

I Will Explain This New Olympic Sport To You: 3×3 Basketball

Photo by: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

It’s not pronounced three on three or three by three. No, this first-time Olympic sport is said like it’s spelled, for some reason: three EX three. 3×3 basketball—which begins play tonight, by the way, in case you get bored with watching the opening ceremony—earned its way into the Olympics through support and development from FIBA, basketball’s governing body. FIBA first experimented with 3×3 for the 2010 Youth Olympic Games, and then created an entire development program for the sport. 

One of FIBA’s goals of 3×3 basketball is to get countries involved who have never had success in traditional 5-on-5 basketball. One of the two Olympic qualifier tournaments only included countries that did not make the Rio or London Olympics in basketball, like the Netherlands, who had never qualified an Olympic basketball team until their 3×3 men’s team made the group of eight teams that will compete in Tokyo.  And Team Mongolia will compete on the women’s side, as the first-ever team (as opposed to individual) to represent Mongolia in any sport at any Olympics!

When I’m not rooting for the Team USA women (the American men didn’t qualify), I will be rooting hard for Team Mongolia. 

How it works: Four players per roster. Three players on the court at a time, with one sub. Games are 10 minutes long or shorter, if a team reaches 21 points, and played outdoors on a half-court. The shot clock is 12 seconds. One point for a basket scored inside the arc, two points from beyond. The ball itself is smaller than a standard basketball for easier ballhandling. 

“I would say to the casual observer, sit down in your seat,” Team USA’s Kelsey Plum told reporters before the team left for Tokyo. “We will give you 10 minutes of very entertaining, very exciting, very intense basketball. It’s like the X Games. There is music, there is commentary, it is funny, it is exciting, it is wild … It is a race to 21. It’s not a commercial break then come back to us, it’s sit down and watch us.” 

Everybody plays everybody. 3×3 basketball at the Olympics features a tournament format unique to these games. All eight teams are in one pool, meaning all of the teams will play each other at least once. Teams are seeded after from pool play, with the bottom two eliminated and the top two going directly to the semifinals. 

The Team USA women start off against France, the World No. 1-ranked team, who they knocked off 21-17 in the Olympic qualifying tournament in May. “Let’s start it off with a bang!” Plum said. 

Listen up. The commentary is really fun. A little corny, but fun. Kyle Montgomery is the voice of FIBA 3×3 basketball and he’s full of quick pop culture–laced one-liners about the players and their play. Here, he describes Plum as “quicker than a Kardashian marriage.” 

This is position-less basketball. Katie Lou Samuelson is a forward for the Seattle Storm, and she was part of Team USA’s 3×3 group for Olympic qualifying. She said in a USA 3×3 basketball video that she’s always felt like she’s a cross between a small forward and a power forward, but she feels at home in 3×3. “For three on three, I feel like there are no positions, so I can play like myself, I can play free,” she said. 

Why this sport rules: “You can body people more, and be more aggressive than traditional 5-on-5 and you can get away with a lot more fouls,” Team USA’s Alisha Gray told reporters. 

Just how much more can you get away with in 3×3 basketball? “A lot,” Team USA’s Stefanie Dolson promised. “Everything really, there are a lot of calls that aren’t called so you can really just play as physical as you want. I don’t know how much you know about the W[NBA], but there are a lot of fouls called … [3×3] is physical and you have to be able to finish through contact. I think it’s more fun because there is less stoppage and a little more flow.”

Athletes you will become obsessed with: Since there are only four athletes on Team USA, and no pesky men’s team to distract you from their talent, let’s introduce you to all of them. 

First, a shout out to Samuelson, who will miss the Olympics because she tested positive for COVID-19, despite being vaccinated. Samuelson was on the original Olympic roster, and was a key part of the team during the Olympic qualifying process. Her post about getting COVID damn near broke my heart. I hope she gets a medal for all the work she did to get Team USA qualified. In May, the quartet with Samuelson went 6-0 in the Olympic qualifying tournament in Austria. Katie Lou for two! sounded so good. 

Allisha Gray is a guard for the Dallas Wings and was the 2017 WNBA rookie of the year. She won a national championship with South Carolina and was the highest scorer for Team USA in Olympic qualifying.

Kelsey Plum is a point guard for the Las Vegas Aces and was the first overall pick in the 2017 WNBA draft. She was the 2017 Naismith College Player of the Year. She’s perfectly suited for the freedom of the 3×3 game, just don’t leave her in charge of keeping score. Or maybe do?

Stefanie Dolson is a center for the Chicago Sky, and a two-time WNBA All-Star. She won two NCAA championships with UConn and she’s great for the 3×3 game for many reasons, chief among them, her attitude. 

Also I just want you to appreciate @bigmamastef’s sunglasses: 

Jackie Young is a guard for the Aces. She left Notre Dame early to enter the W draft (very rare!) and was picked first overall in 2019 by the Aces. She had a challenging rookie season but has developed well since then and was chosen to replace Samuelson on this roster. 

Khulan Onolbaatar is Mongolia’s flagbearer in this Olympics, their first woman to ever do it. She’s 21 years old and she’s known for this buzzer-beater against Germany in the FIBA U23 World Cup.

When to watch: Full Team USA schedule is here. Group play starts tonight, and the USA will play France in their first game at 4:55 a.m. EDT Saturday. Since the games are 20–25 minutes long, you can set an alarm and go back to sleep until 8 a.m. EDT when the U.S. plays their second game against Mongolia!