A long-time street favourite, 3x3 basketball makes its Olympic debut

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Three-on-three basketball has long been played on street courts in cities around the world. In Tokyo, it’s joining a half-dozen new Olympic sports –
and basketball’s governing bodies are hoping its newfound recognition is just the beginning.

According to a study commissioned by the International Olympic Committee, 3x3 basketball is the most widely played urban team sport in the world. Yet it’s only recently joined the ranks of international pro sports. It wasn’t until 2007 that the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) established universal rules for 3x3, which premiered at the 2010 Youth Olympic Games in Singapore.

In Tokyo, it will share the limelight with five-on-five basketball, an Olympic favourite since at least 1992, when the US “Dream Team” took gold in Barcelona.

From July 24 to 28, sports fans will get a taste of 3x3’s fast pace, with back-to-back women’s and men’s rounds leading up to the finals on Wednesday.

What makes 3x3 different?

Besides the number of players, the biggest difference between traditional Olympic basketball and 3x3 is that it’s played on a half court with only a single basket. Each match lasts only 10 minutes, or even less if either team scores 21 points within that time. The ball is a size smaller than that used in traditional basketball, and each basket is only worth one point, rather than two.

Similarly, the equivalent of a three-pointer – shot from at least 6.75 metres from the hoop – is only worth two points in 3x3. If the teams are tied after 10 minutes, the game goes into overtime, and the first team to score two points wins.

“It’s a more dynamic format than traditional basketball,” Karim Souchu, former professional basketball player and now coach of the French 3x3 team, tells FRANCE 24. “There are far fewer stoppages, referees call fewer fouls and the team in possession of the ball has only 12 seconds to shoot, compared to 24 in 5x5.”

“Everything is done to speed up the game,” Souchu adds. “It’s a kind of cardio basketball.”

'3x3 has the wind in its sails'

Much like rugby sevens, an Olympic sport since 2016, this high-speed form of basketball is extremely popular. That may be in part because the style of play –adapted to the half-court format – lends itself to a more standard body type than that of NBA stars.

“In 3x3, the players are smaller, but with greater cardio capabilities,” Souchu explains. “The best players in the world have a very specific body type.”

Serbia’s Dusan Bulut, nicknamed “BulutProof”, is a good example. Bulut, the international star of 3x3, is “only” 1.91m tall, compared to US superstar LeBron James at 2.06m and recently crowned NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo at 2.11m.

For basketball’s governing bodies, 3x3’s Olympic debut offers a lucrative prospect.

“There is an appetite for urban sports and 3x3 has the wind in its sails. ‘Streetball’ has always existed, but becoming an Olympic sport will legitimise it and increase the number of players,” Jean-Pierre Siutat, president of the French Basketball Federation (FFBB), tells FRANCE 24.

Before Covid-19 hit, the FFBB counted some 700,000 members, making it the second most-played team sport in France after football, counting by registered players. But the federation’s membership is dwarfed by the number of unregistered players, which it estimates at 2.5 million.

The FFBB hopes that growing international recognition will encourage more of those players to join its ranks. It aims to increase the number of annual tournaments played in France from 1,500 to 2,000 by 2024, when Paris will host the next Summer Olympics.

It’s an encouraging prospect for many municipalities as well, as it could mean new funding to build or renovate local courts. In Paris, some 15 courts are set to be renovated in the coming months. The first, located under the metro tracks in the city’s 13th arrondissement and sporting a colourful design by the artist Atlas, opened on June 8.

This article was adapted from the original in French.

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