Tokyo Olympics: 3x3 basketball announces its arrival as Latvia’s men and USA’s women claim historic golds

·4-min read
Agnis Cavars looks to score for Latvia in the men’s 3x3 final (Getty)
Agnis Cavars looks to score for Latvia in the men’s 3x3 final (Getty)

“WE’RE MAKING HISTORY!” bellowed the hype man as the instrumental of Drake’s “God’s Plan” pumped around the Aomi Urban Sports Park. For once, a hype man was not embellishing the truth.

On a warm Wednesday evening in Tokyo, three-on-three basketball (known as 3x3) set about crowning its first Olympic champions. The casual, younger sibling of the more renowned five-a-side behemoth was finally stepping out of the shadows for recognition of its own.

Its roots as an entity are relatively unknown because every nation has its own version. Being, ultimately, “pick-up” basketball makes it hard to pin down to a time or place with any certainty.

But following broad standardisation across the United States in the early 2000s and the efforts of the International Basketball Federation (Fiba) to raise it as a standalone pursuit, serious moves have been made. And on 28 July 2021, Latvia’s men and the USA’s women became its first Olympic gold medallists, both beating teams from the Russian Olympic Committee, who had to settle for silver.

Every Games has a sport that grabs the attention of the four/five-year casual, and 3x3 might be the one of Tokyo 2020. It met all the necessary requirements: quick to understand, all-action, easily digestible (games last just 10 minutes) and done and dusted before the athletics started. And with the added extra of maintaining the soul of its grassroots beginnings.

Three-on-three is, essentially, a refined version of the basketball played largely in the streets and on public courts, where space is at a premium and the respect earned – and the ridicule – follows you home. The smaller confines put the onus on constant movement and tight handling.

Player-to-player coverage encourages misdirection. Crossovers, stop-and-gos and flashy dimes (assists to you and me) are the most effective ways of bettering your marker. It is why each player during this tournament was judged by an extra “highlights per game” metric. Even with the added jeopardy of medals up for grabs, there was no compromise on flair or tempo.

Even with refinement, it still carries the rough edges of imperfect shooting techniques and a physicality experienced by all who try their hand at basketball for the first time. The women’s final was a particularly brutal affair.

Team USA celebrate victory in the women’s 3x3 final (Getty)
Team USA celebrate victory in the women’s 3x3 final (Getty)

The rules also enhance the event’s rough and ready nature. You win by being the first to 21 points or by being ahead when the 10 minutes expire. Points are one and two instead of two and three for shots outside the key. Reduced scoring means hanging back and shooting from deep has little extra value, especially as rebounds are so vital and turnovers are especially damaging. An extra quirk is the defensive team must take the ball outside the key before attempting to score even after a bucket is made.

The International Olympic Committee has come under intense scrutiny for including 3x3, skateboarding and even breakdancing (debuting in 2024) to its programme and continually ignoring more traditional sports like squash. No doubt there’s an element of “how do you do, fellow kids?” to Thomas Bach and the rest of his committee ratifying these sports, along with trying to cosy up to the Fortnite generation with a view to gaining access to their pockets.

But over this last week, 3x3 has ticked all the boxes. It has been engaging as a spectacle, players bought into what was at stake and, if social media is anything to go by, it has captured the imagination of a global audience and no doubt enhanced the recreational player base.

Basketball England, for example, offers 3x3 as a gateway into full-court basketball, or even as just a place where you can embrace the razzle-dazzle you did not know you had. To see a country like Mongolia in the women’s competition, right the way up to WNBA stars taking the US to glory was a nod to its everyman and -woman qualities. And it’s a little bit funny that the US men’s team, the reigning world champions, failed to qualify.

Fittingly, we got an exciting climax.

Latvia celebrate their dramatic gold-winning performance in the men’s 3x3 final (AFP/Getty)
Latvia celebrate their dramatic gold-winning performance in the men’s 3x3 final (AFP/Getty)

Latvia, ranked No 2 in the world behind Serbia, trailed the Russians for the majority before taking the lead for the first time with 3:20 on the clock. An exchange of points followed before Latvia were ahead 19-18 with 31 seconds to go.

The game-winning shot came from Karlis Lasmanis, sinking a two from the left to confirm a hard-fought and ultimately deserved win. Lasmanis represented his country in five-on-five at junior level but became enamoured with 3x3 when he saw it during the Ghetto Games in Riga when he was competing as a skateboarder.

At 27, who knows how much his life will change. The hope of those involved with 3x3 is that the Olympics will open up more opportunities and funding to give the game more prominence. While those who showcased it this summer may not get rich off their efforts, 3x3 will no doubt be better off.

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