When basketball against three against three makes its debut at the Olympics in Tokyo this summer, Latvia is there. Poland does the same. But a men’s team from the United States, the birthplace of basketball and winner of 15 of 19 men’s gold medals in the traditional five-on-five game, will not.
The Americans were eliminated from a qualifying tournament in Austria on Sunday 21-16 by the Netherlands.
How did this happen?
A hint is the list of American men. It consisted of Dominique Jones, Robbie Hummel, Kareem Maddox and Joey King. All were skilled university players. Everyone has been refining their games in three-on-three games for several years in preparation for the games. But they hardly represent the best players the United States could offer.
Several factors prevented the United States from rolling out a triangle like LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. First, the best NBA players are currently in the middle of the playoffs.
Even having crowded together a group of stars from teams that were not in the playoffs would still not have been possible. Hoping to promote its three-on-three tournaments around the world, the international federation FIBA mandated that Olympic hopefuls earn points in these events. When they took place in the winter, all the NBA players and even most Americans who played for European teams were out.
FIBA is aware of what it is doing. It hopes to build the game beyond just the Olympics, so it requires participation in its other lower-profile events. It also wants to have as many countries involved as possible. The American men also did not qualify for the World Cup in 2018, although Andorra, 77,000 inhabitants, did so only to show up.
“Andorra has a large turnout every weekend,” an official explained at the time.
The unforgiving nature of the qualifying tournament this weekend did not help. USA won its pool with a 3-1 record. But it only got them in the quarterfinals. The loss against Holland eliminated them as only the top three teams advanced to the Olympic tournament with eight teams.
In the game three against three – or 3×3 as FIBA insists on calling it – curve is worth 1 point. What would be a 3-point shot in the regular game is worth 2 points. The Dutch made four 2-pointers down to remove the Americans.
“Obviously this is not the end we wanted,” said Joe Lewandowski, who has the title of coach / advisor (coaching is not allowed during games). He is the head coach at Point Park University, an NAIA school in Pittsburgh. The traditional men’s five-on-five team is qualified and is coached by Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs.
Dawn Staley of South Carolina coaches the women’s five-on-five team.
Kara Lawson from Duke coached the American women’s three-on-three team, who easily qualified for the Games and finished 4-0 in the pool, then beating Belarus, 21-10 and Spain 21-13. (The winner is the first team to 21 points or the leader after 10 minutes.)
The women’s list has much more familiar names, all with WNBA experience: Allisha Gray of the Dallas Wings, Stefanie Dolson of Chicago Sky, Katie Lou Samuelson of Seattle Storm and Kelsey Plum of the Las Vegas Aces, a former No. 1 overall draft pick. Since the WNBA is a summer league, the opportunity was there to recruit some top players who were available to earn points at FIBA events in the winter.
These stars are now returning to their WNBA team. In contrast, the players on the men’s teams include a news producer and a development specialist.
Although there is a place left in the men’s field at the Olympics, the United States is not eligible for it. In another whimsical FIBA decision, this place is only reserved for nations that did not have a team in the Olympic Games in 2012 or 2016. So men from Mongolia, Hungary or Romania could participate in the Games while the nation Wilt Chamberlain and Julius Erving watch from home.