Each match lasts a maximum of 10 minutes, with a 12-second shot clock. It is played on half a court, with one hoop. There is no halftime, and no quarters or no time-outs. And it is typically accompanied by non-stop music, DJs and break-dancers. Basketball 3x3 is set to make quite an entrance at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
“Everybody has fun. The players, the audience, they have a really good time, they are surrounded by music, it’s in the open air,” Dusan Bulut, the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) 3x3 world number one-ranked player, said. “It's global, it’s urban, it’s a show.”
The discipline has leapt from its debut at the Singapore Youth Olympic Games to a spot at the world’s biggest sporting spectacle. And for Serbia’s Bulut, despite all the razzmatazz, it is the intricacies of the game itself that are responsible.
“It is so fast. You need to think quickly. If you want to be at a high level you have to develop all types of skill,” the two-time world champion said. “You need to play defence; you need to play offence; you need to know how to dribble the ball; you need to have a good three-point shot.”
It's global, it’s urban, it’s a show.
3x3 basketball has, in some format or another, been played almost since the moment James Naismith got inspired and invented basketball in 1891. Bulut recalls how “every street corner” in his home town of Novi Sad had a 3x3 court.
“For me, it was always part of growing up. If you wanted to be recognised as a person, you needed to know how to play 3-ball,” he said.
By the early 2000s, a host of independently-run tournaments were taking place throughout the summer across Europe, and elsewhere. Then FIBA came along and drew this disparate network together, founding both the World Tour and hosting the first World Cup, featuring men’s and women’s teams, in 2012.
The Tour comprises teams of four (three starters and a sub) made up of any nationality, representing a city. In 2017, there are seven Masters tournaments worldwide, each featuring 12 teams, with a grand final in Beijing in October. The digital portal, Play.FIBA3x3.com, allows anyone to register, form a team, get a world ranking, find local tournaments and work their way up the ladder towards the global stage.
While not yet wholly professional, the very top players on the World Tour are full-time 3x3 ballers.
When I started 3x3 I saw so clearly in my mind that one day it would be in the Olympic Games. And now we will be part of it, and I will bring the gold medal home
“We have devoted our lives to this, on court and off the court,” Bulut said. The 31-year-old lines up with his childhood friends, representing his hometown of Novi Sad (now known on Tour as Novi Sad Alwahda). They won the overall title in 2014 and 2015.
Players get to choose their teammates, travel the world and play with freedom. It is, as Bulut acknowledges, “a dream”. And he has worked extremely hard to make it a reality. The skills needed to dominate at 3x3 are very different from those prevalent in traditional basketball. In 2012, at the first World Cup, Spain entered a team of ex-NBA professionals and former 5x5 Olympians, led by Jorge Garbajosa, the current President of the Spanish basketball federation (FEB). They did not even make the semi-finals, knocked out by the eventual winners, Serbia who were, of course, led by Bulut.
Forty teams representing 28 countries took part in the 2016 World Cup, with the Czech Republic claiming the women’s title and Serbia once again triumphing in the men’s competition. Charlotte Van Kleef, part of the Netherlands’ silver medal-winning squad, was one of three players to have progressed from the Nanjing 2014 Youth Olympic Games to the world stage. The Lithuanian 2014 YOG boys’ gold medallists have also recently indicated to FIBA that they hope to compete on the 3x3 World Tour soon.
The fourth edition of the World Cup tips off in Nantes, France, on 17 June, with Bulut and his compatriots strong favourites to retain their title. But the man who lives for the unique challenges of 3x3 already has half an eye on Tokyo 2020.
“When I started 3x3 I saw so clearly in my mind that one day it would be in the Olympic Games. And now we will be part of it, and I will bring the gold medal home,” he said.
“It will make a full circle.”