One hoop ring to rule them all

Written by Sandip G
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July 19, 2022 8:19:42 pm

Everything from rules to tempo and scoring system to the ball are different. Teams play with one and two-point baskets (no three pointers) over a single 10-minute period with a 12-second shot clock. (Twitter)

When 3×3 basketball became an Olympic sport, five years ago, America’s favourite pass-time was picking the best all-time trio from the NBA galaxy. Should it be LeBron James, Michael Jordan and Kevin Durant or should it be Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy? Or Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and Robert Horry?

The common myth was that 3×3 is just a shrunk version of the 5-on-5 basketball. At its best, a leaner version to woo the attention challenged in this era of instant gratification. “With the many options that young people have, we cannot expect any more that they will come automatically to us. We have to go to them,” the International Olympic Committee president, Thomas Bach, had reasoned.

At its worst, a gimmicky marketing trick to melodramatise basketball, more Harlem Globetrotters than NBA, more make-belief than real. Even the modernists crooned: “Why make an already short game (40 to 48 minutes) shorter? Why suck out all the drama and action that rolls on in this span? Why overcomplicate a simple sport?”

To the cynics and doubters, Dusan Bulut, 3×3’s GOAT, has just one request: “Please watch one game and come back. Because if you have watched even one 3×3 game closely, you wouldn’t be comparing the two. These are two different disciplines. There is so much in common, but there is much not in common” he tells The Indian Express.

Dusan Bulut puts back the rebound to give Aliens sole-possession of first place! The invasion has already begun… 🛸@MrBullutproof | @big3aliens pic.twitter.com/biCAWp3zfz

— BIG3 (@thebig3) July 17, 2022

He strikes a parallel from athletics: “There are a lot of events that come under athletics, a lot of events that require different skill-sets. The skills required for 100m and 1000m races are different. You can’t expect Usain Bolt to win a marathon, don’t you? Or a marathon champion to win 100m, even 400m? It needs totally different techniques and different practices. It’s the same here, 3×3 and 5×5 are different disciplines. Personally, I think it’s closer to handball.”

Everything from rules to tempo and scoring system to the ball are different. Teams play with one and two-point baskets (no three pointers) over a single 10-minute period with a 12-second shot clock. The game can end sooner if a team reaches 21 points before the stipulated time. If a game is tied at the end of regulation time, the first team to score two points in overtime wins. Each side is awarded two free throws from the seventh team foul, then two free throws and possession after the 10th. The ball is slightly smaller than in the 5×5 game to promote snappier handling, only one substitute per team is allowed and in-game coaching is not allowed. “Can it be called the same if there are so many differences?” he asks. And a single common hoop to aim at.

YOU CANNOT DO THAT TO ANOTHER GROWN MAN 🗣🗣🗣

The @FIBA3x3 legend Dusan Bulut pulling the shammgod for the game winner 🤯

🧑‍🎨 @mrbullutproof pic.twitter.com/GOnwICOjil

— FIBA (@FIBA) January 4, 2022

Half a court does not make the game less strenuous either. “There are two fewer men on the court, which means there is no time to sit back and relax for even a second. It’s relentless and an ultimate test of your endurance. Even some of the NBA players would struggle when they first play 3×3,” he says.

As did Canada’s Stephen Sir, who was a shooter for Milwaukee Bucks. “It is attack attack and attack. It’s so back-and-forth with the way the game is played, where if the other team scores and I’m defending, we’re taking it out of the net and running our offence immediately. It’s a continuous game, and coming from a 5×5 background I was drained,” he says.

There are other subtle differences too—all defensive rebounds and steals must be cleared to the arc, fast breaks are non-existent, thus placing a greater emphasis on screens, isolation plays, quick backdoor cuts and offensive players backing down their defenders into the post. As a result, the players end up relying as much on cunning and trickery as on stamina and physicality. “You have to be versatile—shoot, dribble, pass and play defence. I thought half-court was easy, I was wrong,” he explains.

And be more physical—the referees take a more lenient approach to grappling. Once a team commits seven fouls, the other squad shoots two free throws, but no one can be sent off.

Simply put, it’s not a game for a middle-aged, out-of-shape wannabe Kevin Durant in driveways and backyards, as some believe. Incidentally, the first organised 3×3 tournament was played out in a driveway in Michigan, organised by a group of 18 friends who played for a tournament purse of $18. Later, they called it the Macker Basketball Tournament, after the main organiser’s nickname.

There were several iterations of this version around the world with different rules, before FIBA chalked up a unified set of rules in 2007, three years before the first 3×3 World Cup. The presence of 3×3 was visible yet invisible. It was everywhere—perhaps predates the 5-on-five—but still considered informal. Under different guises and forms–streetball the most conspicuous–it has existed. Almost every NBA hall-of-famer, almost everyone who had held a basketball in his hands, might have played informal 3×3 in some point of their life.

Be what you want to be

But in Novi Sad, the second largest city in Serbia where Bulut grew up, 3×3 was more popular than 5×5. “More than 75 percent of basketball games I have played in my life is 3×3. It was always more popular here,” he says.

The conventional version almost caged him. “There is less scope for improvisation and innovation. There is less freedom and I felt suffocated. In 3×3, I can be what I am,” he says.

“I can be what I am” means a lot of theatre and stunts (rather than moves) . He has patented the Shammgod Nutmeg, which Bulut calls the Bodiroga in honor of the Serbian 5-on-5 basketball legend Dejan Bodiroga. He throws the ball in front of his body, drops his shoulder, pulls it back with his opposite hand, performs a crossover dribble and nutmegs the marker.

He explains the move with characteristic gusto: “It starts with the eyes, your eyes move that side, you move this side. You drop your eyes this way and move the opposite way,” he says as though it is as simple as throwing a piece of paper into the dustbin.

There are other eye-popping stunts up his sleeve too—behind-the-back-assist, Euro Step layup, a move where he moves in one direction before exploding the opposite way after picking up his dribble, and a step-back shot. These are tricks you do not find in textbooks or coaching manuals. Most of them were self-taught, a fruit of numerous hours spent re-watching VHS tapes, reading sports magazines brought by his sports journalist father and practising those a hundred times on the court.

Incidentally or not, Bulut is the marketing face (and force) the fledgling sport was desperately looking for. “Every sport needs a guy like me to survive. A dash of glamour. I might not earn like an NBA guy. But I can be happy that I have done my best to make this game (three-a-side) glamorous,” he says.

There is enough evidence, he says, that suggests the exponential growth in the sport’s viewership. “As many as seven hundred thousand streamed the last game I played (in America’s Big3 league). That too in baseball season,” he points out.

Non-traditional basketball hubs embracing the sport is perhaps a bigger positive. Like, last year, India managed its highest ever ranking (16) in men’s 3×3, before they slipped to 29th in the latest. In the conventional format, though, they are ranked 82nd in the world. Another testament to its popularity is the mushrooming leagues world over—India has been conducting a league for three seasons—there exists none for 5-a-side—as has China, Japan, Mongolia and a host of East Asian countries. “A sport would grow when more countries, even those without a basketball culture, take up the sport,” says Steve.

The Canadian was surprised when he got an invitation from Mongolia’s basketball association to coach the national team. When he started coaching the team, he realised how serious they were about the game. “The country is more famous for individual sports like wrestling. But when 3×3 was included in the Olympics, they saw it as an opportunity to push for a medal in a team sport. Not every country has the resources to excel in 5×5 like the USA. So 3×3 was a blessing for these smaller nations to reach events like the Olympics and CWG,” he says.

Steve then dispels another misconception, that 3×3 is a resort of NBA rejects. “Please don’t consider us as failed basketball players. Basketball is not just about the NBA,” he requests,

He has seen the cynicism in the eyes, felt that in words and often enough, he has been asked in a condescending tone by strangers and acquaintances: “Why 3×3? Couldn’t make it to the NBA?” He does not blame the snides, because for the world at large, basketball begins and ends with the NBA. Bulut agrees: “NBA still is the highest form of basketball, and it would be difficult for 3×3 to match its popularity. We exist not as competitors but as a different sport.”

As for America’s favourite fantasy of all-time trio, the US men’s team did not even qualify for the Tokyo Games. So specialised the game has become that it’s simply not a matter of throwing three NBA stars together to win a medal. “There are still a lot of places where the same team plays both formats. But 3×3 has a separate circuit and more countries have begun to pick different teams for different formats. We’ve been training for years,” says Steve.

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Stretching the point, the US, the undisputed basketball powerhouse of the world, has won just one of the seven 3×3 World Cups. And the only time it won, they had no NBA galactico in the team (two of the four don’t even have wiki pages). That perhaps nails the debate about 3×3 as a crunched version of basketball or whether it’s a different discipline altogether.

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