When three-on-three basketball has its Olympics debut in Tokyo this summer, Latvia will be there. As will Poland. 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 by the Netherlands, 21-16, in a qualifying tournament in Austria on Sunday.
How did this happen?
One clue is the U.S. men’s roster. It consisted of Dominique Jones, Robbie Hummel, Kareem Maddox and Joey King. All were capable college players. All have honed their three-on-three game — which is played on half-court — for several years in preparation for these Olympics. But they hardly represent the best players that the United States could offer.
Several factors prevented the U.S. men from rolling out a threesome such as LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. For one, the best NBA players are currently in the middle of the playoffs.
Still, even hustling together a group of stars from teams not in the playoffs would 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 those events. Since they took place in the winter, all NBA players and even most Americans playing for European teams were out.
FIBA is aware of what it is doing. It hopes to build the game beyond merely the Olympics, so it demands participation in its other, lower-profile events. It also wants to have as many countries involved as possible. The U.S. men did not qualify for the 2018 World Cup either, although Andorra, population 77,000, did, in part merely for showing up.
“Andorra has heavy participation every weekend,” an official explained at the time.
The unforgiving nature of the qualifying tournament over the weekend didn’t help. The U.S. team won its pool with a 3-1 record. But that only got them into the quarterfinals. The loss to the Netherlands eliminated them, since only the top three teams advanced to the eight-team Olympic tournament.
In the three-on-three game — or 3×3, as FIBA insists on calling it — baskets are 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 the stretch to put the Americans away.
“Obviously, it’s not the ending we wanted,” said Joe Lewandowski, who has the title of coach/adviser (coaching is not allowed during games).
He is the coach at Point Park University, an NAIA school in Pittsburgh. The traditional men’s five-on-five team has qualified and will be coached by Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs.
Dawn Staley of South Carolina will coach the women’s five-on-five team.
Kara Lawson of Duke coached the U.S. women’s three-on-three team, which qualified for the games with ease, finishing 4-0 in its 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 roster has much more familiar names, all with WNBA experience: Allisha Gray of the Dallas Wings, Stefanie Dolson of the Chicago Sky, Katie Lou Samuelson of the Seattle Storm and Kelsey Plum of the Las Vegas Aces, the latter of whom is a former No. 1 overall draft pick. Because 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.
Those stars will now return to their WNBA teams. In contrast, the players on the men’s teams include a news producer and a development specialist.
Although one spot is left in the men’s field at the Olympics, the United States is not eligible for it. In another quirky FIBA decision, that place is reserved only for nations that did not have a team in the 2012 or 2016 Olympic Games. So, men from Mongolia, Hungary or Romania could be at the games, while the nation of Wilt Chamberlain and Julius Erving watches from home.