TOKYO — As the first week of the pandemic Games unfolded here, many elite teams, athletes and programs from America struggled relative to typical, outsized expectations. Simone Biles left the gymnastics competition to attend to her mental health. Against Sweden in its opener, the top-ranked U.S. women’s soccer team endured the kind of beating it normally delivers. Katie Ledecky—gasp—did not medal in a race, although, of course, she did in others. Even the U.S. women’s water polo team dropped an Olympic contest for the first time in 13 years.
With that in mind, friends, welcome to the fringe. It’s fun out here, away from the pageantry, the serious types, the high-minded and highfalutin. Come for the 3x3 basketball, for the deejay, the rowdiness, the crowd, the imagery and the style of hoops that sort of looks like basketball, if basketball married roller derby and took football as a second husband.
It’s glorious. Really. It’s physical, in that limbs must be lost, or at least broken, for the referees to blow their whistles. It’s fast, in that games last 10 minutes at most and possessions must be completed in under 12 seconds. And it’s consumable, endlessly, consumable, above all else.
On Wednesday, for an American fan base left with less to cheer for than expected, a bonus materialized in this universe of merriment. This bonus came wrapped in gold. Because the U.S. women’s 3x3 basketball team not only cruised through this tournament but stood atop the medal podium, becoming not only champions but the first in Olympic history. Perhaps this will be remembered as the night a new juggernaut was born.
Before the get-off-my-lawn crowd hops on Twitter to lambast this accomplishment as less-than-serious, they should know: that’s part of the charm and part of the point. That’s not to denigrate the growth of 3x3 across the world, the training performed by the players here, or the obvious and immense skill it took to win this tournament. It’s to point out that just because these are the Olympics doesn’t mean the games that are played here must put everyone to sleep just so that they can continue to be library-whisper serious.
No, sir. No, madam. These Olympics are changing, and that, too, is part of the point. Here in Tokyo, the purists can watch a mighty soccer power play for a tie, which is sort of like viewing a mini marathon with no course or no finish line, where everyone just … runs. Or they could have checked out surfers riding waves as a tropical storm approached, blackbelts throwing leg sweeps, or skateboarders—some only teenagers—grinding down rails next to “no skateboarding signs” that had recently been taken down.
It’s easier to identify with the 3x3 hoopers, because most people, growing up, at least performed a rudimentary version of this same exercise in their driveway, barn or backyard. Those same people should never, not for a second, believe they could do what the U.S. team did on Wednesday. That is as ridiculous as considering something like triathlon “normal” and something almost everyone has at least attempted “weird.”
Take the U.S. team, for instance. It features two No. 1-overall WNBA draft picks in Kelsey Plum and Allisha Gray. It’s anchored down low by Stefanie Dolson, or Big Mama Stef to the uninitiated. There’s not a more likeable athlete at these Games, and when she won—after she helped force the Russian team into rare (for 3x3) foul trouble—she looked like an athlete who had snagged a gold medal, which is to say enthused, elated and relieved. Not to mention, well, athletic.
Then there’s Jackie Young. Want trials overcome, tribulations obliterated? Look no further. Not only did she head to Florida on vacation just before the Games started, but she finally found a few days to relax after the never-ending women’s basketball season. She knew there was a slim possibility that she would be needed in case of emergency—a break-glass player, more or less. Then Katie Lou Samuelson, the team’s fourth member, landed in COVID-19 protocol and could not travel to Japan. So Young did, straight from the beach, flying separately to show up and contribute. She left the best stadium in Tokyo with a gold medal hanging around her neck.
That’s enough. But there’s more. The cameras. The Tupac. The bang-a-massive drum introductions. The dance team. Even the ball they use looks like some sort of waffle. There is a reason that, with so many venues to choose from, this is the one where the most volunteers show up and sit in the stands. That reason is simple. Because 3x3 is awesome.
The purists can be disappointed in these Olympics. The American ones, anyway. They should know that they’re simply looking in the wrong place. There’s still room on the bandwagon—and, now, there's a historic gold to defend in Paris.
The vote here is not to do away with 3x3 basketball but expand it.
Who’s up for 1x1?
More Olympics Coverage:
• The USWNT's Off-Brand Olympics
• Sue Bird Seeks Historic Fifth Olympic Gold Medal in Tokyo
• Fencing’s Rich History With the Grisly—But Dignified!—Art of Dueling
• Biles, Osaka Signal New Era of Prioritizing Mental Health