Five-ring Circus

The Nine Things Wrong With Olympic 3-on-3 Basketball

One problem: Why aren’t games make-it take-it?

Ira Brown of Japan in the 3-on-3 basketball game against Latvia, at the Tokyo Olympics on Tuesday.
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Does Olympics 3-on-3 basketball need fixing? The answer, according to me, is yes. I’ve spent countless hours of my life playing pickup basketball, often in small-group configurations very similar to that which we’re seeing in Tokyo, and, friends, I have some opinions about this brand-new Olympic sport, and about how it could be better. The 3-on-3 basketball know is loose and casual, and the formalized version being played in Tokyo ought to be tweaked to better conform to the true spirit of the game. Here, then, is a list of nine things wrong with Olympic 3-on-3 basketball—which the International Olympic Committee styles 3x3—again according to me, in hopes that someone might step in and fix them for 2024.

1. The x.

The first thing that needs fixing in “3x3 basketball” is the name—or, more precisely, that dumb x in the middle of the name. Everyone knows that the sport is rightly called three-on-three basketball, not 3x3 basketball, just as all shorthanded variants of basketball use the number-on-number construction, as per James Naismith’s dying wish. “3x3” makes it sound like the game takes place in the bed of a very strange truck—or, worse, makes it seem like the organizers are subtly trying to communicate that this is an “xtreme” version of basketball, as might be seen in a Mountain Dew commercial. Mark my words, that infernal x is sending us down a slippery slope where players will eventually be forced to “Do the Dew” every time they score a basket. Someone needs to step in, change the name, and stop this madness before it’s too late.

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2. The games should be make-it take-it.

The scoring in the Olympics 3-on-3 games works sort of like it does in regular basketball, insofar as possession changes hands whenever a basket is scored. This is all well and good I suppose, but it isn’t the 3-on-3 basketball I know. As per age-old open gym customs, 3-on-3 is meant to be played on a make-it take-it basis, whereby the scoring team retains possession of the ball after a made basket. Make-it take-it makes it easier for teams to go on scoring runs, and for the good teams to truly crush the spirit of the bad ones, which is what the Olympics are all about. It’s also just plain fun to say. Make-it take-it? Make-it take-it!

3. Players should call their own fouls.

Each Olympics 3-on-3 basketball game features two referees, which, in my opinion, is two too many. Pickup basketball is meant to be played on a “no blood, no foul” basis, as per the rules codified in the YMCA Accords of 1972. I think that the games would be much more fun if the players were forced to call their own fouls, and to argue with one another over whether something was or was not a foul, and to eventually say, “Fine, whatever, dude, I literally barely touched you, but whatever” as they stomp back on defense. If nothing else, this change would make it much easier for viewers to determine who the most whiny and annoying players on each team are.

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4. Every now and then the players should get bumped off the court by another Olympic sport that needs to use the gym.

Pickup basketball as I have known it is generally played with an inherent sense of urgency, because you’re always a little bit afraid that people who want to play some other, dumber sport will show up and claim possession of the gym. It’d add a fun little frisson to the Olympic 3-on-3 matches if the IOC were to deliberately double-book the 3-on-3 games with, say, badminton. Imagine how much fun it would be to watch the badminton people standing there on the sidelines, hands on their hips, glaring at the basketball people as they overstay their reservation. Imagine the drama that would result if the badminton people just started setting up their nets anyway. Imagine the hybrid sport that would inevitably evolve from this weird stalemate. Coming to the Olympics in 2052: 3x3 basketminton!

5. If a player goes down, they should have to draft someone from the sidelines to hop into the game. 

So each Olympic 3-on-3 team has four players, one of whom serves as a substitute during the game. This rule runs contrary to the very spirit of 3-on-3 basketball. If a player goes down or gets tired, their team should have to recruit a substitute in an ad hoc manner by drafting someone from the sidelines, preferably someone who did not come to the gym that day expecting that they would have to play basketball. Perhaps one of the glowering badminton people could fill in in a pinch.

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6. One player should play in jeans, and another player should play in Crocs.

In keeping with the spirit of pickup basketball—where you make up your teams on the spot based on who’s at the gym at any given point, and you are sometimes surprised to learn that the weird guy in tuxedo pants can hit that flatfooted corner 3 all day long—Olympics 3-on-3 would be much more fun if certain players were made to play in nonstandard athletic attire. As such, I propose that one 3-on-3 player should always be in jeans, and another 3-on-3 player should always be in Crocs. Whenever either of those two players score a basket, all of the other players should be made to exchange incredulous shrugs. (What should the penalty be for not shrugging—or insufficiently shrugging—in such an instance? Look, that’s for the IOC to figure out. Neither of us have all day here.) Also, the jeans player should specialize in flailing driving layups that never seem like they’re going to go in but usually do.

7. Each game should begin with one team captain asking the other if they “wanna run full court?”

There’s no law that says 3-on-3 basketball has to be played on a half-court basis. I mean, usually it is, because playing a full court version of the game with two three-person teams is exhausting and not very fun, but every now and then you’ll get some maniac who insists on running full court, and won’t stop asking, game after game, until some sucker says yes. The Olympic teams should pay tribute to this time-worn pickup tradition by ritually asking the question at the outset of each game. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the answer will be no. But there’ll likely be at least one game where the captains say Screw it, why not?, and that’ll be a magical Olympics moment for everyone.

8. Teams should have to keep track of the score themselves.

The Olympics 3-on-3 games all have scoreboards and scorekeepers, which is very nice and helpful and makes it easy to tell who is winning. But it’d be more true to the spirit of the game if the players had to keep track of the score themselves, and to shout out the score after every made basket, and to eventually lose track of the score and argue about it with the other team, and to finally say, “Fine, whatever, dude, I’m literally positive that you’ve only scored 6 points so far, but whatever” as they stomp back on defense.

9. At least one player on each team should be a YouTuber who’s dressed like a nerd but is surprisingly good.

This fix is sort of self-explanatory and would have the added bonus of giving the sport serious crossover appeal with kids who love videos where people who are really good at sports dress up as stereotypical representations of people who aren’t good at sports in order to shock the crowd by revealing that the nerd’s got game.


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