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The Fast And Physical Basketball Debuting At The Olympics

This article is part of our Tokyo Olympics series.

A quartet of WNBA players wants to change the way Americans think about basketball — and bring home Olympic gold in the proces.

The inaugural U.S. women’s Olympic 3-on-3 basketball team will hit the spotlight in Tokyo this weekend with dreams of winning its first gold medal.

“To bring home the gold — our first time in the Olympics, the first time for this game — it will mean a lot,” said Stefanie Dolson of the Chicago Sky. “It’s been all of our dreams to be in the Olympics, so if we win, it will be of a historic nature. I’ll be extremely proud. I might even cry.”

In addition to Dolson, the U.S. 3-on-3 team — all first-time Olympians — features Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young of the Las Vegas Aces and Allisha Gray of the Dallas Wings. Young was added to the team on Monday after Katie Lou Samuelson of the Seattle Storm announced she had tested positive for COVID-19 (despite being fully vaccinated) and been placed in health and safety protocols. The squad trained July 13-18 in Las Vegas before departing Monday for Tokyo.

The team is coached by Duke head coach Kara Lawson, a 2008 Olympic gold medalist in 5-on-5 basketball. Since 2017, she has led the U.S. 3-on-3 teams to six gold medals, though her coaching is limited to practice — no in-game coaching is allowed.

That’s not the only difference between traditional basketball and 3-on-3. This version is played with a 12-second shot clock on a half court. Baskets inside the arc and free throws are worth 1 point, and baskets made from outside the arc are worth 2. The winner is the first team to score 21 points, or the team leading at the end of the 10-minute game clock. Teams each have one substitute they can tag in during games.

Plum said fans will enjoy the high intensity of the game and that it’s “not a big time commitment.”

“Just sit down in your seat, and we’ll give you 10 minutes of very exciting, entertaining and intense basketball,” she said. “Once you start playing it, it’s a lot of fun. There’s no coaching during the game, so the four of you are on your own and have to depend on each other.”

Gray said athletes have to be in great shape to play 3-on-3. “There’s a physicality to the game; you can body people more and be more aggressive than the traditional 5-on-5. You can get away with a lot more fouls.” 

Dolson also enjoys that physical style of play. “You’re going to get hit, but you’ve got to be able to finish the contact,” she said. “It just makes it more fun for me, less stoppage and more of a flow. You play outside with a streetball feel along with music and an announcer. It’s a special time.”

The U.S. women begin their tournament on Saturday with games against France and Mongolia. All eight teams will play each other once in the preliminary round, before the quarterfinals on July 27 and the semifinals and finals on July 28.

FIBA officially unveiled 3-on-3 in international competition at the 2010 Youth Olympic Games, and it has since become a fan favorite at World Cup events. Plum said she definitely sees it growing in popularity and predicts more for the future.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if in two or three years you see 3-on-3 as a collegiate sport. There is already a women’s series across Europe, and I can see this sport continue to grow,” Plum said. “I think that it will be cool to see it on the world stage and people who haven’t been introduced to 3-on-3 will now see it and make up their minds for themselves.”

Dorothy J. Gentry is a freelance journalist covering the NBA and WNBA. She is based in Dallas, and her work can be found in The Athletic, The New York Times, Texas Metro News, The NextHoops and more. She is also the founder of @faithsportsmore, a blog discussing the collision of faith, spirituality, sports and news.