So the next time the TV ad asks, “Who’s your 4?” you’ll have ask them to be more specific.
Your four players for Hoopfest?
Or for the Olympics?
On Friday, the International Olympic Committee is expected to add 3-on-3 basketball to its ever-expanding menu of medal offerings for the 2020 Games in Tokyo, following the wave that brought in surfing and other newbie sports last year but still ahead of wushu and korfball, which will remain on the sidelines for at least another Olympiad.
“But basketball’s already in the Olympics,” you’re probably saying.
Well, yes. But in the same way that volleyball felt naked without the company of beach volleyball and freestyle wrestling has wingmen both Greco and Roman, so is traditional basketball in need of an Olympic spinoff. If there can be four different kinds of cycling – and none of them uni- or tri- – surely there can be multiples of ball under the flag of five rings.
“OK,” you’re probably thinking, “but who needs the Olympics when we have Hoopfest?”
No argument there.
It’s two jam-packed days instead of a drawn out three weeks, it doesn’t bankrupt the city and you can drink the water, as long as you’re not camping out in Rio Heights. Among Hoopfest’s other unique attributes that will be found sorely lacking in the Olympic version: the odd saloon just steps away from the curb, dribblers slaloming Riverside ruts, the earnest-if-sometimes-overwhelmed court monitor, 8-year-olds in matching T-shirts customized by Mom and the 5-foot-9, 300-pound guy on the other team you’re sure will be a liability until you discover you can never find an angle to block his shot or get a rebound.
Olympic 3-on-3, meanwhile, will find itself beset by drug cheats, jingoism, corrupt judging and 14-hour tape delay.
If the Olympic stewards in this country had any notion of tapping into what makes the street game truly appealing, they’d go straight to where the appeal is greatest:
They’d make Hoopfest the Olympic trials.
But it won’t happen. Somehow you know it’s already too big for the biggest 3-on-3 tournament in the world.
Hoopfest executive director Matt Santangelo greeted the inevitable news of impending Olympic adoption with a pragmatic endorsement, saying “It’s people playing basketball – and that’s the most basic dot to connect to Hoopfest.”
He also noted that Hoopfest already has connected these particular dots for a couple of years – serving as a qualifier for USA Basketball’s national championship. In 2015, the Zag Babes – winners of Hoopfest’s elite women’s division – reached the title game, though in a true homage to pickup basketball, Jazmine Redmon played with six different teammates in those two tournaments.
And this year, the USA men’s World Cup team includes Craig Moore, who two summers ago led a foursome of Northwestern grads to the Hoopfest men’s title.
But the notion of Olympic medals and World Cups and national championships feels like an absurd extension of the let’s-get-a-game-up vibe of streetball which Hoopfest has managed to keep alive even while accommodating 25,000 players.
Feels a little sinister, even.
Because basketball’s international overseer has plotted this attention grab with extraordinary care. Having picked up on the IOC’s infatuation with courting a youth audience indifferent to horse jumping and the hammer throw, FIBA secretary general Patrick Baumann pitches 3-on-3 as “the best urban team sport.” Then it was re-engineered further with a 12-second shot clock, no ball-check and a 10-minute game limit.
Not sure who’ll eat that up more – TV programmers with commercials to drop in or short-attention-span cellphone jonesers.
That game’s not a fit for Hoopfest’s rank-and-file weekend warriors. But Santangelo has talked with USA Basketball for a couple of years about a possible FIBA-rules division.
“But the challenge for us is that they never had any money on the 3-on-3 side,” he said, “and you need to build a Sport Court, manage it and fly in all the teams. It didn’t make sense for us and they were only half-committed. Now if it’s an Olympic sport, maybe we’ll see more funding around it.”
And maybe they’ll see a need for more outreach. Because it’s unlikely 3-on-3’s Olympic talent pool would be exclusively NBA players, if at all. FIBA-rules tournaments, Santangelo pointed out, “aren’t being won by NBA or ex-NBA guys. They’re just ballers who excel at 3-on-3.”
Like a few who show up at Hoopfest every year.
Besides the ex-NBA faction now has it’s own gig – Ice Cube’s BIG3 tour that launches in Brooklyn on Hoopfest weekend and will hit 10 cities on successive weeks, including Seattle for the Aug. 20 semifinals.
“For some reason, 3-on-3 is more prevalent and relevant on big stages than it has been for a long time,” Santangelo said, “back to when Hoop-it-Up and Gus ruled the world. It’s taken on another life – which bodes well for events like Hoopfest.”
Which remains the Everyman’s Olympics.
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