3x3 basketball players juggle jobs, schoolwork in lead-up to Tokyo
Craig Moore might be the definition of a weekend warrior.
Moore has a full-time job in finance in New York City. But on weekends, he swaps out suits for a basketball uniform, traveling to 3x3 tournaments with his teammates in the hopes of ultimately representing the U.S. at the 2020 Tokyo Games. The International Olympic Committee announced that 3x3 would be added to the Olympic program in June 2017.
The addition of the event means athletes – who might not make a star-studded five-on-five roster packed with NBA or WNBA talent – have another shot at the Olympics in a dynamic, fast-paced game entirely its own.
Three-on-three games last 10 minutes, or until one team reaches 21 points. Games are played on a half-court with a 12-second shot clock, and offense immediately turns to defense after a team scores.
Moore played traditional five-on-five basketball in college for Northwestern University, then moved to Europe to compete in domestic leagues in the Netherlands and Romania. But the job uncertainty made Moore start to consider changing careers. “When you play in Europe, especially not at [the] Euroleague level, you’re kind of always just fishing,” he said. “You get discouraged sometimes…So I decided I should probably get a job.”
He worked in finance for a year, spent a season at Princeton as the director of operations for men’s basketball, then returned to the corporate world. On weekends, he started playing pick-up basketball.
At first, he said, the weekend tournaments were purely recreational. Then in 2014, Moore’s team won U.S. Nationals and played at the World Cup in Russia, where they finished 14th. In 2017, after winning Nationals again, Moore’s team finished seventh at the World Cup, knocked out in the quarterfinals by eventual champions Serbia. Once Moore and his teammates learned 3x3 would be part of the Olympics, “we’ve run with it ever since,” he said. “We’ve fallen in love with the travel, the games, the quick pace. We’ve gotten used to the rougher play.”
Olympic qualification is no simple feat, particularly for players not based in Europe, where many of the major tournaments are located. Eight teams per gender will play in Tokyo, and FIBA, basketball’s international governing body, has specific qualification requirements for both nations and individual athletes.
Players can earn points for themselves and their countries by partaking in FIBA-endorsed 3x3 competitions, and a ranking list of points in November 2019 will determine the first four countries to qualify for the Games. The rest will have to earn spots through two qualifying tournaments. The U.S. men are currently ranked seventh in the world, while the American women are 29th, with most of 2019 to improve their positions. USA Basketball is prioritizing increased participation in international tournaments this year so players can earn more points.
The qualification requirements mean athletes must devote a significant amount of time to 3x3-specific tournament play, making it unlikely that prominent NBA and WNBA stars will feature in 3x3 at the Games. Should the Americans qualify, a men’s team will likely be made up of athletes like Moore, who have played in college or professionally, or athletes finishing their G-league careers. A U.S. women’s team would likely include collegiate athletes.
Moore’s current team is made up of six players (though only four of those six go to each tournament, with three on court at once). Three live in New York, with one in Chicago, one in Seattle, and one in Los Angeles. Moore said they stay in touch through a group chat and hold each other accountable for squeezing in workouts so they’re ready to play. All have full-time jobs. Moore said some of his co-workers have taken an active interest in 3x3. “I get a lot of text messages after games, like, ‘great job,’” he said. Or sometimes, “you should’ve made that shot!”
Accumulating points through various tournaments means a hectic travel schedule: Moore said he spent 17 weekends on the road in 2018, sometimes taking a day off from work, other times getting off a red-eye flight and going straight to the office.
His love for the game – and the prospect of representing the U.S. at the Olympics – makes the time put in seem less daunting.
“Once you play it, you end up falling in love with it,” he said. “For former competitors who kind of lost the game a little bit, to get it back in any way, shape or form, is a really cool experience.”
Four athletes from the University of Oregon represented the U.S. women at last year’s World Cup, finishing fifth. Sabrina Ionescu, now a junior, was one of those players.
Ionescu is an All-America guard at Oregon. In December, she broke an NCAA record (for both men and women) with her 13th career triple-double, and now has 16. Her on-court statistics caught the attention of Stephen Curry, who met Ionescu after the Warriors played the Trail Blazers in December and called her “the walking triple dub” on social media.
Last year, the coaching staff at Oregon chose Ionescu and three teammates to enter the 3x3 U.S. Nationals in Colorado Springs. The group went into the tournament with no expectations, but ended up winning and earning a spot to represent the U.S. at the 2018 World Cup in the Philippines.
Their performance at the World Cup was admittedly imperfect, not unexpected for their first international tournament. “[I had] never done anything like it,” Ionescu said. “At one point we’d gone into overtime, and we didn’t know what the overtime rules were…so we just played not knowing how long we would be playing for.”
Ionescu said what she’s learned in 3x3 “definitely helps translate to five-on-five games. Just having to make reads on the fly…[trusting] the teammates you’re with…You really have to do that in the flow of the game. You’re not looking at your coach to make all your moves for you.”
Ionescu hasn’t played in a major 3x3 tournament since the World Cup. While men’s 3x3 players have a multi-stop World Tour, no official series of tournaments has been offered to women. FIBA plans to launch a professional circuit for women in 2019, though the competition format is still being finalized.
While Ionescu is currently focused the collegiate season she’s in the midst of, an Olympic opportunity in 3x3 hasn’t left her mind: “it would definitely be a dream come true to represent my country on the highest stage, something that I dreamed about when I was younger.”