UPDATE: 3-on-3 basketball is officially an Olympic sport, as the IOC has added it to the 2020 Tokyo Games.
Craig Moore works in Manhattan. Most mornings he rises in his two-bedroom apartment on the Lower East Side, slips on a suit with no tie and rides the M-Train to a Midtown skyscraper to begin his day as a financial wealth manager. But even as he sits behind his desk on the 16th floor of his building on 53rd street, the pull of basketball—specifically, street-style, 3-on-3 ball—is always tugging.
"The first Olympics I remember watching was the Dream Team in 1992," the 30-year-old Moore says. "As a kid my dream was to play in the Olympics. It's never really gone away, but I never thought it could happen."
Moore, a former sharpshooting guard at Northwestern who holds the school record for most three-point field goals and is sixth all-time in the Big Ten, is one of the top 3-on-3 basketball players in the world. His range is almost Steph Curry-like—he developed his stroke on the hoop in his Doylestown, Pennsylvania, driveway—and he'll be on the four-man team representing the United States in the FIBA 2017 3X3 World Championships in Nantes, France, starting June 17.
But this may only be an appetizer for Moore.
On Friday in Lausanne, Switzerland, the International Olympic Committee is expected to vote to include 3-on-3 basketball in the 2020 Olympics in Japan. The vote would mark the culmination of a seven-year effort by FIBA, the sport's international governing body. Since FIBA debuted 3-on-3 at the 2010 Youth Olympics in Singapore, pickup games have flowered in all corners of the world, especially in urban areas, from the streets of Manila to the alleys of Hong Kong to the parks of Mumbai.
"The hope behind making 3-on-3 an Olympic sport is to really open up Olympic basketball to parts of the world that struggle to field 12-person teams in 5-on-5 competition," says Jim Tooley, the chief executive officer of USA Basketball. "3-on-3 is now played in countries like the Philippines, Estonia, Hungary and the Central African Republic. It's much more accessible. And it's a totally different style of game. It's an incredibly fast-paced sprint."
Indeed, if 5-on-5 basketball is a cup of coffee, then 3-on-3 hoops is a triple-shot of espresso followed by a chaser of Red Bull. The rules as set by FIBA, which the Olympics will use, foster this breathless pace:
The half-court game features a 12-second shot clock.
The game ends after a single 10-minute period or when one team reaches 21 points.
Every made shot inside the three-point arc is worth one point; shots beyond the arc are worth two.
After a change of possession on a missed shot or a turnover, the ball must be taken back beyond the three-point arc. The same rule applies after a made basket.
A team consists of four players—three starters and a substitute. There are no coaches.
"The game of 3-on-3 basketball is all about spacing, passing angles, screening, motion without the ball and strategy, because you're in such a confined space," says Matt Santangelo, a former Gonzaga guard who is the executive director of Hoopfest, the largest 3-on-3 basketball tournament in the world that takes place each summer in Spokane, Washington. "Each player in 3-on-3 needs to have a hybrid skill set, because everyone has to do everything—score, rebound and pass."
The 3-on-3 ball is slightly smaller than the standard NBA ball. It's easier to handle and shoot, but it's also proven to be harder for taller players with larger hands to control. This further emphasizes the long-range shot, as does the fact that a two-pointer in this sport is 50 percent more valuable than a three-pointer in 5-on-5.
"Shooting is really at a premium in 3-on-3, more so than in the NBA, because in these games you can't hide on the floor," Santangelo says. "If you're open, you absolutely must hit the shot. If you don't, you lose."
A big question—which has yet to be answered—is whether NBA players would be interested in participating. According to Tooley of USA Basketball, a few NBA guys have expressed interest in possibly playing. But a more likely scenario is that recently retired NBA players (Kevin Garnett?) and veterans who are now playing overseas (Josh Smith?) could make a push for the team.
There's also the BIG3 factor. Later this month the new professional 3-on-3 league, which was created by Ice Cube and will feature players such as Allen Iverson, Chauncey Billups and Jermaine O'Neal, will begin playing every Sunday throughout the summer. Could this whet the 3-on-3 Olympic appetite for any of these past stars?
This we know: Credentials won't land you a spot on the Olympic team, because USA Basketball isn't going to handpick either the men's or women's squad that represents the red, white and blue. Rather, there will be a qualification process involving tournaments and head-to-head competition.
So in theory, a group of weekend warriors at your local YMCA—or the high-flyers from places like Rucker Park in Harlem or the Venice Beach courts in California—could become Olympians. And just imagine the riveting storyline if a baller went from the street to the bright lights of the Games in a matter of months.
"The genesis of FIBA wanting to get 3-on-3 in the Olympics was to give a wider range of basketball players a chance to become Olympians," says Stu Jackson, an analyst on NBA TV and former NBA executive vice president. "We don't know who will be interested in competing to represent the U.S., but pure athleticism is not as important on 3-on-3 as it is in 5-on-5. So this could open the door for former high-level college players, who perhaps fans haven't heard much about, to have a shot at representing our country."
Enter a hooper like Craig Moore. He plays 5-on-5 two times a week at the New York Athletic Club in games that routinely feature the likes of NBA players such as Ben Gordon and Dahntay Jones. In a few days, his 3-on-3 team—which includes former college standouts Zahir Carrington (Lehigh), Damon Huffman (Brown) and Dan Mavraides (Princeton)—will begin practicing at the Athletic Club before it travels to France for the World Cup.
"We have a text chain going among the players on the team and we're letting each other know about our workouts and we'll talk a little strategy," Moore says. "We've got some guys in New York who will come practice against us over their lunch breaks to help us get ready. 3-on-3 is all about situational basketball, so these practices will be important."
Moore's team won the USA Basketball Men's 3X3 National Tournament in April in Chicago to advance to the World Cup. Will the Americans be the favorites in France? Not by a long shot, because in this genre of basketball, upsets are almost as common as the USA men's team throttling opponents in 5-on-5 Olympic competition.
And to the IOC, part of the allure of 3-on-3 is the hope that closer games will create a compelling television product—one specifically marketed to a younger audience in the way beach volleyball and snowboarding have been promoted.
"People want instant gratification, and this sport will give them that," says Tooley, the CEO of USA Basketball. "We're hoping this will get more kids wanting to get involved in basketball."
For Moore, the grassroots game of 3-on-3 has always fired his imagination. In his driveway as a kid in Pennsylvania, he was always Michael Jordan trying to hit that last-second game-winner to win gold. In three short years, that childhood reverie could unspool in real time.
"When I was six I thought I could be the best in the world," Moore says. "But that faded as I grew up. Now just to have an outside chance at playing in the Olympics is...is...well, it's almost too good to be true."