Three-on-Three Basketball at the Olympics: What to Watch For


Eighty-five years after basketball’s debut in the Olympics, at the 1936 Berlin Games, a twist on the sport makes its Olympic debut in Tokyo. Three-on-three basketball or 3×3 as the sport’s world governing body refers to it, promises a faster version than the traditional form.

What is three-on-three basketball?

Three on three is basketball reimagined for the TikTok generation, with fast-paced choreography and a hip-hop soundtrack. “If you have a short attention span, this is your sport,” said Kara Lawson, the U.S. women’s team coach.

The half-court game is played outdoors with a 12-second shot clock, no breaks, and four-player rosters. The game ends after 10 minutes or when a team reaches 21 points, whichever comes first. Baskets scored outside the arc are worth two points; buckets inside it are worth one. The play is physical, and fouls are rarely called.

“It’s like the X Games,” said U.S. guard Kelsey Plum. “There’s music going on, there’s a commentator making jokes about people’s play, about people getting crossed over, about someone shooting in someone’s face, saying someone is quicker than a Kardashian marriage.” (That omnipresent play-by-play announcer, Kyle Montgomery, peppers his commentary with Meek Mill and Drake lyrics and one-liner like: “She’s all business like the front of the plane.”)

FIBA decided to experiment with an alternative form of the sport at the 2010 Youth Olympic Games in Singapore, where the first official three-on-three game was played. To expose more of the world to basketball, FIBA wanted to promote a game with a streetball vibe and minor rosters. In its quest to be cutting-edge, the Olympics quickly added three-on-three basketball to its lineup, joining skateboarding, surfing, karate, and climbing as newcomers to the Tokyo Games.

The United States, the birthplace of basketball, has only one team in Tokyo. The men, winner of 15 of 19 men’s gold medals in the traditional five-on-five game, did not qualify. The squad was made up of former college players.


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