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By Rocky Swift
TOKYO (Reuters) - Ira Brown may have entertained Olympic dreams when he became a pro baseball player in 2001, but two decades later he's showcasing a completely new sport in his adopted home of Japan.
Eight days away from his 39th birthday, Brown is part of the four-man squad representing Japan as 3x3 basketball makes its Summer Games debut.
Brown has come a long way from being drafted by the Kansas City Royals and spending five years in the minor leagues as a pitcher.
"When I was younger, basketball was definitely not in the cards," said Texas native Brown. "I'm here now so it's a blessing. But for sure I would have never thought it in my whole entire life."
An elbow injury brought an end to his baseball aspirations, so the 6'4" heavily muscled Brown transitioned to basketball at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. From there came stints in the NBA development league and eventually pro ball in Japan, where he married and became a Japanese citizen.
"I'm Japanese. I live here," Brown said. "I'm honoured to be able to play with these guys and play it on an Olympic stage."
Brown still plays traditional five-on-five basketball for the Osaka Evessa team but he sees huge potential in the faster, more compact 3x3 version, which he has played on the international circuit.
The game is played on a half court with three players on each side. A team wins by reaching 21 points or having the most baskets at the end of 10 minutes. Courtside DJs play hip-hop music, in a nod to the sport's urban roots.
The sport's organisers say 3x3 exemplifies second chances, both for countries too small to support five-on-five leagues, and athletes who thrive on a half court. There are many players at the Games who, like Brown, are in their 30s and finally getting a chance to shine on a global stage.
The Japanese men have struggled to find a groove in the Games, going 1-5 through Monday. But Brown has fired up the pandemic-limited crowds with a tournament-leading five dunks.
"Dunking is what I love to do," Brown said. "I love to get the fans excited for it, to be a part of the game. And it energises a building and energises me."
(Reporting by Rocky Swift; Editing by Karishma Singh)