USA Basketball unveils 3x3 qualifying tournament for inaugural Olympic teams

Are Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson USA Basketball's ideal three-on-three teammates? (Getty Images)
Are Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson USA Basketball's ideal three-on-three teammates? (Getty Images)

Chris Mullin doesn’t blink when asked for his ultimate 3-on-3 basketball team.

“Larry, Magic and Michael,” said Mullin, now an ambassador for USA Basketball in its quest to identify men’s and women’s rosters capable of capturing gold medals in the inaugural 3x3 competition at the 2020 Olympic Games. “I didn’t think too long.”

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That would be Bird, Johnson and Jordan, Mullin’s teammates on the Dream Team, which brought basketball to the global stage at the 1992 Barcelona Games and inspired a generation of international players, from Yao Ming to Manu Ginobili. The International Olympic Committee’s 2017 decision to add 3x3 to next year’s Tokyo Games has brought the sport full circle. Now, USA Basketball is trying to keep up with foreign foes that have dominated this branch of the sport in recent years.

The U.S. was not among 20 countries to compete in the 2018 FIBA 3x3 World Cup men’s competition, largely due to a complicated qualifying process that involves accruing points at FIBA-approved 3x3 tournaments around the globe, many of which occur at inopportune times for top U.S. collegiate and professional players.

USA Basketball has partnered with Red Bull to fix that, launching a series of qualifying tournaments with the goal of determining the four-player men’s and women’s rosters that will represent their country at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics with the requisite number of FIBA points. The Red Bull USA Basketball 3X qualifiers will be held in 23 cities across the country this summer, starting in Detroit on June 22, followed by a series of regional tournaments this fall and nationals in March 2020.

USA Basketball partnered with Red Bull to host 23 qualifying tournaments for men and women pursuing spots on the 3x3 national teams.
USA Basketball partnered with Red Bull to host 23 qualifying tournaments for men and women pursuing spots on the 3x3 national teams.

In years past, USA Basketball often sent the winning team at its national qualifying tournament to participate in international 3x3 competition. Four unheralded former college players formed Team USA the last time the men were in the World Cup. That may still be the case, but the governing body is reserving the right to handpick players from different teams at 3X Nationals to concoct the most talented rosters.

“You compete in the tournament, and then we’ll determine what athletes go on to represent the country,” USA Basketball CEO Jim Tooley told Yahoo Sports. “In many occasions, we just let the winning team go, but we’re keeping our options open. It’s based on several factors what four athletes involved with us will make the best team going forward to compete at the Olympic Games or FIBA World Cup.”

The strategy for selecting a 3x3 team is different than traditional basketball. You may not just want a ball-handler, a wing and a big, because the rules — halfcourt, 12 seconds to shoot, one point for a made basket inside the arc, two points beyond it, first team to 21 or the team leading after 10 minutes wins — lend themselves to versatility and shooting ability even more so than today’s college and NBA game.

“I think ideally the best makeup would be the most flexible, skilled players — players who can all pass, shoot and dribble, with shooting being at a premium like it is now in the NBA and across the board,” Mullin told Yahoo Sports. “Knocking shots down, which is the essence of basketball really, is the biggest skill.

“From a strategic standpoint and from a level playing field, athleticism, strength, jumping ability and length is always a factor, but this is a little bit different, where your skill can really combat that,” added Mullin. “Strategically, there are a few different ways to approach it, but with the way the rules are, the fundamentals of basketball — passing, shooting, screening and ultimately chemistry and teamwork — could outweigh height, weight, speed and quickness in the 5-on-5 game.”

The most fascinating aspect of this new qualifying format, outside of the fact that the winning team could potentially represent the country, is that anyone is eligible to apply. Red Bull is in the process of recruiting top men and women to form teams to enter the 23 qualifying tournaments, and there are no prerequisites for participation.

Picture “Hoosiers,” but 3-on-3 basketball and gold medals on the line.

“There’s really no minimum standard on any of the qualifiers,” said Tooley. “You can get a wide range of talent, which is another exciting element. People who may have never had an opportunity to play at this level or be involved in such a high-level tournament will now have a chance to do so. You have to come through qualifiers, and then regionals, and then that will feed into our national tournament next year.”

Which means, theoretically, Larry, Magic and Michael could enter, if they so chose.

2019 Red Bull USA Basketball 3X Qualifier schedule

June 22: Detroit

June 29: Washington D.C. and Atlanta

July 13: New York and Minneapolis

July 20: Los Angeles and New Orleans

July 27: Philadelphia and Denver

August 3: Milwaukee and Oakland

August 17: Chicago and Houston

August 24: Cleveland and Raleigh

August 31: Dallas

September 7: Boston and Memphis

September 14: San Antonio

TBD: Salt Lake City, Portland, Phoenix and Seattle

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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