American women have won eight of the 11 Olympics 5-by-5 basketball, including six successive gold medals. They’ve been favored again at the Tokyo Games, and sometimes their Olympic victories seem more like a recurring coronation than their celebrations.
Enter 3×3 basketball, which debuted at the Olympic Games in Tokyo. When the American women won the gold medal on Wednesday, their success looked like both. Fun and sports being part of the coming Olympics was one of the best things that could come from the Tokyo Games.
NBA fans will look forward to seeing more 3×3’s, but success can’t be taken for granted. That’s sexy. A 3×3 game is so rapid, and momentum can shift so quickly, that a super-deep pool of US talent doesn’t carry as much weight as a 5-on-5 game.
The sport consists of teams of only four players, which makes it easier for more countries to compete. However, the American women won 8-1 in Tokyo, and their only loss was a meaningless playoff final when the top seed actually won. The US roster included a player who wasn’t even expecting to play in the Olympics, with Jackie Young taking time off to join the team just a week prior his first game when COVID-19 protocols Katie Lou Samuelson was dismissed.
American women’s medal wins were like 5 out of 5: Meet the unused boss, like the old one. But many of the Americans’ 3×3 matches were close together with the considerate of tension that had fans on the edge of their seats even in the beforetime morning hours here in the States.
“It’s forever distinguished to be first of anything,” US center Stephanie Dolson said during an interview with NBC following winning the 18-15 gold medal over the Russian Olympic Committee team on Wednesday. “Basketball is in the blood of the United States of America. So this feat is also ours and we hope to start something really exceptional.”
Like her 3×3 teammates Alisha Gray of the Dallas Wings & Young and Kelsey Bloom of the Las Vegas Aces – Chicago Sky Dolson is a WNBA player who spent time with USA Basketball coaching and competing 5-on-5. Bloom actually played with this team at the 2018 FIBA Women’s World Cup, winning the gold medal there.
Plum (2017) and Young (2019) were both WNBA No. Choose one draft. All but Bloom have won at fewest one NCAA Championship (Dolson has won twice with UConn), and Bloom led Washington to the school’s only Final Four appearance, in 2016. In short, these are all distinguished 5v5 players.
But their odds of making a 5-v5 Olympic team were lengthy, if only because this team is so packed. At every Olympics, players who make it into any other country’s roster cannot burst the US team. Now with 3×3, there are at fewest four more chances for the top performer in the US women’s rings to become the US Olympics.
We had the opportunity to see in this highly entertaining tournament what makes the best 3×3 players and teams. The game is played outdoors, in half a court, and games of 10 minutes duration 3×3 require continuous movement; They’re like an intense cardio workout.
Not everyone can do that. Postal players Sylvia Fowles of the Minnesota Links and Tina Charles of the Washington Mystics, previous WNBA players who have played in several Olympics and were on Team USA this year 5 on 5, said that especially at this point in their careers 3×3 is going to be too rapid for them .
“That’s just another speed that I’m not trying to reach at this age,” said Fowles, 35, laughing.
Phoenix Mercury guard Skylar Diggins-Smith, making her Olympic 5×5 debut this year, knows what it takes: While at Notre Dame, she played on the 2012 World Cup gold medal-winning 3×3 team and was a vast support of becoming a sport. Olympic, and write a paper about it while you’re in college.
“Countries that might have three or four [top] Players can play at a lofty level,” said Diggins-Smith from 3×3. They may not be competent to compete in the Olympics at 5-on-5. It’s really a quick game – shot clock, time limit, environment. This considerate of takes you to the street football environment where we all grew up playing outside.”
Diggins-Smith helped lay the foundation for US success in 3×3 nine years ago, and was elated to see another Notre Dame graduate from Young to be part of the first Olympic 3×3 champion team.
Young didn’t expect it to be there at all; Samuelson was the original fourth member of the team but was sidelined by COVID-19 protocols prior the trip to Tokyo. Young was on vacation in Florida, where the WNBA was taking an Olympic vacation, when she received a call on July 17 asking her to fly to Las Vegas and join the team prior he heads to Japan. Eleven days later, Young was an Olympic champion.
“Can you imagine?” Bloom said of her WNBA teammate going from relaxation mode to Olympic mode overnight. “For her to come in and be so ready to play at that level and just be a rock – super, so consistent – I just really respect that.”
Everyone feels that respect for Plum, too. The NCAA women’s basketball scoring leader has adapted to a slightly distinct role as a WNBA player, although she still lights up the scoreboard. Plum had to find her way into the WNBA, starting with a San Antonio franchise that was on the decline in its final season prior moving to Las Vegas, dealing with the ruptured Achilles that cost her the 2020 WNBA season.
“My best comrade sent me a video; I walked for the first time, exactly like today, final year following the surgery,” Bloom said, adding that Seattle Storm’s Brianna Stewart gave her confidence for coming back from an Achilles injury in 2019. “I watched her “She’s going through this process. I think she changed the narrative of what an Achilles tendon injury could be. I picked her brain. I was so thankful that someone like that paved the way for me.”
The pandemic that has led to the postponement of the Olympics until 2021 has given Bloom her chance to join the team. “Wow, did you really do that?” The kinds of moves to basketball and the lovely jump we’ve seen over the years have been a vast part of Team USA 3×3’s success. As far as 5 by 5, it feels like the 3×3 was made for the Plum, and vice versa. And not just offensively. Her continued activism in defense was also crucial.
The alike can be said of Gray, who was the WNBA Rookie of the Year in 2017 when she was placed fourth behind Plum. Gray began her college career in North Carolina prior moving to South Carolina, and this tournament highlighted her phenomenal strength, recovery and defensive tenacity, aptitude to reach the edge and endless hustle. Sometimes it seemed like Gray was everywhere on the field at once
Former college classmate and best comrade Aja Wilson and South Carolina coach Don Staley with the 5-on-5 team are watching with pride and now they will try to match Gray’s gold.
Dolson? There is an extensive history for UConn in the Olympics – they are the tenth previous Huskies women’s basketball player to triumph an Olympic gold medal – including five-time Olympians Sue Bird and Diana Torassi. They are in this year’s 5v5 team, along with UConn alumni Charles, Stewart and Napheesa Collier. Collier is an Olympic rookie and would be the eleventh to join this club if the American 5-on-5 team wins in Tokyo.
But this gold distinguishes Dolson: the first in a unused Olympic sport. Dolson, who beat a bout with COVID-19 final year, holds the nickname “Big Mama Stef” and places gold medals around her teammates’ necks at the medal ceremony.
We’ve seen it a lot for 5-on-5 Americans, and we probably take it for granted. But it felt unused in 3×3.
Duke women’s coach Kara Lawson, a previous NBA player and 2008 Olympic 5 by 5 gold medalist, was a coach for the US 3×3 team. This meant a lot of preparation, training, and spirited conversation, but coaches are not allowed during matches.
She wanted this quartet to be ready for anything, including all the distinct styles the opponents played, and to have the chance to experience what she did in Beijing 13 years ago as an Olympic champion.
“This group is part of the start,” Lawson said. “Years from now, when a 3×3 start story is told, it cannot be told without it.”