As 3x3 basketball makes its way into the Olympic arena, the Australian women’s team is hoping to get a shot at a history-making medal in Tokyo. By Daniel Herborn.

Australia’s 3x3 basketball shot

Australian 3x3 basketball player Maddie Garrick.
Australian 3x3 basketball player Maddie Garrick.
Credit: Basketball Australia

With 3x3 basketball set to make its Olympic debut at Tokyo, the Australian women’s team is eyeing not merely a spot in the history-making eight-team competition but also on the podium. The delayed Games will cap the rapid ascent of this version of the sport, which has morphed from youth competitions and street basketball. Since the first official International Basketball Federation (FIBA) 3x3 event in 2007 the sport has been booming at a grassroots level despite a relatively low media profile.

For the uninitiated, 3x3 is a shorter, sharper version of basketball. It’s a frenetic affair, with games ending either when one team scores 21 or after just 10 minutes, whichever comes first. A standard Olympic Games match lasts 40 minutes. Shots made from behind the three-point line are worth two, and inside shots one, making long-range shooting even more valuable. The shot clock is 12 seconds instead of 24, and games are played on a single-hoop outdoor sports court with a slightly smaller ball.

“It’s an intriguing game,” says David Biwer, the Californian-born head coach of Australia’s women’s 3x3 team. “It’s all the things that basketball is, but on adrenaline.”

For players who came up in the traditional game, the shortened form can revitalise careers. Australia’s top-ranked women’s player, Rebecca Cole, first started playing 3x3 when a former coach invited her to play in a competition for prize money. “It was a time in my basketball life when I wasn’t in such a great spot,” Cole recalls. “But that first tournament – I absolutely loved it. The style of play is right up my alley: aggressive and athletic. It gave me my groove back. I’ll always have a soft spot for it because of that.”

A basketball lifer, Biwer also relishes the new challenges that come with the different rules and the nonstop action. Unlike traditional basketball, where coaches can stalk the sidelines and keep up a running dialogue with their players (and, often, the referees), coaches in 3x3 can’t make direct eye contact with their charges or issue detailed instructions.

He likens it to the role of a tennis coach during a game. “There is some yelling that goes on … you can do reminder stuff,” he explains. “But that’s one of the good things about coaching 3x3 – you have to evolve. You can’t overload the players with information, but you do have to find a way to get them ready for any situation that might occur.”

Seasoned observers of basketball know the sport at its highest levels is something like chess for tall people, a nuanced tactical game of punch and counterpunch, with coaches continuously shifting offensive and defensive structures, calling set plays and rotating players to hunt mismatches. As with Twenty20 cricket, 3x3 can seem like a less tactical game, but Australian team member Maddie Garrick, a 29-year-old guard, explains there is more planning involved than may seem evident.

“It’s so quick that there’s no time to think between offence and defence. We do have a structure off dead-ball situations, first-ball plays and overtime plays, but a lot of the time, the game is just played in free motion,” she says.

While some of the nuances of the traditional game are less important in 3x3, the shorter form can expose any flaws in a player’s game. With constant switching, defensive versatility is a must. An undersized guard who struggles defending, or a tall forward who doesn’t have the agility to stay in front of a more mobile guard quickly becomes a liability.

The 3x3 game also doesn’t have the ebbing and flowing intensity of 5x5 basketball, where the full-court press defence is rare, and teams generally let a guard bring the ball into the front court and prioritise defending the ring. “You’re always going from offence to defence; the transitions are so quick,” Cole says. “There are no spots to rest, where potentially you can playing [traditional basketball].”

Biwer says a major element of his role as coach is ensuring his players are ready for the rough and tumble of 3x3, both physically and mentally. To this end, he rarely calls fouls during training. Cole confirms that the scrimmages can be bruising, no-holds-barred affairs. “We play so hard, and we piss each other off, but it’s all love, and we’re all best mates,” she says.

“The style is a lot more physical, more intense,” Garrick, a silver medallist with the Opals at the 2017 Asia Cup, says. “The energy systems we’re using are so different to the traditional style of basketball. We had our first training camp recently, and it was scheduled for five days, three sessions a day, but we could only go two sessions. We found that was probably too long for a 3x3 camp. We’re learning on the run on how to schedule training without going too far.”

The Australian women’s team may still be fine-tuning their preparations for this format, but they’ve already made impressive progress on the international stage. In 2019, Garrick and Cole teamed with former Opals Alice Kunek and Hanna Zavecz to become the undefeated champions of the Asia Cup in Changsha, China.

A couple of months later, they placed fourth at the most recent World Cup in Amsterdam, which ended in an agonising one-point loss to eventual champions China in the semi-finals. Cole was named the tournament’s most valuable player (and, later, one of FIBA’s “10 women who defined 3x3” for the year), but it’s the sting of defeat that has stayed with her. “That was devastating,” she says. “The fire we felt when we lost that game; that is going to burn inside us to make sure it doesn’t happen again. We just didn’t have enough experience at that stage.”

The team goes into the final Olympic qualifying tournament – in Graz, Austria, from May 26-30 – ranked 21st, but this reflects Australia having played relatively few tournaments compared with their European counterparts. Most of the Australian squad play in the WNBL and can only play 3x3 in the off-season, putting them at something of a disadvantage to other teams whose players are primarily 3x3 specialists.

Cole agrees that expectations are much higher than their ranking suggests. “We see ourselves as top five in the world,” she says. “We’ve earned our respect from other countries.”

They now need a top-three finish at Graz to qualify for the competition in Tokyo. The nature of 3x3 means the process is precarious, however, as it only takes a team losing concentration for a minute or an opposition shooter going on a hot streak for an upset to occur.

As Biwer’s team prepares for its moment of truth, the veteran coach is relishing the occasion. “It’s exciting to be a part of it, but there’s also lots of pressure,” he says. “But after 40 years of playing the sport, the pressures of it all excite me more than they threaten me. I really think we can do some great things.”

When Garrick first got a call from officials inviting her to try 3x3, she needed an explanation of the sport. Now it looms as both her ticket to Tokyo and to being an unexpected pioneer. “This could put 3x3 on the map,” she says. “Maybe [one day] I’ll look back and think: ‘You know, I was part of that history.’ ”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 22, 2021 as "Three’s a crowd-pleaser".

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Daniel Herborn is a Sydney-based journalist and novelist.

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