TOKYO — If you had a hoop in your neighborhood where the kids gathered to play physical, sweaty, outdoor pickup games, the Olympics now have a sport for you.
On Wednesday night in Tokyo, the USA women's team won the first gold medal in 3-on-3 basketball, beating Russia (technically Russian Olympic Committee) 18-15 at Aomi Urban Sports Park.
This new version of Olympic basketball is played on a glorified sportcourt, with a 12-second shot clock, a 10-minute game clock, games played until one team hits 21 or time runs out, no inbounds pass (the defense checks the ball in, just like on the playgrounds), no flopping, no time for arguing and puddles of sweat from playing nonstop in Tokyo's summer heat.
Kelsey Plum became the first 3-on-3 star, recovering from a torn Achilles' tendon to lead the USA team with her crafty drives and playmaking, producing five points. Stefanie Dolson scored seven points, many on putbacks,and Allisha Gray and Jackie Young specialized in defense and rebounding.
While 5-on-5 basketball has natural pauses and constant whistles, 3-on-3 hoops is relentless. If it weren't a sport, it would be a conditioning drill. Whether the offense scores or not, the defense grabs the ball, clears it past the two-point shot line (inside baskets are worth one) and immediately starts its possession.
It is to full-court basketball what beach volleyball is to the indoor game: a sport invented to be faster and perhaps more fun than the traditional version.
The U.S. finished 8-1, their only loss coming to Japan in pool play.
Music played throughout the games in a vibrant little park, more reminiscent of a tennis venue than a basketball arena. A canopy kept the direct sun off the players, but they played in intense heat and humidity. Sometimes they'd play multiple games without changing, much less showering, although on Wednesday the U.S. team repaired to their hotel between games.
Earlier in the evening, they beat France in the semifinals.
"I didn't come all the way out here to win nothing less than a gold medal,'' Gray said. "I'm glad we were able to finish what we came here to accomplish.''
All four are WNBA players. Young joined the team after Katie Lou Samuelson tested positive for COVID.
"Ten days ago I was on vacation and my life changed just like that,'' Young said. "Now I'm a gold medalist. It's crazy, how things work out.''
There are two kinds of Olympic sports: competitions bathed in tradition and supposed purity, and additions to the lineup intended to draw younger viewers.
The 3-on-3 version of basketball could help. With the music, hyperactive announcer, fast pace and physicality, it feels more like a video game than the kind of game usually accompanied by the grandiosity of the Olympic theme.