Women’s 3×3 basketball made its Olympic debut at Tokyo 2020. Originally started as street basketball in USA in the late 1980s, the game, at its core, is a condensed form of traditional full-court basketball. The game is fast and furious due to its different 3×3 basketball rules which cap the score at 21, provide very few breaks, and shorten the shot clock and court.
In 2010, the 3×3 game made its global competitive debut at the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore. A decade later, 3×3 basketball became a quirky worldwide phenomenon after being introduced into the Olympic senior events for men and women. In Tokyo, goofy music blared during games. The public address announcer also offered commentary. “Niiiice pass,” he said during the women’s final.
The Team USA 3×3 basketball squad—featuring WNBA players Stephanie Dolson of the Chicago Sky, Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young of the Las Vegas Aces, and Allisha Gray of the Dallas Wings—won the first-ever women’s gold medal in Olympic 3×3 basketball, besting the Russian Olympic Committee, 18-15.
Russia cut the USA’s lead to 3, 17-14, with 44 seconds left. But forward Stefanie Dolson secured another rebound and a putback that essentially sealed the game. “She’s very much the consummate teammate,” said Team USA 3×3 coach Kara Lawson after the game. “She feels a responsibility to do her part, for her team. And a big responsibility of a post player is to rebound. And she’s accountable for that.”
So today, we’ll hear from 2x NCAA Champion, WNBA Champion, and 3×3 Olympic Gold Medalist Stefanie Dolson about her 3×3 basketball experience. And together we’ll take a look at what makes women’s 3×3 basketball different and so interesting. An example of just one wild card that makes this new sport so fun is that there’s no coach!
Stefanie Dolson found out she was going to be on the USA’s first women’s Olympic 3×3 Basketball team very casually.
“The rules to even be on the team are you have to be in the top 10 of points in your country. And the way you get points is by playing in 3×3 tournaments. So USA Basketball ended up creating a bunch of tournaments for us to just play in, just to get us up. Because 4 of us are in the WNBA, which most of the 3×3 tournaments happen during our season. So we couldn’t really get to them. So that was just trying to get us there.” she told Kelley O-Hara on the Just Women’s Sports podcast.
“And then they basically just picked 4 or 5 of us that was like, ‘Alright you guys are our main people. We want to keep training you.’ So I did have an idea that I would make the team. But we had to do the Olympic Qualifying Tournament first in Austria.” she continued.
The USA players in Austria were told that if they qualified the USA for the Olympics, they would be the ones on the team. A wise move by USA Basketball so that the 3×3 team members could get in enough time training together.
“We’re not like other countries where 3×3 is becoming very popular in other countries, where people only play 3×3. So for us it was like we didn’t really practice that much because we couldn’t. So it was just the random training camps, and we would play a ton of 3×3, scrimmage these guys, all this stuff.” said Stefanie.
However the Olympic Qualifying Tournament was as stressful as you’d expect. Team USA had to finish in the top three teams to go on to the Olympics.
“The Olympic Qualifying Tournament was really the first step of like anxiety, because we had to make the Olympics…Man, talk about stress. That was insane…Once we won the one game, the Semi-Finals, we were like we made it.” recapped Stefanie.
How different is playing 3×3 to 5×5? “It’s different. Just like the speed.” shared Stefanie.
“The non-stop, you just don’t stop. But it’s so funny cuz there were so many times when it feels non-stop, I’m exhausted and about to die, and I look up and it’s been a minute and a half. It’s ridiculous. But it’s because you’re just going.” she explained.
Let’s explore a few key changes that make the game feel so fast.
The 3×3 basketball game is played on a half court (11m in length and 15m in breadth). It has the hoop on one side and a line at the other. Similar to 5×5 basketball, the court is divided by an arc and a rectangular key. Inside the arc is the one-point zone and outside is the two-point zone. The key area (5.8mx4.9m) is under the hoop and its outer edge parallel to the baseline is the free throw line.
Obviously there are just three players on each team on the court as opposed to the five. There’s just one substitute on the bench. To enter the game, they wait for a dead ball situation, and then tag an outgoing player.
And there are no coaches! Coaches on the field of play including seats for substitutes and remote coaching from outside the court are not allowed.
Having no coach is the worst part according to Stefanie. “So many times, too, we were with our men at the Olympic Qualifying and their coach is in the stands yelling.” The coach isn’t supposed to yell from the stands because the team can then get a kicked off.
“He’ll stand there and say things and do his little hand motions. Where they know, and they’re looking at him. But then it’s so funny cus for us, we’re playing a game and I’m like, ‘What do we run?’ You look over at Kara [the women’s coach ] and she’s just like staring at us. I’m like, ‘Kara, say something!’ Her mask on, just nothing.”
“Not having a coach is really hard, because you have to think of everything. You’re a coach, you’re a player, you have to think about the refs. So there’s just a lot more thinking going into it. A different type of strategy.”
Fouls in the arc are awarded one free throw, while fouls behind the arc are awarded two free throws.
Players: Players are not excluded based on their number of personal fouls. However a player committing two unsportsmanlike fouls will be disqualified from the game by the referees and from the event by the organizer.
Team: Team fouls 7, 8 and 9 are awarded two free throws, and all team fouls thereafter are awarded two free throws and possession of the ball. Once a team hits 9 fouls, additional fouls are considered technical.
The ball used in a FIBA-sanctioned 3×3 basketball game is smaller than a regular one, though it’s the same weight. The smaller size facilitates better ball handling for the faster pace of the game.
Now that you know the rules, here’s how the game goes down. Each game is 10 minutes long with the winner being the team with more points, or up to 21 points – and the first team to hit 21 wins.
The game begins with a coin toss. The winner chooses whether to begin the game as the offensive team or the defensive team.
From there, it moves super fast. There’s no break after scoring. Possession switches between teams after every made basket. The defensive team can also win possession by stealing, blocking or defensive rebounding similar to 5×5. There’s no half-time break and no quarters. And teams are only allowed one time out.
What’s important is that when you get the ball inside the arc, you need to clear the ball by dribbling it out or passing it to a teammate outside the arc before you can shoot. There’s also a 12-second shot clock, so your team has to shoot within that time or you turn the ball over. That’s just half of the 24 seconds allowed in regular basketball!
Similar to 5×5, teams can earn points two ways – scoring field goals or free throws. Unlike 5×5, a field goal can only earn a max of two points or one point. Two point shots are taken outside the arc line, inside is worth a single point.
“If you get blown by, you just stop playing defense. Because you let them get a layup. But then you’re going to get a two-pointer. So there’s a lot of different strategy to it that kind of makes it more like a puzzle or like a game which makes.” said Stefanie.
If the score is tied by the end of regulation time, overtime kicks off. For OT, the team that began the game as the defensive team gets the first possession. And the first team to score two points wins. If a team is at 20 points at the end of regulation time, scoring one more point in overtime will win them the match. So, 21 is the maximum number of points a team can score in a 3×3 basketball match.
Stefanie Dolson placed the medals around the necks of her teammates on the podium at the 2020 Olympic Games, while Allisha Gray draped Stefanie in gold. “In 10 years we’ll look back and [say] ‘damn, we did that,’” said Stefanie. “Hopefully we started something for USA Basketball when it comes to 3-on-3.”
Overall she enjoyed the Olympic experience. Though it went by so fast, because the team played back to back for just 5 or so days, and then they were out of there.
“But the overall experience was really cool, the opening ceremony. We were happy we made it, and very happy we won.” said Stefanie. “Kara kept saying to us, ‘People don’t realize how hard it is to win a gold medal. Until you do.’ So every game is just getting harder and harder and we lost to Japan. And we’ve never lost so we were like ‘What do we do?’ After we did it, it was so much relief because it was really hard to do.” she reflected.
“It was cool [to get a gold medal]. You can’t really explain things like that. Like any of the medals. You want to say gold medal or bust. But in hindsight, after we got it, I don’t think I would have cared had I gotten silver or bronze. This is our first Olympics, first time being here. I think America puts so much pressure on getting golds. But it’s also really awesome if we got second or third. You’re still getting a medal. It was nice to get gold…It’s just a feeling of pure happiness, and relief. You’re so relieved all your hard work paid off and you actually did it.” Stefanie said.
Up next, read all about Stefanie’s teammate, and USA Basketball’s 3×3 Player of the Year, Allisha Gray. Or get to know more about one of her other 3×3 teammates, Kelsey Plum in her Drip for the Soul interview, and how she came back from her achilles injury ahead of the Olympics.