Shortly after his team reached the final of a 3×3 basketball Olympic test event, Masahiro Komatsu held up an umbrella to shield himself from a light rain as he eagerly explained the appeal of his sport, which will be making its Olympic debut this summer.
While it might sound strange in this era of COVID-19 and social distancing, Komatsu, a national team candidate, said one of the charms of 3×3 basketball was how close you could be to everything.
”I think you got to see it up close today,” Komatsu said during the test event at Aomi Urban Sports Park on an overcast Sunday afternoon in Tokyo’s Koto Ward. “I think that proximity is one of the charms of 3×3. In the five-man game, sometimes you’re far away. In 3×3, you’re really able to see the players because you’re so close.”
No one will be that close, of course, with the specter of the coronavirus still hanging over the games. The test event was held with no fans since Tokyo is under a state of emergency, but organizers were able to gather information on how the event will be run this summer.
“We are reviewing the flow of the athletes to the field of play, because the court and the seats are close since it’s a compact venue,” said Yasuo Mori, deputy executive director of Tokyo 2020’s Games Operations Bureau. “Because of COVID-19, we want to make sure our original plan is sufficient.”
There is still no guarantee there will be any fans at all at the Tokyo Games. Whether live, on television or via the internet, however, many people will be introduced to a different style of basketball when the 3×3 competition begins.
"Of course we want people to see our games, but we have to be sensitive to the situation and the virus measures being taken," Komatsu said. However, I hope they can come see us play if possible."
The most obvious difference between 3×3 and regular basketball is that there are two fewer players on the floor. The game is also played on half of a regular basketball court, with both teams using one basket. The result is a game where the offensive players have much more space to work and a multitude of one-one-one situations.
“There are players who have high ability and are aggressive and offensive-minded, but I also think there are an increasing number of players who don’t fit in the five-man game who have been able to find a place in 3×3,” said Daiki Tsuchiya, who also competed in the test event.
The game is also much faster — similar to the difference between rugby sevens versus the standard 15-a-side rugby union — and the pace is pushed further by a 12-second shot clock and immediate changes of possession after made shots. The game lasts until either a team reaches 21 points — shots count for one and two points as opposed to two and three — or the 10-minute period expires, at which time the team with the higher score wins.
The game also has an element of entertainment. Loud music, often hip-hop, is a staple in many 3×3 leagues, and some games even have MCs on the floor offering roaming commentary. The test event featured the music, but the announcer remained firmly rooted to his seat.
“This is a new type of sport," Mori said. “We will combine sports and entertainment. So we wanted to accurately test how things will run and review the presentation.”
The test event ran from Friday to Sunday. Rain derailed the final day, first causing the cancellation of the bronze medal game and then forcing officials to cancel the final during warmups because the court was wet.
Mori said the venue was still a work in progress and that, in addition to more seats for fans, the court would be covered during the Olympics.
“When the canopy is installed, I don’t think we will have to worry about the weather very much,” Mori said. “There might be days when we have sideways rain or heavy rain, but we’ll adjust the schedule if that happens.”
The Tokyo Games will offer a fitting stage for 3×3 basketball to make its debut. The sport has a decent following in Japan that is still growing. The nation is also home to the 3×3.EXE PREMIER league, the world’s first top-flight 3×3 circuit. The league is authorized by the governing bodies of five different nations, including the Japan Baseball Association, and endorsed by FIBA, basketball’s global governing body.
The sport, which the International Olympic Committee calls the world’s largest urban team sport, has enjoyed a rapid rise. It was included in the Youth Olympics in Singapore in 2010. It was added to the program for Tokyo 2020 seven years later, making it the first new youth games sport to make the jump to the Summer Games.
Japan’s teams may get a boost from playing on home soil, but they likely face an uphill battle. The men finished 14th in the most recent World Cup in 2019. Japan's women placed 13th.
Komatsu said the men would have to rely on their strong points — speed and shooting — during the games. After experiencing the surroundings at Aomi Urban Sports Park, he's ready to get to work.
“It’s great,” he said of the venue. “I really can’t wait to get started.”
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