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3×3 basketball players juggle jobs, schoolwork in lead-up to Tokyo

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Craig Moore might be the definition of a weekend warrior.

Moore has a full-time job in finance in New York City. But on weekends, he swaps out suits for a basketball uniform, traveling to 3×3 tournaments with his teammates in the hopes of ultimately representing the U.S. at the 2020 Tokyo Games. The International Olympic Committee announced that 3×3 would be added to the Olympic program in June 2017.

The addition of the event means athletes – who might not make a star-studded five-on-five roster packed with NBA or WNBA talent – have another shot at the Olympics in a dynamic, fast-paced game entirely its own.

Three-on-three games last 10 minutes, or until one team reaches 21 points. Games are played on a half-court with a 12-second shot clock, and offense immediately turns to defense after a team scores.

Moore played traditional five-on-five basketball in college for Northwestern University, then moved to Europe to compete in domestic leagues in the Netherlands and Romania. But the job uncertainty made Moore start to consider changing careers. “When you play in Europe, especially not at [the] Euroleague level, you’re kind of always just fishing,” he said. “You get discouraged sometimes…So I decided I should probably get a job.”

He worked in finance for a year, spent a season at Princeton as the director of operations for men’s basketball, then returned to the corporate world. On weekends, he started playing pick-up basketball.

At first, he said, the weekend tournaments were purely recreational. Then in 2014, Moore’s team won U.S. Nationals and played at the World Cup in Russia, where they finished 14th. In 2017, after winning Nationals again, Moore’s team finished seventh at the World Cup, knocked out in the quarterfinals by eventual champions Serbia. Once Moore and his teammates learned 3×3 would be part of the Olympics, “we’ve run with it ever since,” he said. “We’ve fallen in love with the travel, the games, the quick pace. We’ve gotten used to the rougher play.”

Olympic qualification is no simple feat, particularly for players not based in Europe, where many of the major tournaments are located. Eight teams per gender will play in Tokyo, and FIBA, basketball’s international governing body, has specific qualification requirements for both nations and individual athletes.

Players can earn points for themselves and their countries by partaking in FIBA-endorsed 3×3 competitions, and a ranking list of points in November 2019 will determine the first four countries to qualify for the Games. The rest will have to earn spots through two qualifying tournaments. The U.S. men are currently ranked seventh in the world, while the American women are 29th, with most of 2019 to improve their positions. USA Basketball is prioritizing increased participation in international tournaments this year so players can earn more points.

The qualification requirements mean athletes must devote a significant amount of time to 3×3-specific tournament play, making it unlikely that prominent NBA and WNBA stars will feature in 3×3 at the Games. Should the Americans qualify, a men’s team will likely be made up of athletes like Moore, who have played in college or professionally, or athletes finishing their G-league careers. A U.S. women’s team would likely include collegiate athletes.

Moore’s current team is made up of six players (though only four of those six go to each tournament, with three on court at once). Three live in New York, with one in Chicago, one in Seattle, and one in Los Angeles. Moore said they stay in touch through a group chat and hold each other accountable for squeezing in workouts so they’re ready to play. All have full-time jobs. Moore said some of his co-workers have taken an active interest in 3×3. “I get a lot of text messages after games, like, ‘great job,’” he said. Or sometimes, “you should’ve made that shot!”

Accumulating points through various tournaments means a hectic travel schedule: Moore said he spent 17 weekends on the road in 2018, sometimes taking a day off from work, other times getting off a red-eye flight and going straight to the office.

His love for the game – and the prospect of representing the U.S. at the Olympics – makes the time put in seem less daunting.

“Once you play it, you end up falling in love with it,” he said. “For former competitors who kind of lost the game a little bit, to get it back in any way, shape or form, is a really cool experience.”

Four athletes from the University of Oregon represented the U.S. women at last year’s World Cup, finishing fifth. Sabrina Ionescu, now a junior, was one of those players.

Ionescu is an All-America guard at Oregon. In December, she broke an NCAA record (for both men and women) with her 13th career triple-double, and now has 16. Her on-court statistics caught the attention of Stephen Curry, who met Ionescu after the Warriors played the Trail Blazers in December and called her “the walking triple dub” on social media.

Last year, the coaching staff at Oregon chose Ionescu and three teammates to enter the 3×3 U.S. Nationals in Colorado Springs. The group went into the tournament with no expectations, but ended up winning and earning a spot to represent the U.S. at the 2018 World Cup in the Philippines.

Their performance at the World Cup was admittedly imperfect, not unexpected for their first international tournament. “[I had] never done anything like it,” Ionescu said. “At one point we’d gone into overtime, and we didn’t know what the overtime rules were…so we just played not knowing how long we would be playing for.”

Ionescu said what she’s learned in 3×3 “definitely helps translate to five-on-five games. Just having to make reads on the fly…[trusting] the teammates you’re with…You really have to do that in the flow of the game. You’re not looking at your coach to make all your moves for you.”

Ionescu hasn’t played in a major 3×3 tournament since the World Cup. While men’s 3×3 players have a multi-stop World Tour, no official series of tournaments has been offered to women. FIBA plans to launch a professional circuit for women in 2019, though the competition format is still being finalized.

While Ionescu is currently focused the collegiate season she’s in the midst of, an Olympic opportunity in 3×3 hasn’t left her mind: “it would definitely be a dream come true to represent my country on the highest stage, something that I dreamed about when I was younger.”

Figure skating Grand Prix: Five things to watch

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World champions Nathan Chen and Alina Zagitova. Former U.S. champions Karen Chen and Bradie Tennell. Two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu and world bronze medalist Vincent Zhou. World champion ice dancers Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, and two-time U.S. ice dance champions/world championship medalists Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue. Quads, quads, quads.

All of these skaters and jumps will be featured in figure skating’s Grand Prix, which runs from this weekend’s Skate America to the Grand Prix Final Dec. 5-8 at the 2006 Olympic venue of Torino, Italy. January has the U.S. Championships and European Championships, February has the Four Continents Championships, and the season wraps up with the world championships in March.

TV SCHEDULE: How to watch Skate America

Here’s what to watch over the next two months:

1. Dominant dancers due for defeat? 

France’s Papadakis and Cizeron have won four of the last five world championships. The only duo to beat them since 2014, Canada’s Tessa Virtue and Scott Moirhas officially retired. They’re still in their mid-20s. They posted the four highest scores last season.

The reigning world championship silver medalists, Russia’s Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov, had a major breakthrough last season. Until last season, they had never won the Russian championships, never skated in a Grand Prix Final, never finished higher than fourth in the European championships and never finished higher than ninth in the world championships. They still haven’t won a medal in the European championships or won a Grand Prix event. Were their second-place finishes in the world championships and Grand Prix Final a fluke or a sign that they’re ready to challenge for the top?

The top U.S. contenders, Madison Chock/Evan Bates and Madison Hubbell/Zach Donohue, train in Montreal with Papadakis and Cizeron, so they know what it takes to get to the top. Hubbell and Donohue posted the highest scores after the French champions and Russian runners-up last year to take their second straight world championship medal and a win at the Grand Prix Final ahead of Sinitsina/Katsalapov. Chock and Bates earned world championship medals in the middle of the decade and finished sixth last year as Chock returned from a long injury layoff.

Oddsmakers would surely favor Papadakis and Cizeron in every competition, but will the underdogs have their day?

The GP schedule for the top dancers and U.S. entries:

  • Skate America: Hubbell/Donohue, Christina Carreira/Anthony Ponomarenko, Caroline Green/Michael Parsons
  • Skate Canada: Hubbell/Donohue, Green/Parsons, Kaitlin Hawayek/Jean-Luc Baker
  • Internationaux de France: Papadakis/Cizeron, Chock/Bates
  • Cup of China: Sinitsina/Katsalapov, Chock/Bates, Hawayek/Baker
  • Rostelecom Cup: Sinitsina/Katsalapov
  • NHK Trophy: Papadakis/Cizeron, Carreira/Ponomarenko, Lorraine McNamara/Quinn Carpenter

2. Can Vincent Zhou topple Chen and Hanyu?

The 2017 world junior champion has steadily and rapidly climbed the ranks since moving to senior level, taking sixth in the 2018 Olympics and third in the 2019 Four Continents before laying down two stunners, taking third in the world championships and posting a score of 299.01 in the World Team Trophy, a mark bested only by Chen and Hanyu.

This season, after spending his youth in Colorado and California, he’ll go across the country to start college at Brown.

Chen and Hanyu have been over the 300-point mark, and Japan’s Shoma Uno is consistently over 275 — the only skater other than Chen, Hanyu and Zhou to beat that standard last season. (Uno, the 2018 Olympic silver medalist and two-time world championship runner-up, picked a bad time to fall just under 275 — the world championships, where he finished fourth behind the other three high scorers.)

The GP schedule for the top men’s skaters and U.S. entries:

  • Skate America: Chen, Jason Brown, Alexei Krasnozhon
  • Skate Canada: Hanyu, Camden Pulkinen
  • Internationaux de France: Uno, Chen, Tomoki Hiwatashi
  • Cup of China: Pulkinen, Zhou
  • Rostelecom Cup: Uno, Zhou, Krasnozhon
  • NHK Trophy: Hanyu, Brown, Hiwatashi

MORE: Zhou balances Brown University with overseas assignments

3. Can the Tampa-trained pair of Vanessa James and Morgan Ciprès follow up their big year?

James has taken a long and winding road to the top of the pairs world. She was born in Canada, then lived in Bermuda and Virginia before competing as a singles skater for Britain. When she moved to pairs, she also switched to France to partner first with Yannick Bonheur and then Ciprès.

For several years, the pair won the French championship but not much else. In the 2017-18 season, they earned a couple of Grand Prix medals and placed fifth in the Olympics before claiming their biggest international prize to date, a bronze medal in the world championships.

Last year, the pair went on a hot streak. They won Skate Canada. They won the Internationaux de France. They won the Grand Prix Final. They won the European championship. Finally, their streak ended at a bad time, and they took fifth in the world championships.

Olympic silver medalists Sui Wenjing and Han Cong won their second world championship last season after missing the GP season because of Han’s foot injury. Russia’s Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov were second in the world championships.

U.S. champions Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy Leduc skated in the U.S. Classic last month and posted a higher score than any of their compatriots last year. The previous champions, Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim, were seventh last year. The last two U.S. champions — Haven Denney/Brandon Frazier and Tarah Kayne/Danny O’Shea — also are continuing to compete this year.

The GP schedule for the top pairs and U.S. entries:

  • Skate America: Cain-Gribble/Leduc, Denney/Frazier, Jessica Calalang/Brian Johnson
  • Skate Canada: Tarasova/Morozov, Scimeca Knierim/Knierim, Calalang/Johnson
  • Internationaux de France: Cain-Gribble/Leduc, Denney/Frazier
  • Cup of China: Sui/Han, Kayne/O’Shea
  • Rostelecom Cup: Tarasova/Morozov, Audrey Lu/Misha Mitrofanov
  • NHK Trophy: Sui/Han, Kayne/O’Shea, Scimeca Knierim/Knierim

4. How many more young quad-jumping Russians can women’s skating handle? 

Zagitova is the defending world champion, and she isn’t even the Russian with the biggest buzz heading into the new season.

Back-to-back world junior champion Alexandra Trusova is the first woman to land a quadruple Lutz in competition. She’s also the first to land a quad toeloop. She landed two quads in one program at the 2018 world juniors, and she has done three in an unofficial skate this fall. She’s only 15. Her free skate this season includes music from “Game of Thrones.”

Anna Shcherbakova, also 15, has landed a quadruple Lutz and was second in last year’s world juniors, and she upset Trusova and Zagitova to win the Russian championship.

Trusova and Shcherbakova both lost in last year’s junior Grand Prix Final to yet another Russian, Alena Kostornaia, who’s 16 now and has the good taste to skate to the Muse song “Supermassive Black Hole” in her free skate.

Kostornaia, Trusova and Shcherbakova will make their senior-level Grand Prix debuts this season. Trusova already has competed this year and posted the highest score recorded under the new scoring system, just ahead of prior marks from Zagitova and Kostornaia.

5. Can the U.S. women put it together this year? 

Chen and Zhou give the U.S. men two legitimate medal threats in any competition, and the U.S. ice dance machine continues to spin forth contenders. But women’s skating has been in a long dry spell since the era of Michelle Kwan, Tara Lipinski, Sarah Hughes and Sasha Cohen ended. Ashley Wagner, the last U.S. woman on the podium in a major event, has retired.

Today, 2018 U.S. champion Bradie Tennell has shown she’s capable of big numbers, but cracking the top five has been difficult.

The reigning U.S. champion, Alysa Liu, is age eligible for only the Junior Grand Prix series. She’s 14, and she has already posted a score higher than any U.S. woman other than Tennell posted last year.

The good news for the U.S. women is the return of 2017 U.S. champion Karen Chen after an injury-riddled 2018-19 season. Like Zhou, she’s heading to an Ivy League school, enrolling at Cornell.

Two-time U.S. medalist Mariah Bell and the ever-entertaining Starr Andrews also have two Grand Prix assignments this season.

Ting Cui, the bronze medalist after Trusova and Shcherbakova in the 2019 world junior championships, withdrew from her Grand Prix events with an ankle injury.

The GP schedule for the top women and U.S. entries:

  • Skate America: Shcherbakova, Chen, Tennell, Amber Glenn
  • Skate Canada: Trusova, Tennell
  • Internationaux de France: Zagitova, Kostornaia, Andrews, Bell
  • Cup of China: Shcherbakova
  • Rostelecom Cup: Trusova, Bell
  • NHK Trophy: Zagitova, Kostornaia, Chen, Andrews, Megan Wessenberg

MORE: Tennell on self-doubt, lessons learned in 2019

MORE: Figure skating season broadcast schedule

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Check out a free trial of the Figure Skating Pass during Skate America from Oct. 18-20. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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World Cup Alpine season opener gets green light

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After checking the snow on the Rettenbach glacier in Soelden, Austria, FIS officials announced Thursday that the traditional World Cup season opener is set to go ahead as planned Oct. 26-27 with men’s and women’s giant slalom races.

Current conditions at Soelden show a solid 30 inches of snow at the summit. The race finishes at an altitude of 2,670 meters (8,760 feet), far above the currently snowless village.

The first races of the season are never guaranteed to have enough snow, though last year’s men’s race at Soelden had the opposite problem, being canceled when a storm blew through with heavy snowfall and high winds. 

France’s Tessa Worley won the women’s race last year ahead of Italy’s Frederica Brignone and U.S. skier Mikaela Shiffrin, who would go on to dominate the rest of the World Cup season.

The Soelden weekend is followed by three dormant weeks until the season resumes Nov. 23-24 in Levi, Finland. The World Cup circuits then switch to North America. The men will run speed events Nov. 30-Dec. 1 in Lake Louise, Alberta, then head to Beaver Creek, Colo., for more speed events and a giant slalom Dec. 6-8. The women run slalom and giant slalom Nov. 30-Dec. 1 in Killington, Vt., and head to Lake Louise the next weekend.

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