When Robbie Hummel played for the Minnesota Timberwolves, he was a locker neighbor of Kevin Love. Hummel’s NBA career was brief, shortened by knee and hand injuries, but he remembered one conversation in particular now that he’s hopeful to play Olympic basketball next year.
Love, after coming back from earning gold with the U.S. at the 2012 London Games, shared with Hummel the experience of being an Olympian. The kaleidoscope that is the Olympic Village. And, namely, watching Usain Bolt sprint.
“The buildup to it is like a prize fight,” Hummel recalled Love saying. “Then it’s over in a blink of an eye.”
Hummel, whose Purdue career included two honorable mention All-Americas and two ACL tears, sandwiched that two-season NBA stint with stops in Spanish, Italian and Russian leagues. By 2017, when he was 28, he had enough.
“The sad reality of this is, I’ve just had a tough time staying healthy since my sophomore year of college,” Hummel tweeted on Oct. 3, 2017, announcing he accepted analyst jobs with ESPN and the Big Ten Network. “Last season was difficult for me living abroad. It got to the point where there were many nights I wondered if I was cheating a game I love by not being 100 percent all in. That’s never been me with this game, and because of that, a change has become something I feel is necessary. … It’s been a hell of a ride, and I look forward to continuing that watching a sport I’ve loved since I was a kid.”
Six months later, Hummel traveled to San Antonio to call the first 3×3 university national championship, held in conjunction with the Final Four. He had never played 3×3. The rules vary from the traditional game, as he would come to know. In 3×3, half-court games end after 10 minutes or once a team scores 21.
“I was underqualified,” Hummel said.
But cognizant. Also in San Antonio were some of the premier, professional U.S. 3×3 players bidding for the event’s Olympic debut in Tokyo in 2020. Most suited up in college but never the NBA.
That included Craig Moore, who played against Hummel as a four-year starter at Northwestern. Moore continued tracking his former Big Ten foe while Hummel played overseas in 2015 and 2016, texting him congrats if he saw an impressive stat line on the web.
When Hummel replied in 2017 to say he was finished, Moore tried to talk to him out of it.
“If it wasn’t in the NBA, I wasn’t going to play anymore,” Hummel said.
Moore’s response: Play with us.
Moore has become the on-court leader of Team Princeton 3×3, a program that dates to the early 1990s, an investment firm CEO who once beat Michael Jordan in one-on-one, Michelle Obama‘s brother and the tenets of the retired, 29-year Princeton coach Pete Carril‘s motion-predicated offense.
Last year, that CEO/team GM John Rogers asked Moore to suggest an extra player since Princeton would field two separate teams at the national championship. Versatility is another key in 3×3. Hummel suits it well, at 6-foot-8 and potent from beyond the arc.
“He seemed to have a bitter end to his career, not enjoying living and playing in Europe,” Moore said. “I asked him, ‘Is that how you want to remember playing basketball? Give 3×3 a chance. Maybe you’ll fall in love with the game.'”
Hummel took him up. He joined Princeton for a FIBA tournament in South Korea, where the Americans lost in the semifinals to a team from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. The following week, Hummel played for one of the two Princeton teams at nationals in Colorado Springs and again reached the semis.
The travel wasn’t so bad. Hummel could still live in Chicago. The bulk of the 3×3 season would end before the start of the NCAA season, so he could still do TV work.
“Any basketball player that retires from playing pro, the one thing you always hear guys say is there’s no way to replicate the feeling of playing in a big-time atmosphere,” he said. “Maybe this is different from playing Michigan State on CBS, or an NBA game. It’s not going to be that, but it’s the next best thing.
“Somebody told me there’s a reason you see musicians playing until they’re 70. This has kind of been that void that has been filled.”
Hummel returned to TV work last fall and winter, doing about 40 appearances for ESPN and almost as many games plus studio shows for the Big Ten Network.
Then this spring, he was back at 3×3 nationals, this time after a full year learning the game. His Princeton team beat Moore’s squad for the title in May. Hummel was tournament MVP, scoring 16 of his team’s 21 points in the final.
Then last week, Hummel was again MVP, leading the U.S. to its first FIBA World Cup title, the equivalent of a world championship. It was the sixth edition of the event. The previous five were won by Serbia (four times) and Qatar. Past U.S. teams (again, no NBA stars) had lost to Romania, Poland and Tunisia.
“I had kind of given up on basketball,” Hummel said in an on-court interview interrupted by teammates pouring water from bottles over his head in Amsterdam. “I’m fortunate that these guys let me be a part of their pro team.
“You learn that every day is a gift, and whenever you can play, you need to take advantage of it, because stuff like this can happen, and when it does, it’s pretty cool.”
The U.S. can’t qualify for the Olympics until this fall at the earliest. If it does, a USA Basketball committee will choose the four players to form the Olympic team next summer. Hummel has to be considered a favorite. He feels healthy for somebody who had two major knee surgeries in college and a shoulder operation as a pro.
“When Craig and those guys were pitching this to me, I thought that would be a really cool way to end my playing career,” Hummel said of the Games. “I’m not sure if I would have gotten into it without the Olympic incentive, but having now played, if I was told tomorrow I was not going to the Olympics, I would still make the trips.”
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