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U.S. wraps Pan Am Games with 293 medals, 18 Olympic quota spots

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The Pan American Games, bringing together athletes from North America, South America and the Caribbean, are an interesting grab bag of events: Olympic sports bringing in the top-ranked athletes in the hemisphere, Olympic sports that are much lower on the priority list for world-class competitors, and non-Olympic sports such as racquetball, water skiing and basque pelota.

The program fluctuates a bit, and this year’s competition in Lima, Peru, featured a staggering 419 events, up from the 364 events contested in Toronto four years ago and far more than the 339 events on the Tokyo 2020 schedule.

One thing that doesn’t change in the Pan Am Games is the U.S. dominance in the medal count. The final tally this year: 120 gold medals, 88 silver and 85 bronze. The next-best country, Brazil, earned 55 gold medals, 45 silver and 71 bronze for a total of 171, lagging far behind the U.S. total of 293. Canada (152 total) and Mexico (136) took the next two spots on the medal table.

For some sports, the competition was vitally important. Modern pentathletes Samantha Achterberg and Amro Elgeziry earned spots on the 2020 Olympic team with their performances. Elgeziry took a silver medal in the 2014 world championships while competing for Egypt, then moved to the United States after marrying U.S. pentathlete Isabella Isaksen. Elgeziry and Isaksen also combined for gold in the mixed relay.

READ: Elgeziry, three-time Egyptian Olympian, qualifies for 2020 U.S. team

Some events offered Olympic quota spots, ensuring a place for at least one U.S. athlete in the event in 2020. U.S. shooters nailed down seven spots. Other U.S. athletes earned spots in archery, equestrian, sailing, shooting and water polo.

In other sports, with less at stake, the U.S. didn’t send its top athletes. One exception: Swimmer Nathan Adrian followed up his world championship relay medals with six medals in Lima, matching the total of fellow world championship medalist Margo Geer.

Most top gymnasts were competing in the U.S. Championships, and yet the U.S. women took the team gold medal and Riley McCusker finished with four medals.

The U.S. sent substantially weakened teams in several sports and posted several results that would be shockers in the Olympics. The men’s and women’s volleyball teams failed to medal. In men’s basketball, a U.S. team composed entirely of current and recent Big East players fell to Argentina by a stunning score of 114-75 in the semifinals, then rebounded to take bronze. The U.S. women, virtually unbeatable with WNBA players in the World Cup and Olympics, lost to Brazil in the final.

On the other hand, the U.S. swept the gold medals in the new Olympic sport of 3×3 basketball and took medals in several sports in which teams would rarely be competitive in the Olympics such as artistic swimming (formerly known as synchronized swimming) and men’s field hockey. The women’s handball team narrowly missed the podium, losing 24-23 to Cuba in the bronze medal game.

U.S. bowlers Jakob Butturff and Nick Pate took the doubles bowling gold in unusual circumstances after Puerto Rico’s Jean Perez Faure tested positive for a masking agent. Butturff has won seven PBA events.

The Parapan American Games, for athletes with disabilities, start Aug. 23.

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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.”

FIBA investing in 3-on-3 hoops

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Volleyball has beach, cycling has BMX, swimming has open water, and badminton exists, so why not 3-on-3 hoops at the Olympics?

FIBA, basketball’s international governing body, is strongly considering a push to make 3-on-3 at the Olympics a reality as soon as the Rio Games in 2016, and the success of the world championships in Spain last week is encouraging the masses.

Serbia won both the men’s senior and under-18 tournament, with the U.S. taking bronze and silver respectively and the French ending up with whatever was left. In August, Team USA took gold at the inaugural women’s world tournament in Athens.

“What FIBA wants is to create a new generation of players,” said Jim Tooley, CEO of USA Basketball. “And take the game into new places. You saw here teams from Guam, from Nepal.”

The athletes play 10 minute or 21 point games (whichever comes first) on outdoor half-courts, with a 12 second shot clock, a ones-and-twos scoring system, and loud, pumping music that helps drive the break-neck speed of the game.

“I think it’s exciting to watch too because it’s really high-paced… it’s a great environment,” Canadian under-18 coach Shawn Swords told the Toronto Observer. “I think it’s something that would definitely draw a lot of people to watch, and it would be a fun game to play and I’m sure the players would love it.”

We’re not sure if the world is ready to give up on the 5-on-5 game that’s been around since 1936, so it might be tough to find space for both disciplines in the schedule, but if the Olympics is going to continue aiming at a younger audience with sports like beach volleyball and BMX, then 3-on-3 has to be next on the list.

Now if we could only figure out a way to add HORSE and a three-point shootout we’d be set.