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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.”

U.S. men’s basketball team loses to Argentina for first time since 2005

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A senior U.S. men’s basketball team lost to Argentina for the first time since 2005, dropping a 2019 FIBA World Cup qualifier 80-63 in La Rioja on Thursday.

The Americans, who also lost at Mexico in June, are still in great position to qualify for the World Cup and can clinch a spot as early as Sunday with a win at Uruguay.

The U.S. rosters for World Cup qualifying have mostly included G League players, with NBA superstars expected for September’s World Cup in China.

A U.S. Olympic team last lost at the 2004 Athens Games in the semifinals to Argentina. The following year, a U.S. team of of mostly non-NBA pros including former NCAA standouts Tyus EdneyCharlie Bell and Lynn Greer fell to Argentina at FIBA Americas.

Argentina’s team in current qualifying includes four-time Olympian and former NBA forward Luis Scola.

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Sue Bird hired by Denver Nuggets

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As Sue Bird works toward a potential fifth Olympics in 2020, she’ll have a new job: Denver Nuggets basketball operations associate.

The Nuggets announced the front-office hiring Friday, adding one of the most accomplished players in history. Bird had been tied to the team since mid-October, when she reportedly attended a practice.

“The best way to describe it is kind of like an apprenticeship,” Bird said on the R2C2 is Interrupted podcast published Wednesday. “They reached out. I had some mutual friends with the president there, Tim Connelly. He just kind of likes to keep athletes in the mix and likes to give them exposure and allow them to learn, give them that opportunity while they’re still playing. Music to my ears.”

Bird, who will be 40 in 2020 and three years older than any previous U.S. Olympic basketball player, is coming off her 16th WNBA season with the Seattle Storm, winning her third title. She also started all five of her games at the world championship in September, earning an eighth career Olympic or world gold medal.

Going into Rio, Bird said it would likely be her last Olympics. But in 2017, she said that she would continue playing for Team USA as long as USA Basketball asks. No younger point guard has unseated her on the national team.

“I’m on a timeline of my health, so as long as that’s still going, I’m going to still go,” Bird said on the podcast, adding that she will want to keep it a secret when she knows she’s playing her last season. “If I could squeeze out a couple more years, that would be great.”

The NBA has recently opened up roles for women. Most notably, Russian Olympian Becky Hammon became the first full-time female assistant coach in the U.S.’ four major team sports leagues with the San Antonio Spurs and later was head coach of their summer league team.

Nancy Lieberman, a 1976 U.S. Olympic silver medalist, and Kristi Toliver, who plays internationally for Slovakia, have worked as assistants with the Sacramento Kings and Washington Wizards, respectively.

The WNBA season typically starts in mid-May, when the NBA playoffs are happening.

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MORE: Candace Parker finished with USA Basketball