The U.S. women have won eight of the 11 Olympic 5-on-5 basketball tournaments, including six straight gold medals. They're favored again in the Tokyo Games, and their Olympic victories sometimes feel more like repeated coronations than celebrations.
Enter 3x3 basketball, which made its Olympic debut in Tokyo. As the U.S. women won the inaugural gold Wednesday, their success felt like both. And the fun, entertaining sport being part of future Olympics was one of the best things that could have come from the Tokyo Games.
USA Basketball fans will look forward to watching more 3x3, but success can't be taken for granted. And that's exciting. The 3x3 game is too fast, and momentum can turn so quickly, that the United States' talent pool of superior depth doesn't carry as much weight as it does in 5-on-5.
This sport consists of just four-player teams, which makes it easier for more countries to be competitive. Even so, the U.S. women went 8-1 in Tokyo, their only loss a meaningless final game of the preliminaries when their top seed was already clinched. And the U.S. roster included a player who wasn't even expecting to play in the Olympics, as Jackie Young left vacation to join the team just one week before its first game when COVID-19 protocols sidelined Katie Lou Samuelson.
The U.S. women winning gold was like 5-on-5: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. But many of the Americans' 3x3 games were close with a kind of tension that had fans on the edge of their seats even in the early-morning hours here in the United States.
"It's always special to be the first of anything," U.S. center Stefanie Dolson said during an NBC interview after Wednesday's 18-15 gold-medal-game victory over the Russian Olympic Committee team. "Basketball runs deep in the USA blood. So for us to have this accomplishment as well and to hopefully start something is really special."
Like her 3x3 teammates -- the Dallas Wings' Allisha Gray and the Las Vegas Aces' Young and Kelsey Plum -- the Chicago Sky's Dolson is a WNBA player who has spent time with USA Basketball in 5-on-5 training and competition. Plum actually played with that squad in the 2018 FIBA Women's World Cup, winning gold there.
Plum (2017) and Young (2019) were both WNBA No. 1 draft picks. All but Plum won at least one NCAA championship (Dolson won two with UConn), and Plum led Washington to the school's only women's Final Four appearance, in 2016. In short, these are all terrific 5-on-5 players.
But their odds of making the 5-on-5 Olympic team have been long, only because that squad is so loaded. Every Olympic cycle, players who would make any other country's roster just can't crack the U.S. team. Now with 3x3, there at least are four more chances for top American women's hoop standouts to become U.S. Olympians.
We got a chance to see in this extremely entertaining tournament what makes for the best 3x3 players and teams. The game is played outdoors, on a half court, and the 10-minute 3x3 games require constant movement; they're like an extreme cardio workout.
Not everyone can do it. Post players Sylvia Fowles of the Minnesota Lynx and Tina Charles of the Washington Mystics, former WNBA MVPs who have played in multiple Olympics and are on this year's 5-on-5 U.S. team, said especially at this point in their careers that 3x3 would be too quick for them.
"That is just another speed that, at this age, I'm not trying to reach," the 35-year-old Fowles said, laughing.
Phoenix Mercury guard Skylar Diggins-Smith, who is making her 5-on-5 Olympic debut this year, knows what it takes: While still at Notre Dame, she played for the gold-winning 2012 World Cup 3x3 team and was a huge advocate of it becoming an Olympic sport, writing a paper on it while in college.
"Countries that may have three or four [top] players can play at a high level," Diggins-Smith said of 3x3. "They may not be able to compete in the Olympics in 5-on-5. It really is a fast game -- the shot clock, the time limit, the environment. It kind of takes you to a streetball environment in which we all kind of grew up playing outside."
Diggins-Smith helped lay the groundwork for U.S. success in 3x3 nine years ago, and she took pride in seeing another Notre Dame grad in Young be part of the first Olympic champion 3x3 team.
Young wasn't expecting to be there at all; Samuelson was the original fourth member of the team but was sidelined by COVID-19 protocols just before the trip to Tokyo. Young was on vacation in Florida, as the WNBA is taking an Olympic break, when she got the call on July 17 asking her to fly to Las Vegas and join the team before it headed to Japan. Eleven days later, Young was an Olympic champion.
"Could you imagine?" Plum said of her WNBA teammate going from relax mode to Olympic mode overnight. "For her to come in and be so ready to play at this level and just be a rock -- super, super consistent -- I just really respect that."
Everyone feels that respect for Plum, too. The NCAA's all-time women's basketball scoring leader has adjusted to a little different role as a WNBA player, though she can still light up a scoreboard. Plum has had to find her way in the WNBA, starting out with a San Antonio franchise that was in decline in its last season before moving to Las Vegas, and dealing with an Achilles tendon tear that cost her the 2020 WNBA season.
"My best friend sent me a video; I walked for the first time, like this exact day, last year after surgery," said Plum, adding that the Seattle Storm's Breanna Stewart gave her confidence because of her return from a 2019 Achilles injury. "I watched her go through this process. I think she changed the narrative of what an Achilles injury and comeback can be like. I picked her brain. I was grateful I had someone that kind of paved the way for me."
The pandemic postponing the Olympics to 2021 actually gave Plum her chance to be on the team. The "wow, did she really just do that?" kinds of moves to the basket and sweet jump shot that we've seen over the years from her were a huge part of Team USA's 3x3 success. As good as she is at 5-on-5, it just feels like 3x3 was made for Plum, and vice versa. And not just offensively; her constant activity on defense was crucial, too.
The same could be said of Gray, who was the WNBA Rookie of the Year in 2017 when she was drafted fourth behind Plum. Gray started her college career at North Carolina before transferring to South Carolina, and this tournament highlighted her sheer strength, rebounding and defensive tenacity, ability to get to the rim and endless hustle. It sometimes seemed Gray was everywhere on court at once.
Former college teammate and best friend A'ja Wilson and South Carolina coach Dawn Staley are with the 5-on-5 team watching with pride and now will try to match Gray's gold.
And Dolson? There is an extensive UConn history in the Olympics -- she's the 10th former Huskies women's basketball player to win Olympic gold -- including five-time Olympians Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi. They are on this year's 5-on-5 team, along with UConn grads Charles, Stewart and Napheesa Collier. Collier is an Olympic rookie who would be the 11th to join that club if the U.S. 5-on-5 team wins in Tokyo.
But this gold distinguishes Dolson: the first at a new Olympic sport. Dolson, who overcame a bout with COVID-19 last year, goes by the nickname "Big Mama Stef" and put the gold medals around her teammates' necks in the medal ceremony.
We've seen that so often for the Americans in 5-on-5 that maybe we take it for granted. But it felt fresh in 3x3.
Duke women's coach Kara Lawson, a former WNBA player and 5-on-5 Olympic gold medalist in 2008, was coach of the U.S. 3x3 team. That meant a lot of preparation, practice and pep talks, but coaches aren't allowed during games.
She wanted this quartet to be ready for anything, including all the different styles that opponents played, and have the chance to experience what she did in Beijing 13 years ago as an Olympic champion.
"This group is a part of the beginning," Lawson said. "Years from now, when the story of the start of 3x3 is told, it can't be told without them."