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3×3 Basketball Comes to the Games With a G.O.A.T.: Dusan Bulut

3×3 Basketball Comes to the Games With a G.O.A.T.: Dusan Bulut
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3×3 Basketball Comes to the Games With a G.O.A.T.: Dusan Bulut

3×3 Basketball Comes to the Games With a G.O.A.T.: Dusan Bulut

TOKYO – It all started with “White men can’t jump”.

Dusan Bulut was 9 years old and was surfing a channel at his home in Novi Sad, Serbia, when the street ball caper starring Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes appeared on television.

He was frozen. He decided he wanted to get good at basketball.

From that point on, Bulut oriented his life around gambling, measuring his progress based on where he was playing. In the unglamorous neighborhood where he grew up, where basketball courts served as an asphalt oasis between gray buildings, that meant proving his worth on a hierarchy of collecting courts, each featuring older and better players. than the previous one.

Bulut, 35, is now widely regarded as the greatest player in the emerging sport of three-on-three basketball, which made his Olympic debut on Saturday. Consider its track record: since 2012, FIBA ​​has hosted six 3×3 Basketball World Cup tournaments, the game’s official name; Bulut and his Serbian teammates have won four, on courts in Greece, China, France and the Philippines. He has spent much of his career as the world’s number one three-on-three player.

Bulut’s career arc has run parallel to the rise of the game itself. On Saturday he took to the Tokyo pitch and led Serbia to a victory over China in their opener, showing only part of his seductive skills: a behind-the-back assist; a falsified Eurostep lay-up; and a recoil game winner. It was a spectacle befitting the biggest and most accomplished star in the game.

These are relative terms, of course. Bulut remains unknown to the vast majority of sports fans around the world, and the notion of three-on-three basketball as an organized international competition still elicits a chorus of skeptics. But a big stage, a flashy performance and a gold medal could make a difference.

“We deserve it the most,” Bulut said of the Olympic title. “No one will be happy with anything else.”

Since 2017, when three-on-three basketball was added to the Tokyo Olympic program, the sport’s players, officials and commentators have devoted considerable energy to explaining exactly what it is, to dispelling the common misconceptions and, in some cases, trying to justify its existence.

A decade and a half ago, FIBA ​​embarked on three-a-side basketball as a project, formalizing a set of universal rules, organizing test events and, more importantly, unifying some of the many tournaments existing in the world in a pyramid network under its aegis.

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The company has puzzled some traditional basketball fans. Why play with a good thing, something that just happens to be one of the most popular sports in the world?

But FIBA’s motivation was clear: The lighter and faster three-on-three game, he hoped, would engage a younger generation of spectators who enjoyed endless options for entertainment and, in his opinion, had a shorter attention span. The sport was also seen as a way to lower the barrier to entry into international competition for basketball-loving countries that could not match the resources or talent pools of powerful nations like the United States, which have dominated previous Olympic tournaments.

Importantly, three out of three also fit into the larger Olympics effort to wedge non-traditional youth-focused sports – like skateboarding, BMX and rock climbing – between its more traditional events.

“I see it a bit like beach volleyball is normal volleyball: a really cool version of a very popular sport,” said Robbie Hummel, member of the United States three-on-three basketball team, who did failed to qualify for the Tokyo Games.

The intensity of the short burst is therefore three out of the main attraction of three. The games go on until 21, the points are scored in 1 and 2, and the shot clock goes from 12. The space freed up by having fewer players on the field promotes movement and creativity. There are no coaches and few breaks in the game. And the game, according to the players, is much more physical than traditional basketball, with the referees allowing a level of contact closer to the playing field than. of the professional arena.

“You come off with a lot more fouls than five on five,” said Allisha Gray, who plays for the WNBA Wings in Dallas and will represent the United States in Tokyo.

Bulut has never been the fastest, strongest or tallest on the court. He has a well-deserved reputation as a flashy player, but he said he believes his main gifts are his stamina, versatility and willingness to work. He received as much praise for his brevity as for his showmanship.

Part of that mentality comes from his father, a sports journalist, who often told him to “be a short cover” on the pitch.

“It’s hard to translate it into English,” Bulut said with a laugh. “It means you always make someone uncomfortable. If you pull it up, your legs are going to feel cold. If you put it down, your arms will be cold.

Bulut makes players uncomfortable with an array of intangible skills – foresight, timing, geometric awareness – and an arsenal of daring tricks.

Four years ago, during a competition in Amsterdam, he donned a Shammgod – a one-handed, reverse crossover dribble invented by former NBA player God Shammgod – through the open legs of ‘an opponent en route to a game-winning layup, braiding together what many see as the culmination of the short three-on-three story.

“As they say here, he’s a dog,” said Kyle Montgomery, a Los Angeles commentator. “A dog is someone with a heart, a guy who is relentless, a guy who likes to seize the moment. He plays with pride. He’s a winner.

After the initial spark of “White Men Can’t Jump”, Bulut began to follow the careers of players like Stephon Marbury and Allen Iverson. He read Slam and Dime Magazine whenever he could get his hands on a copy. He spent hours watching clips from the AND1 Mixtape Tour.

He absorbed these influences and expressed them again on the courts outside his apartment. Everyone was hanging out there – “moms with kids, alcoholics and drug addicts, nerds” – and the easiest way to get people’s attention, to gain their respect, was to show a gesture. whimsical or a flashy pass.

Those instincts didn’t serve Bulut as well when he started his professional career as a five-on-five player, bouncing around teams in Serbia, Hungary, Bosnia and Macedonia. He disliked the schedule, a numbing flood of anonymous towns and villages, and bristled against the suffocating systems of his coaches.

As an exit, he focused his energy more on playing in three-on-three tournaments, and it all clicked. As he and his teammates watched the cash prizes stack up and sponsorship opportunities began to materialize, they began to devote themselves to the game full time. FIBA marketing materials regularly refer to Bulut as the GOAT, the greatest of all time.

“He’s a great example, and his team, that if you put all the effort and every little bit of time into 3×3, you can have a phenomenal career with it,” said Michael Linklater, a former player from Canada who will comment on the Olympics. . this month for national broadcaster CBC. “They have their own establishment. They train other teams. They kind of figured out how to play the game.

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Bulut pointed out that most of the players involved in the Serbian national team are from the Novi Sad region. Their humble beginnings and difficult surroundings had remained a motivating force, he said.

“This game is always difficult. It’s always uncomfortable, always someone huffing your neck, wants to beat you, wants to cheat on you, ”Bulut said. “That’s why we’re good at it. We are going to make some money, and we can live well here. But take, for example, guys from Canada, Sweden or even Qatar. If they win a tournament, they still get less money than if they just worked in a bank or something like that.

“For us,” he added, “it’s a question of survival.

The question of money could dictate the future of three-on-three basketball. If the profile and price of the sport grows with an Olympic boost, more players might see it as an outlet for their skills, an alternative to working, for example, in a bank.

In this regard, the failure of the US men’s team to qualify represented a missed opportunity to introduce more people from the US, which has the world’s largest surplus of basketball talent, to the game. Kareem Maddox, who represented the US men’s team in the qualifying process, said he believes American players will be drawn to her soon anyway.

“So as not to take anything away from us.” We’re perfectly good basketball players, but we do other things too, ”Maddox said with a laugh. “We have day jobs. As that changes, some of the best talent will emerge from the United States, and we will continue to have supreme dominance in the sport of basketball in all its forms.

Maybe one day it will. But the only dominant force in 3×3 so far has been Bulut, who now has the chance to triumph on a basketball court like he’s never played.

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