When he finally decided to retire from basketball at age 28, Robbie Hummel left behind a career defined largely by what could have been.
The former Purdue University star had once been among the most promising talents in college basketball, reaching the NBA even after his time at the Indiana school was derailed by two ACL tears. Driven by a lifelong passion forged in Hoosier State’s frenzied high school basketball scene, Hummel veered from setback after setback for two seasons with the Minnesota Timberwolves and one in Spain, Italy and Russia. But after a short and miserable stint with Moscow’s BC Khimki club, where he suffered a severe broken nose and a concussion, he found that the joy he once had in showing up to practice every day was wearing thin.
It was just when Hummel was ready to put his playing days behind him and embark on a full-time broadcasting career that he got a phone call from Craig Moore, an old college basketball friend. Moore was convinced that Hummel was too young to retire and would be a perfect fit in 3×3 basketball, which the International Olympic Committee had recently added as a medal event for the 2020 Games.
Hummel, who had just signed a deal to become a college games analyst for ESPN and the Big Ten Network, was skeptical. Three years later, he is the face of the United States 3×3 men’s basketball team as the sport heads towards its Olympic debut in Tokyo.
“Honestly, the only reason I went was because I had never been to Asia,” Hummel said of his decision to cross the world with Team USA and Princeton 3×3 on the Fiba World Tour. “It’s a free trip to Seoul and the worst case scenario is that I’ll go there and at least get to know a country I’ve never been to. I really wasn’t sure what I was getting into because some of the economics didn’t make a lot of sense. But, you know, it’s a free ride. “
The United States, despite its long-standing international supremacy in traditional five-on-five basketball, has generally lagged far behind Europe and Asia in the 3×3 scene. But Hummel’s arrival ahead of the 2019 Fiba 3×3 World Cup in the Netherlands has marked a change.
The 6-foot-8, 220-pound forward was named the MVP of the tournament after leading the United States to a perfect 7-0 record and their first world championship. For his efforts, Hummel was named USA Basketball’s Male Athlete of the Year for his efforts, joining a list of previous winners including Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James.
The rules of 3×3 basketball are designed for faster-paced competition than five on five. Teams play one- and two-point baskets during a single 10-minute period (with a 12-second shot clock), although a game can end earlier if a team reaches 21 points within range. If a game is tied at the end of the rulebook, the first team to score two points in overtime wins. Each side is awarded two free throws from the seventh team foul, then two free throws and possession after the tenth.
“I see it as beach volleyball is normal volleyball,” Hummel said. “It’s a really cool twist on a very popular sport. I think most kids growing up, you grew up playing three-on-three tournaments, and you grew up playing three-on-three in the backyards, so it’s very easy for fans to identify. Everyone has played three against three at some point in their life.
“It is a different animal than five against five. You are on the offensive, you are on the defensive, you are on the offense. It’s so back and forth with the way the game is played, where if the other team scores and I defend, we take it off the net and run our offense right away. It is fast paced and fun to watch. Offense certainly has an advantage with the amount of space on the court, but I think it’s really going to be popular because the style of play is very intriguing, but it’s also very easy to identify for a lot of people at home. “
Since the 3×3 is played in the middle court and all defensive rebounds and steals must be cleared to the goal, counterattack in the traditional sense is non-existent. That puts a greater emphasis on screens, isolation plays, quick cuts out the back door and offensive players pushing their defenders back to the post.
Many of these skills carry over into the five-on-five game. But the game is different enough where countries that have placed a greater emphasis on developing full-time 3×3 players have been rewarded accordingly on the global stage. Serbia, for example, is a four-time world champion, while Qatar took home the title in 2014.
Kareem Maddox, a 6-foot-8, 220-pound forward who plays alongside Hummel for Team USA and Princeton 3×3, quit his job as a podcast producer with Gimlet Media to dedicate all his efforts to the Olympics. . The former Princeton University captain found that the 3×3 game succeeds in reducing basketball to its essential elements.
“A lot of actions in five-on-five basketball involve three people, while the other two are in the corner doing something else,” Maddox said. “As a teaching tool, you can teach kids how to play basketball the right way: how to position themselves in space on the court and how to use their teammates well and how to interpret situations.
“I think 3×3 is really in the spirit of the Olympics, which until very recently was about amateur athletics. There are times when we travel to these tournaments and the setting is urban, you are playing outdoors, there is music while the games are going on, sometimes you wrap your ankles. It feels gritty. And I think that’s the way a lot of people think about 3v3 basketball when they go to their local park and play with their friends. “
Hummel said America’s relative poor performance in 3×3 is simply due to national exposure, a barrier to entry that he believes the Olympic platform will address.
“Part of this is a numbers game,” said Hummel, who balanced his preparations for Tokyo with his responsibilities for broadcasting NCAA tournaments for Westwood One radio. “We just haven’t had that many people playing. It has not been as popular here as it has been in Serbia or some of the Eastern European countries or even Asia. Another barrier is that I think in my 3×3 career, I have played like two events in North America. I think there are some serious barriers in the game for the countries on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, because (the tournaments) are so far away and not easy to get to. It’s not like you can drive down the street to play in a 3×3 Fiba event. You either have to fly to Seoul, or you have to fly to Europe and take a connecting flight to a place like Novi Sad, Serbia, or you have to fly into an airport and drive for a couple of hours. It is not always easy to get to these events.
“I think the Olympics are an incredible opportunity for the United States to show the players if they are in their career recession, or they just don’t want to play five-on-five overseas or whatever their situation, that you can go and win. some money playing in the 3×3 universe. I certainly think this can be a stepping stone for countries like the United States, where now some of these guys who maybe could play in Europe but don’t want to spend that time abroad, they see that 3×3 is mainly a weekend sport. in which ‘if you’re away for a weekend and you’re literally home We usually go out on a Wednesday or Thursday, arrive on Thursday or Friday, play on Saturday and Sunday, and you can literally be home on Monday morning. morning “.
Maddox, the player number 33 in the ranking Fiba Individual World Ranking, insists the sport has only scratched the surface of its potential in the United States.
“One of the best things about 3×3 is that it is accessible,” Maddox said. “You can build a 3×3 team with four players and a coach. It is much less resource intensive than five-on-five basketball. And I think a big part of what we’ve been thinking and between USA Basketball and the players on the team that Robbie and I play on is: How do we get to more youth? How do you build a really strong program? How do you start to get the players who are going to enter the qualifying stages of events like the Pan American Games, the Olympic Games, the World Cup? How are you going to find local talents who want to play 3×3 from a younger age instead of transitioning from 5v5 to 3×3?
“The other thing you have to understand is that a lot of these teams that we play against on the professional circuit and internationally, are guys who have dedicated their careers to playing 3×3 and they don’t really play five at a time. -five. And there are reasons for that. In 3×3, you get paid when you win. Sometimes you are covering your own journey to try to get to these places and they are a little further with their sponsorship model.
“What we don’t have is guys who play 3×3 basketball full time. In order not to take anything from us: We are excellent basketball players, but we have day jobs. And I believe that 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. “
The United States’ men’s World Cup triumph secured their place in the Olympic qualifying tournament next month in Austria. The top three of the 20 teams at the event, which was originally scheduled for March 2020 in India, advance to an eight-team field in Tokyo.
For Hummel, what began as a free trip to Asia has turned into a career coda that has renewed his decadent love of the sport. Completing it with an Olympic gold would be the end of the storybook that felt nearly impossible just three years ago.
“We played in 22 countries over the course of a summer,” Hummel said. “We have played all over the world. It has been an amazing experience. For me, it kept hurting me whenever I felt like I was playing at my highest level, whether it was my knees or my shoulder or breaking my hand in the NBA or whatever. So this is a really cool way to end my career and hopefully do it in a positive way in Tokyo. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism