Faster, snappier and appealing, how 3x3 basketball continues to soar in India

3x3 basketball requires endurance — even when on the sidelines.

On a sultry, humid Saturday summer afternoon in Mumbai, before the rain clouds obliged by cooling down the scorched earth below, the only thing hotter than the temperatures was the action on the basketball court. The iconic Indian Gymkhana ground in the city’s Matunga was divided into two half-courts, with short-form basketball action exploding on each side.

Three players on the floor per team. Ten minutes. 21 points. No pause. No time to breathe. No time to rest. You score. You defend. You score. You win. You repeat. And you repeat. Over and over again.

 Faster, snappier and appealing, how 3x3 basketball continues to soar in India

Amritpal Singh in action at Red Bull Reign 2019 National Finals.

Last weekend, the Indian Gymkhana was the venue to the finals of the Red Bull Reign tournament, the latest entrant into the growing field of 3x3 basketball in India. In a country where a full-length professional basketball league continues to be an elusive dream, this smaller, faster format is quickly taking over, challenging established players in new ways, and creating new stars specialising in the mastery in this shorter version of the game.

Of course, 3x3 isn’t a ‘new’ version at all: For almost as long as regulated basketball has been played, smaller groups of amateurs having been playing a half-court version of the game, too, whether it’s 1-on-1, 2-on-2, 3-on-3, etc. But it wasn’t until earlier in this decade that FIBA — the world’s basketball governing body — decided to capitalise on the potential of the smaller game and created an official set of rules for what has become FIBA 3x3. In cricketing terms, it was the ‘T20-isation’ of the game, trimming down a format only to its shortest and most-exciting bits.

Ever since then, the growth of 3x3 has been faster than defence turns into offence in this format. FIBA simultaneously supported the growth of 3x3 club leagues around the world and pushed for official international 3x3 events, including continental championships that India have participated in and a 3x3 World Cup, the sixth edition of which is scheduled to tip off next week in the Netherlands.

While other countries with established full-length (5x5) basketball programmes created a separate space for 3x3 talents, India — who have been inconsistent at the highest level of the game internationally — have been fronting many of the same top players in both versions of the game. As a result, India found some early success, including a FIBA Asia 3x3 gold for our women’s team in 2013 and the continuing success of individual players like Amjyot Singh, who has emerged as one of the top talents in the country whether he’s stomping down full-court or scurrying around one half.

Last year, the first-ever 3x3 basketball league was launched in India — the 3BL — which got FIBA recognition and took the short version of the game across various locations around the country. The 3BL was the culmination of growing 3x3 awareness and opportunity in India, and the league’s best teams continued to play in a long cycle of tournaments abroad.

And it is in this new, relatively unexplored climate that we return to Mumbai on this sultry June afternoon. The Red Bull Reign Finals are as much about the culture of the sport as the sport itself. Old-school hip-hop music — from The Notorious B.I.G. to early OutKast — blares out the speakers. A drone flies overhead, taking photos and videos from new angles. Fans cheer from the stands with oohs and aahs. A TV is set up with the NBA 2K game in the console for players as they recuperate between games. Later, a couple of the actual emcees from India’s seminal hip-hop film, Gully Boy, beatbox and rap on the court, late into the night.

And there are dunks, long-range shots, game-winners, and sweat, and some blood, too. But the game doesn’t stop, and neither does the music. That is, until night falls, and the neighbouring ‘societies’ — the typical old-fashioned Mumbai residential buildings that soar into the sky and overlook the court — ask for some silence. The intensity is upped a new gear in the silence of the knockout stage, when the old sounds are the grunts of struggle and the swishes of success.

Starting 7 April, Red Bull Reign’s 3x3 was held across 12 cities: Chennai, Bengaluru, Ahmedabad, Goa, Hyderabad, Pune, Mumbai, Aizawl, Guwahati, Delhi, Ludhiana and Jaipur. The city winners from each event came to Mumbai on 8 June to battle it out for the national championship. Four ‘wildcard’ teams, featuring some of the top players in India, were also added to the finals fray.

In Mumbai, it was one of these wildcards — the Northern Spartans (Amritsar) — who proved to be the most indomitable squad in the long day of action. The Spartans were led by India’s former captain and star centre Amritpal Singh. They missed out on two more important stars — Vishesh Bhriguvanshi and Yadwinder Singh — but Amritpal got enough support from Arshpreet Singh Bhullar, Rajvir Singh, and Israel Fernando en route to their title.

Playing a total of eight games over seven hours of hoops action, the Spartans finished the job with a 17-11 win over Team Drop Step (Goa) late into the night. The victory sealed their presence for the next big challenge ahead: a trip to Toronto, Canada for the Red Bull Reign World Finals, where they will play in August from national champions from around the world.

The Red Bull Reign tournaments have been held in over a dozen countries this year. The winners of the Toronto Finals will have a shot at 10,000 USD prize money.

With enticing opportunities like this on the horizon, it’s no surprise that so many of India’s top players are turning to 3x3 options. Apart from Amritpal, other top players that took part in the Red Bull Reign Finals included India’s top-ranked 3x3 player Dhruv Barman, Mizoram’s star guard Lalrina Renthelei, Sowkin Shetty, Pratyanshu Tomar, Vinay Kaushik, and more.

Amritpal Singh, who hadn’t played organised 3x3 since representing India five years ago, believes that this format adds new challenges that have helped his game. “The spacing is different here,” he said. “This is a very quick game, and you have to be extremely fit for this. It’s totally different from 5-on-5. The 3x3 stage actually helps improve your game a lot: It reveals how to cut to the basket, back-door cuts, how to drive, how each player makes their habits in rebounding the ball… So, it’s a good thing.”

“The most challenging thing in 3x3 is that you are not really prepared to know who to defend when playing against them,” Singh added.

“There is a lot of switching on defence. This game is totally about defence. The game restarts almost immediately after a basket. You have to stay set. If you're confused even a little team, the opposing team can get an easy free attempt. If the opposing team hits several shots in a row, then they can almost guarantee a win, it becomes very difficult to recover from there.”

Lalrina Renthelei, representing Mizoram’s champs Team BBQ Chicken, said he enjoys the format, but believes that Indian players still need to catch up to its nuances. “My favourite thing about 3x3 is its physicality,” he said. “But the quality of play still needs to improve. I feel a lot of players here are learning 3x3 for the first time. So, this first year will be all about getting familiar with the game.”

Coincidently, many of FIBA’s top brass were in India this week for FIBA’s Asia’s general assembly in Bengaluru. It was at this event that even FIBA’s Secretary-General Andreas Zagklis spoke about the future of 3x3, especially on the shorter format’s entry into the Summer Olympic Games from next year.

“Basketball sport has two Olympic discipline — the traditional (5x5) basketball and 3x3 basketball, this is where we also believe India has huge potential,” he said. “It is much easier to have four players in the national team than 12. The amount of time you take to prepare a team of 12 as compared to those of four is longer, therefore some of our member federations have embraced 3x3 as their principal way of making it to the top," he said.

The new format, it seems, is here to stay. Not long after the excitement generated by the Red Bull Reign event, the 3BL will open its second season. Other stakeholders, including certain celebrity investors, are also rumoured to be getting into the space to launch their own 3x3 brands. And with many of India’s players starting to find a confident rhythm in the game, the future will zip closer at a faster pace.

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Updated Date: Jun 13, 2019 12:26:48 IST