From oddity to the Olympics: The rise of 3x3 basketball

Tim Keating, a top-5 Australian ranked three-on-three basketballer, constantly fears his wife's wrath. A call-up to compete in a three-on-three tournament in some random place in the world could happen at any moment.

Sometimes the timing is particularly unfortunate, like when he had to leave his wife stranded in Indonesia in preparation to compete for Wst Melbourne in Chengdu on the World Tour - the official series of three-on-three events from basketball governing body FIBA.

"I had to leave her to get a Chinese visa," says 32-year-old Keating, a former veteran of the Queensland Basketball League. "She's always saying 'let's do this and that' but I have to usually say no because last-minute call-ups happen all the time.

"I think I have a couple more years doing this ... or until she divorces me."

Welcome to the wacky world of three-on-three.

The new Olympic sport will debut in Tokyo but is still relatively obscure worldwide, including in Australia where it's sometimes referred to as the 'T20 of basketball'. Sure it is truncated, played in just 10 minutes compared to basketball's length of 40 or 48 minutes, but that's a far too simplistic comparison.

It's easily identified on the playground - when there aren't the numbers to play traditional five-on-five - or, for a certain generation, reminiscent of the classic Nintendo video game Hoops.

In essence, three-on-three is a frenetic, physical game played on a half-court featuring a 12-second shot clock and ends after a single 10-minute period or when one team reaches 21 points. Teams consist of four players (including one substitute) and points are worth either one, or two beyond the arc as per a three-pointer in traditional basketball.

"I love it much more than five-on-five, which I don't even play anymore," says Keating, who is a nuggety, hard-nosed player. "I've shied away from five-on-five because it's so soft. You can't even touch anyone without it being a foul, which annoys the hell out of me."

Since being showcased by FIBA at the 2010 Youth Olympics in Singapore, three-on-three has steadily built a cult following in pockets around the world but its long-term viability seemingly centres on whether it can differentiate enough from basketball. Something that beach volleyball -- perhaps in some part helped by the minimal attire of players -- has successfully achieved.

"Teams usually have four positions - playmaker, shooter, one guy who does everything and a big player who is just a dog and sets good screens, rebounds and is the energy guy," Keating says. "You have to be versatile - shoot, dribble, pass and play defence on the perimeter. You can't hide. There is no help defence to bail you out."

The 10-minute timeframe is deceiving in a game designed to be fast-paced and positionless.

"When I first heard of three-on-three, I thought 10 minutes would be easy because 10 minutes in five-on-five I could do in my sleep," says Cooper Wilks, a younger teammate of Keating at Wst Melbourne.

"But it is exhausting. Three minutes into the game and I'm completely gassed. The physicality is completely different."

Even though three-on-three looks different, it still inevitably suffers mockery from critics who say it is merely just a landing ground for basketball castoffs. The scorn was amplified when Robbie Hummel recently won the three-on-three World Cup MVP to lead the U.S. to their first title. Hummel, 30, had a fleeting 98-game stint for the Minnesota Timberwolves in the NBA from 2013-15 and is better known these days as a college basketball television analyst for ESPN.

For three-on-three to really legitimise, it needs to create its own stars because almost certainly the likes of LeBron James, Steph Curry or any other NBA superstar won't be playing it anytime soon. Under FIBA rules, players must accumulate ranking points by playing in official events to qualify for next year's Olympics.

So, unfortunately, Australian fans can scrap the thought of a Ben Simmons/Patty Mills/Joe Ingles/Andrew Bogut three-on-three Olympic team.

The Olympic qualification rules is an indication of FIBA trying to establish control of its game and ward off competitors such as the BIG3 factor, a high-profile three-on-three league in the U.S. created by Ice Cube and has featured former NBA stars such as Allen Iverson.

To appeal to a sleeker, younger audience, FIBA has marketed three-on-three -- branded more strikingly as '3x3' -- as "urban culture". There is little subtlety when classic hip-hop tunes from the likes of Naughty by Nature and MC Hammer reverberate around the court even when games are played in offbeat places such as Mongolia.

Or when players from No. 1-ranked Serbia are referred to in commentary by their monikers such as 'the Maestro', 'Mr Bullutproof" and 'Sub Zero'.

FIBA's desired effect to promote three-on-three in new frontiers is working, with non-traditional basketball powers such as Mongolia and Japan in the top four of the official combined world rankings.

And it's given opportunities for Australian teams to test themselves against the world's best, with most of the top teams hailing from Eastern Europe where three-on-three has grown fastest. Wst Melbourne -- comprised of Keating, Wilks, 2017 Perth Wildcats championship player Lucas Walker and former NBL stalwart Peter Crawford -- became the first Australian team to make a Masters event on this year's World Tour after winning the NBL 3×3 Pro Hustle's second edition.

At the Chengdu Masters in early June, Wst Melbourne were highly competitive against Latvian powerhouse Riga Ghetto but fell short in the dying stages before running out of gas and exiting the tournament after losing to Gagarin from Russia.

Mostly matching their experienced opponents in skill, the difference lay in chemistry and the intricacies of the game.

"It's really hard to come together and play against guys who have been together for years," Keating says. "We are drawing plays the day before the tournament.

"A lot of the stuff the Eastern European guys do ... they will never stand still. There is always constant moving and cutting and they know where to be at the right time."

There is still work to do for the men to challenge the world's best but Australia's women have rapidly developed and the national team is moulding into a three-on-three powerhouse. Heading into the women's World Cup, Australia had won 14 straight games including the Asia Cup and the Women's Series in Chengdu - the second event of FIBA's first dedicated three-on-three women's competition.

Australia, comprised of WNBL stars, could not maintain their winning ways at the World Cup after falling short to eventual champions China in a classic semifinal. It was one of those see-sawing games punctuated by the sudden death nature of overtime -- where two points are needed for victory -- that can make three-on-three so entertaining and memorable.

Even though they did not go all the way, Australia have risen incredibly quickly with three-on-three pundits believing they well could be favorites for the gold medal in Tokyo.

The team is led by Dandenong Rangers star Rebecca Cole, who admits she didn't even know all the rules during her three-on-three initiation at the 2017 World Cup.

"Before the first game, we had to ask the refs for a refresher on the rules," Cole says. "The team was randomly thrown together and none of us had played before."

Despite being seeded 20th -- dead last -- Australia finished a credible ninth and Cole realised she was onto something special.

"Once the World Cup ended, I thought 'I'm good at this' and just wanted to play again," she says. "The game suits my style as it changes quickly from offence to defence."

Cole's standing in the game has seen her become a FIBA three-on-three ambassador and she hopes to further develop its growth in Australia.

"It's an addictive sport and now people are starting to talk about it," she says. "It's a game that can suit a range of players even those that might not totally be adept at playing regular basketball."

Brodie Stephens doesn't have a stereotypical weekend hobby. In his spare time, the 23-year-old brainstorms ways to invent new slam dunks. His ingenuity led him to winning the dunk contest at the Chengdu Masters, his first victory in an overseas event and where he picked up a prize of $[U.S.]2500.

His colleagues at Gym Food Australia, where he works in mass packaging, were impressed even though some of them are a little baffled.

"They were excited about me winning and they know dunking is something I do on the weekends. I've sometimes had to explain it as 'the thing Michael Jordan did in the '90s'," Stephens laughs.

The Townville local is hoping his side hustle becomes much more. Professional dunkers, mainly from Eastern Europe, are a popular part of the three-on-three circuit and the top high-flyers can earn a lucrative livelihood.

He stopped playing basketball in 2016 to concentrate on dunking and the 182cm Stephens has become something of a pioneer in the Australian dunk scene through his explosive 45-inch vertical.

"With dunking, there is less risk of getting injured compared to playing ... unless you try something stupid," he says. "I try to think of new dunks by tweaking existing dunks and pushing the boundaries."

Being based in Australia is a disadvantage, with most of the dunk contests held in Europe although Stephens expects more call-ups on the Asian circuit.

"There's still a lot of mystery with professional dunking and it feels like it needs some substance ... like official rankings," he says.

"But there is an underground scene and once my videos went online I started to receive a lot of contact from dunkers around the world.

"It feels like it's becoming a thing. Who knows, maybe dunking will be an Olympic sport down the track."

Getting Olympic status has undoubtedly been a game-changer.

"Three-on-three used to be just seen as a playground sport, something that was kind of cute," Wilks says. "To say it is an Olympic sport ... that means a big deal. I think some of the stigma of three-on-three is eroding."

The Olympics sheen might not be enough. In Australia's congested market, it's a tough ask for three-on-three to gain much traction but the NBL 3x3 Pro Hustle's -- Australia's first professional 3x3 league and endorsed by FIBA - recently completed second season was televised on Foxtel.

Keating, however, remains pragmatic.

"lt will probably always attract veterans," he says. "Players probably won't play during their NBL careers because of the risk of injuries, difficulty of getting released from their clubs and the timing of it all.

"It's hard in Australia because we don't have location on our side and have to travel a long way to compete. For someone like me, who has chosen three-on-three over regular basketball, I have put all my eggs in this basket. I'm hoping it takes off after the Olympics."

He better hope so. Otherwise, he'll really be testing his wife's patience.