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Make 3-on-3 basketball a Winter Olympics sport

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It’s slotted to be a Summer Olympics event in 2020, but we have a better place for it.

Around the Games: Day 7 - Winter Olympic Games Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images

The Summer Olympics are packed with fascinating, popular, and high-profile sports.

Track and field is the historic centerpiece of the games, and swimming (with its 2,156 different events) is a huge deal. Gymnastics is big. Volleyball, beach and indoor, are draws. To some extent depending on who shows up to compete, there’s tennis and golf. The soccer world sends its best young players. You have weightlifting, martial arts, boxing, badminton, rowing, boating, cycling, table tennis, fencing, rugby, wrestling, field hockey, shooting, horsey-riding, water polo, and new in 2020, skateboarding. You have the world’s most underappreciated sport: team handball!

The Winter Olympics has far less, and a relatively limited number of indoor sports — speedskating, figure skating slash ice dancing, curling, and hockey. Everything else is outdoor, where it is usually cold given the need for, uh, snow and ice. Outdoor sports are subject to the whims of the jet streams. Skiing has suffered some major delays in Pyeongchang this week.

Some have argued that because the Summer Games are packed and the Winter Olympics are not, basketball should be moved from the former to the latter. Basketball is, after all, a winter sport.

This will never happen for precisely one reason: The NBA is in season in February, and in fact has its All-Star Weekend in February and will not pause an already too-long season every fourth year for an Olympic break. A number of NBA franchise owners already oppose participation in the summer, preferring their well-paid stars rest or train instead of playing for their countries.

But the International Olympic Committee agreed to add 3x3 basketball to the Summer Olympics beginning in the 2020 Tokyo Games. This is a game we all know and love, newly formalized by FIBA, the international governing body for basketball. The problem is that the best basketball players in the world haven’t been competing in FIBA’s 3x3 tournaments. No offense to the athletes who have won those derbies and who are fighting for spots in Tokyo, but you’re not getting NBA- or Euroleague-level talent in that version of the sport.

What if you moved 3x3 to the Winter Olympics, though?

You wouldn’t get NBA or Euroleague players then, either. But by separating it out from normal basketball and giving it room to breathe, you could build interest in this version of the sport.

We haven’t yet seen 3x3 in the Olympics, so we don’t know what kind of reception it will receive. Odds are, though, it will be completely overshadowed by 5-on-5 men’s basketball, at least in the United States. LeBron, Durant, and Anthony Davis facing off against Joel Embiid’s Cameroon or Luka Doncic’s Slovenia or Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Greece or Kristaps Porzingis’ Latvia or Ben Simmons’ Australia ... or guys you’ve never heard of in a sport you’ve only watched retired NBA stars play?

Ah yes, the BIG3, one of the most surprising breakout stars of 2017. The BIG3 is essentially a domestic 3x3 men’s league populated by retired or fringe NBA players. It did surprisingly well on TV in its debut season. The quality of players for Season 2 is rising dramatically, though nearly all have still aged out of the NBA. If anything will build thirst for competitive 3x3 basketball in the United States, it will be BIG3 ... not the Olympic version of the sport. (This is where I acknowledge that this argument and plea is fairly America-centric.)

BIG3 is currently a summer league. So is the WNBA. The major international 3x3 tournaments, including the World Cup (being held in Manila this June) and the Olympics, are in the summer. (The United State is sending a women’s team to Manila, but not a men’s team.)

If you’re not going to get current NBA and top-flight European players to participate anyway, there’s no reason to focus 3x3 basketball as a summer sport. Bring it to the winter! Hold January or February tournaments, and lobby to move the sport from the Summer Olympics to the Winter Olympics. You could potentially get BIG3 players to try out for the United States national team, and perhaps WNBA players without overseas commitments would be game.

The Winter Games are replete with niche sports and are heavily Eurocentric. But 3x3 basketball wouldn’t be. The sport has huge potential (as seen from its fast rise to Olympic status and the BIG3’s success). Giving it the breathing room it deserves away from traditional 5-on-5 basketball could help it along.

What’s there to lose?