The 3x3 Game Reignited Kareem Maddox’s Passion for Basketball
Once retired from the sport, Maddox is now pursuing his Olympic dream thanks to 3x3.
Olympic dreams are born in many ways, perhaps something as simple as a young child becoming inspired by the gold medal performance of one of his countrymen.
For Kareem Maddox, his experience was a little more up-close and personal.
The year was 1996, and the Olympic Games were in Atlanta. Maddox and his dad, Alan, had traveled from California and were watching one of the premier events of the track & field competition when he said his life changed.
He was only 6 years old at the time as he watched Michael Johnson win the 200-meters in a world-record time of 19.32 seconds. It was part of a historic double for Johnson, who became the first man to win the 200 and 400 in the same Olympic Games. He also set an Olympic record in the 400 at 43.49 seconds.
“I didn’t know what that meant back then, but all I saw was this guy getting off to this amazing start in his gold shoes and cameras flashing and thought, ‘That’s pretty cool,’” Maddox said. “I knew that was a special moment when I was 6 in the stadium watching that. And now, I think about that moment in my life once a day at least.”
At 29, Maddox is just slightly older than Johnson was in Atlanta as he grows closer to realizing his Olympic dream. Maddox plays on the USA Basketball Men’s 3x3 World Cup Team that will participate in the FIBA 3x3 World Cup in Amsterdam on June 18-23.
For the first time, 3x3 basketball will be played in the Olympics. Eight men’s and eight women’s teams will compete for Olympic gold in 2020 in Tokyo.
Maddox’s path to this point is a bit unconventional in comparison to most basketball players. He played a big part in rebuilding the Princeton University program from a 6-23 season in 2007-08 to a 25-7 mark when he was a senior co-captain in 2010-11. After earning his degree in English literature, his sense of adventure took him overseas to play professionally in the Netherlands and England for two years.
He then retired from basketball and worked for National Public Radio stations in California and Colorado. He returned to basketball in the 2015 USA Basketball 3x3 National Championships, which were held at the United States Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, about two hours south of his job in Greeley, Colorado. There, he took fourth place with Ariel Slow & Steady, which reignited his passion for playing.
“There’s all these feelings when you retire from basketball, where I was no longer a professional athlete after playing two years overseas,” Maddox said. “I was a journalist. It hit me, but I kind of put down the ball and hadn’t played. Playing in that tournament, I was kind of like, ‘Wow!’”
He also had a similar reaction about 3x3 basketball, which was still a relative newcomer on the competitive stage, at least in the U.S.
“That’s where I first started to see this sport was different and had the potential to catch on,” he said.
So, Maddox headed to Poland to play another season — he also was working on a podcast as he played — before once again returning to the U.S., this time with basketball part of his daily routine.
He rejoined Ariel Slow & Steady, winning MVP honors as the team won the 2018 USA Basketball 3x3 National Championships, then contributed to a repeat title in 2019.
When not winning national championships, Maddox competes on the FIBA 3x3 World Tour. He currently is the 42nd-ranked player in the world (as of 6/12/19) and the U.S. is ranked 12th as a federation.
At the World Cup, the U.S. is in the same group as four-time defending champion Serbia as well as the Netherlands, the host country. But he has faith that he and teammates Robbie Hummel (Purdue University/Valparaiso, Indiana), Canyon Barry (University of Florida/Colorado Springs, Colorado) and Damon Huffman (Brown University/Seattle, Washington) will rep the U.S. well.
“For me, all my focus is on performing well as a team and individually at the 3x3 World Cup,” Maddox said. “A lot of it is unknown still. The U.S. still has to qualify for the Olympics, so that’s up in the air. The only thing we can really do as players and advocates for the sport is perform well and make sure the USA can make its mark in the sport.”
Maddox also feels 3x3 could open up how the sport is played as it becomes more visible in the Tokyo Games and the increasing popularity of the professional league, the Big3.
“It’s such a good way to learn basketball and to play basketball,” Maddox said. “In five-on-five, any action is probably going to involve three guys, not all five, at one time. In terms of learning and practicing the sport for teams that are five-on-five teams — whether it’s at the college or high school level or even younger — it’s a really useful tool for that. I think if more people see that, then people will get more and more involved and take it more seriously, especially as a summer sport, where you can put together these tournaments and have guys get better at basketball through it.”
Maddox remains focused on his dream, which begins with the World Cup: qualifying for the Olympics and playing in Tokyo.
“It’s the first thing I think about when I wake up,” Maddox said.