Venice Beach Puts on Star-Studded Show for Red Bull USA Basketball 3X Regional
The backboard shakes so violently camera-clutching spectators beneath it clear away, showing an instinctive lack of faith in plexiglass and steel in the face of such a powerful dunk. As several fans instantly look to their videos of the thunderous slam, one reaches up to high-five its author, Zach Andrews. He doesn’t have time. No sooner has Andrews let go of the rim and landed — all 6-foot-9 and 235 pounds of him — than the player he’s just posterized received the inbounds pass and is setting himself for a long-distance shot. Andrews leaps up and lunges. Although he’s been swatting shots into the crowd all game, he doesn’t get his hands on this one, yet he manages to alter its trajectory just enough. Airball.
“FIBA rules!” a teammate shouted, and Andrews nodded, then tapped a finger to his head, acknowledging his ignorance of international 3x3 hoops law.
Witness a difference-maker on the court learning the differences between games on the court, in real-time. This is 3X, not 5-on-5 or streetball, and distinct from professional 3-on-3 played by Big3 — same half-court dimensions with shorter games, lightning-fast play, and instant inbounding. Andrews’ resume is long — he’s played professionally for numerous teams in Europe and Asia, for a half-dozen seasons in the NBA G League (where he earned an All-Star berth) and even in the show — getting called up to the Lakers late in the Kobe era. At 34, old man Andrews may resemble a Crash Davis of the minor-league hoops, but in this brand of basketball he’s a rookie playing his first tournament — and a hyped one to boot.
“I love this version of the game, precisely because it’s a young player’s game,” Andrews said, after the win and several video views of his two-handed slam. “I want to show NBA Scouts and overseas teams who think I’m too old that I can still do it right."
And that is why Andrews and an array of players with varying backgrounds assembled at Los Angeles’ most storied seaside courts this past weekend. “The Voice of Venice, Mouthpiece, here on world-famous Venice Beach for Red Bull 3X!” the announcer born Josef Thompson intoned to start the event. “First place: $2,000. Second place: $1,000. Third place? I dunno, maybe an Uber ride home. But not a trip to Tokyo.”
Indeed, as Andrews suggested, a prize bigger than an oversize check awaits. The Red Bull 3X Los Angeles qualifier was held in conjunction with USA Basketball. The top four teams from Saturday’s qualifying tournament moved on to Sunday’s regional, the fourth and final such event. The winners and runners-up moved on to the 2020 Red Bull USA Basketball 3X Nationals, to be held next spring, and, if the U.S. qualifies, a chance for a berth at the Tokyo games, where 3x3 basketball will be a medal sport for the first time.
For many players, both men and women, going for the gold is the end goal, the culmination of a lifelong hoops dream. Other ballers don’t expect to make the regionals, they’ve simply come to try this spin on the sport and test their competitive mettle. Some have shown up solely to showcase their dunking — after the qualifiers concluded, an international roster of slam dunk specialists mixed in a dunk contest.
There’s a similar range among the fans in attendance. Some are all about the b-ball and some more all about the culture that orbits it. All of whom are represented at the headquarters of Red Bull 3X Los Angeles, the Halfcourt Hotel — an experiential takeover of Venice Beach’s Hotel Erwin built on the idea that hoops courts are the starting point.
“This event is like the entire culture of basketball brought to life, in 3D,” said Brock Batten, cofounder of Franchise magazine, which partnered with Red Bull to curate the art for Halfcourt Hotel. “The expression ‘More than a game’ is like a cliché now, but it’s true. So much more is on the streets, the asphalt, the shoes, the murals, music, the clothes, you know?”
As the morning games got underway, men and women in wetsuits, some leaning on their surfboards, form a different sort of line up on a hill. Tourists toting selfie-sticks up the boardwalk stop and linger. Tie-dye-clad bicyclists and drum circlers craned. Bodybuilders on muscle beach bopped their heads to the beats floating from the DJ booth, mounted atop RedBull’s Batmobile-like custom armored event vehicle; and gymnasts suspending themselves on the rings strained to see through the crowd gathered around the courts.
The accidental spectators were joined by A-list attendees. Clippers star Lou Williams, who showcased the versatility that made him a three-time NBA Sixth Man of the Year by taking over welcoming duties at Halfcourt Hotel before he watched the action by the beach.
He was joined the by Hall of Famer Chris Mullin, a five-time NBA All-Star and two-time Olympic gold medalist, who became impressed with 3X while scouting overseas as GM of the Golden State Warriors. “It’s really the most fundamental way to play basketball. It really is,” Mullin said. “Every skill of the game is exposed, right? If you can’t shoot, they lay off you, and you’re going to be exposed. If you can’t play defense, they can take you one on one and make you pay. So, it’s important to be able to do everything, right? And you have to have that passion too. You can’t dog it, because you can’t hide.”
In the NBA and as a college coach, Mullin relied on 3X as a teaching tool for developing his players. Not coincidentally, he says, “it” like where the NBA game is going now, where it’s ultra skill-oriented and not so much about size and speed. Three-on-three can level the playing field.”
2016 Olympic gold medalist Breanna Stewart of the Seattle Storm, the top pick in the 2016 WNBA draft and 2018 WNBA MVP, explained the subtleties of the game — from the 12-second shot clock and possession rules — to her little brother, Connor.
“You have to have that basketball IQ,” Stewart said. “And realize that being quicker than someone is only going to work so much because the court is so small, out-running someone only works so much because where are you going to run?”
Before Stewart suffered an Achilles injury that’s forcing her to miss the entire 2019 WNBA season, the door was open for her to compete in both 5-on-5 and 3X in Tokyo, and the prospect of the recording the first-ever double gold medal in basketball excited her. Now Stewart is pretty sure she’ll focus on 5-on-5 once she comes back, but she’s paying close attention to the quality of play on display just in case. “The level of competition here is really really good,” Stewart said, pointing out that she’s suited up with and against a number of the women in USA Basketball camps and overseas. “A lot of these people played D1 and are very involved in the basketball world, and now are continuing their dream, just in a different aspect of the game.” She flexed her led for effect and laughed: “Yeah, I guess I’m a little envious.”
“Due to the drizzle, not that dribble, we are moving to the other court,” Mouthpiece announced, directing players from the painted surface to the raw asphalt. The teams didn't miss a beat amid the misty rain — an indication of the streetball grit and attitude that infuses the 3X game. Later, however, the skies opened up, making the courts unsafe, and the women’s semifinals and final games were relocated to the nearby rec center at Oakwood Park. The gym was packed and loud, proving that 3X is indeed an inside-outside game.
“Step aside Mama Worm, MJ is something else!” Mouthpiece declared in the finals, referring to Maranne Johnson. The former Sacramento State star hits shot after shot for her team Just Hoops and showcases a dramatic flair for passing off the dribble. When Stewart put the medal around her neck, it was almost a dream come true. “I’ve always, always wanted to pass to her. Just one time,” Johnson said. “Instead, she dished the medal off to me.”
Although the rain provided the perfect break to check out the Halfcourt Hotel, the event kept a mix of spectators, VIPs and players engaged all day. One mural created for the event offered a bit of reassurance about the weather. Painted by Los Angeles mixed media artist Matt McCormick on the wall of the Red Bull Suite, it depicted a pair of players going one on one alongside the words “sure as the sun will come around again.”
Art installations abounded. As soon as visitors entered the drive-up, they were greeted by a wall of illustrations by DrakeCereal, aka Sasha Brown. Inside the downstairs kiosk store, a street art mural of hoops and atop the clouds was spray-painted on freestanding walls by the art collective Vacancy Projects. The elevators were wrapped floor to ceiling in vibrant photo illustrations by Bradley Ward, a Brooklyn-based artist. Inside a dedicated suite, the walls were hung with photos by Asphalt Chronicles and Atiba Jefferson, the renowned skate photographer who has recently turned his lens on street hoops.
The art was curated for more than just its representation of basketball. “For us, it’s always been about everything around the game — the scene, the sounds, but most of all the creativity and art it inspires, and that inspires it,” said Justin Montag, Franchise’s editor-in-chief, who worked with the artists to select the pieces shown. “We love identifying and showcasing artists whose work amplifies that idea.”
The men’s games got underway once the sunshine returned. Andrews’s team was narrowly eliminated in the quarterfinals. The next game featured a pair of notable names: Guy Dupuy, the Instagram dunk sensation known as TheFrequentFlyer, and Sheldon Bailey, a longtime professional player in China and the CBA who has also amassed 30 acting credits, including a starring role in Nickelodeon’s Game Shakers. Without his jaw prosthetics and stick-on beard, he was hard to identify as his most notable role: LeBron James’ body and stunt double on numerous commercials and most recently "Space Jam 2." He got a kick out of being mistaken for James. “A little while ago Quentin Cook did a double-take,” Bailey said, referring the Laker’s guard (who coincidentally was on hand at Red Bull 3X the next day). “He’d mistaken me for LeBron, and he’s Bron’s teammate.” Despite Bailey’s efforts, which included several plays worthy of King James, their team lost a hard-fought battle in the semifinals. Ultimately, the final had a distinctly local flavor as two squads born of the Venice Basketball League — Slam VBL and Venice Ballers — squared off.
Familiar with each other and the 3X game, the teams were evenly matched. The final went into overtime, where Slam VBL’s Van Girard scored both points required to close it out.
“All Fade with the game-winner! All Fade adds another Fade!” Mouthpiece shouted, using the nickname Girard acquired a few years back after he knocked off every comer in every game and tournament he entered, from Venice Beach to China. Girard recently traveled to China again, this time with teammates and Chris Staples and Ryan Nitz, to play in a FIBA 3X qualifier. “Our big ended up not being able to make it, so it was just us three versus everyone,” he recalled. “It was our first experience. It was incredible how physical it was. But so is the action on Venice.”
Slam VBL wasn’t done with the dramatics or the chance to play internationally. The next day, they clinched victory in the Regional Finals thanks to Chris Staples, aka Everybody Hate Chris. He’s arguably one of the best dunkers in the world, but to win this game versus a team called New York City, Staples hit a long come-from-behind 2-point jumper as he was falling out of bounds, where he was mobbed on the ground.
But first, he had a dunk contest to win Saturday evening. After a performance from Venice’s own Warm Brew, the rap crew recently signed to Red Bull Records, Staples’s team won over the crowd, whose cheers determined the winner in each round—tomahawk, 360 and alley-oops. As the sun set over the Pacific, Team Staples, featuring Dmitry "Smoove" Krivenko, from Ukraine, topped Team Reemix, led by Dupuy and young gun Isaiah Rivera. Lou Williams gave the endorsement that pushed Staples over the top, waving his arms, encouraging the crowd to embrace Staples.
An hour later, dunkers and players mingled with spectators at the afterparty on the rooftop of the Halfcourt Hotel. As Word of Mouth Collective, a team of four DJs, took turns spinning, and the EDM beats spilled into the night, some revelers were just getting started. For a few, the ability to keep going meant calling it early. As he exited the Halfcourt Hotel, Girard hugged it out with a friend in a tie-dyed Kith Sweatshirt who was entering and was pressed to explain his departure. “Sorry dawg. We still got work to do tomorrow.”