Two Sides to a 3x3 Story
Damon Huffman (3x3 Athlete)
FIBA 3x3 basketball is here, and there is no denying it. It’s in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. This 3x3 basketball, however, is not the kind you played growing up in the park with your friends. This version has developed into organized, professional, physical basketball with a 12-second shot clock. There’s continuous live play, regardless of a make or miss, and a 10-minute game clock. You have to be a complete pro every step of the way, or you’ll get swept off the court by unassuming athletes who are more disciplined than you. In another twist, there’s no coach to bail you out or help you along the way. It’s on you and your teammates, that’s it. Players from around the world have gravitated towards this style - the freedom, the challenge and the strategy. They’ve pushed this sport so far forward that if you are good enough, smart enough, disciplined enough, you could have a shot at the Olympics.
My name is Damon Huffman, and I’m one of the athletes taking that shot. I’m a professional 3x3 basketball player. I won a gold medal for USA Basketball at the 2019 FIBA 3x3 World Cup, and I’ve been playing professionally since 2017 for Princeton 3x3. Our pro team has played in over 50 tournaments in the last three years. I realize that sounds crazy to most people, and if you’d asked me five years ago what I thought I’d be doing in 2020, I would have never been able to predict this. I played basketball at Brown University for four years and graduated in 2008. After college my five-on-five professional career took me to the top leagues in Belgium, the Netherlands and England. Playing in Europe was an amazing experience, but it’s a dog-eat-dog world, so I finally shifted my focus to 3x3. I played in my first “professional” 3x3 event in 2014 in a small gym in Puerto Rico. Back then, there were no Olympic prospects, and no real financial opportunities. It was purely for the love of the game.
"Playing in that venue was probably the greatest basketball experience I've had in my life."
Huffman led the USA to victory in the 2019 @FIBA3x3 World Cup gold medal game versus Latvia with 8 pts., including three 2-pointers. pic.twitter.com/M9LXnv6X1V
— USA Basketball 3x3 (@usab3x3) March 5, 2020
John Rogers, then the CEO and founder of Ariel Investments in Chicago, was the genesis for all of this and brought my teammates together in those early years. He’s a proud Princeton alum who believes wholeheartedly in the Princeton offense, hence our team name. None of this would have been possible without him, but that deserves its own story at another time. THANKS JOHN.
I learned quickly that 3x3 suited me. It fit my style of play and my skill sets. It is physical, focused, disciplined and self-directed. Our team enjoyed the format and kept playing together whenever we could and earned ourselves an invitation to the USA Basketball 3x3 National Championships. When our team “Ariel Investments” won in 2017, it changed everything. We were asked to represent USA Basketball at the 2017 FIBA 3x3 World Cup in Nantes, France. C’était une expérience incroyable. Wearing a USA jersey at the World Cup is an unbelievable feeling, but one that also comes with a lot of pressure. Winning is the USA way.
Unfortunately, we lost. Serbia, one of the pioneers of 3x3 and multiple-time world champions, took us down in the quarterfinals. They had been doing this for years and were full-time professionals. We left France with a seventh place finish on the big stage and new appreciation for just how different this sport is from traditional five-on-five. It’s a humbling experience to say the least to have an online troll tell me I looked like a karate dad* and not a USA Basketball player. Our team tends to adopt nicknames quickly, so Karate Papi became my main win from ‘17.
*Despite the fact that he didn’t actually know this, I did actually win the 2016 Pan American gold medal in brazilian jiu jitsu.
2017 USA 3x3 Men's World Cup Team (from left to right): Damon Huffman (Brown University), Craig Moore (Northwestern University), Dan Mavriades (Princeton University)and Zahir Carrington (Lehigh University).
After the World Cup in ‘17 we decided to enter the international professional circuit. We started the first professional men’s 3x3 team/organization in the US, Princeton 3x3 (@princeton3x3 for social media updates). By 2019 we were the fifth ranked team in the world and finished in second place at FIBA World Tour Final in Utsunomiya, Japan.
The FIBA 3x3 pro circuit is a grind. The back-numbing travel, jet-lagged sleep, only airport food in sight, GRIND. If you win, you’re rewarded with prize money and a bid to the next high-level tournament. Lose and you’re stuck with an international flight home, a sore body and occasionally some stitches. We decided we were willing to do whatever it took, so Craig Moore, our diabolical strategist (and the best 3-point shooter in Northwestern University history) mapped out a schedule that would get us into the top tournaments, win us the most money and give us a chance to visit some amazing cities around the world at the same time.
In 2017 we played in six events – four of those tournaments were domestic and two were international. No one on our team was satisfied with our results, so we started figuring out ways to move up the rankings and get the experience we needed.
In 2018 every member of our team was still working full-time jobs, while also competing on the weekends. We have guys in real estate, finance, healthcare, broadcasting and journalism/podcasting. Our team added Kareem Maddox (Princeton University) and Robbie Hummel (Purdue University). We worked with FIBA, individual event organizers, federations, USA basketball and anyone that would listen to get ourselves into as many qualifying tournaments as possible. We made an immediate improvement and ended up playing in 17 tournaments that year. Our team figured out how to win and capitalize on the system to maximize our efforts. We played in 14 different countries, including Brazil, China, Malaysia, South Korea, the Netherlands and many more. We finished the season ranked in the top 10.
The FIBA 3x3 pro circuit takes place between mid-April and the first weekend in November. We played 17 of those weekends, some of them back-to-back. This isn’t your standard college basketball travel schedule. We were constantly scheduling 20 hour travel days across continents. If you qualify for a tournament in China, you leave on Wednesday but arrive on Friday. Despite your jet lag, you have a 20-minute practice slot to get adjusted to the court before going back to the hotel to sleep. Up next you have two days of competition before hopping on another flight Monday morning to try and get home for your regular work week. Rinse and repeat. You better be willing to sacrifice your summers, your weekends and your quality time with friends and family. Luckily, I am married to someone who has a unique understanding of this lifestyle. Formerly a pro volleyball player, she began working in the 3x3 basketball space after seeing the amazing opportunities that existed on the men’s side of the sport, but the lack of existing opportunities for women and girls. She’ll tell you more about that in her own words later.
With the success from 2018 propelling us, we entered 2019 with qualifications for the top events around the world. Last year we played in 24 FIBA 3x3 events in 17 different countries. With the men’s prize pool now topping $2 million USD in prizes, it was clear this was no longer just a hobby. This is a profession, with the most elite teams in the world playing full-time and locking down sponsorships.
Prior to the World Cup in ‘19, USA Basketball held training camp for 12 NBA G-League players and a handful of the highest individually ranked 3x3 players in the U.S. prior to the Red Bull USA Basketball 3X Nationals in Las Vegas. Despite the elite talent at the event, Princeton 3x3 took home the National Championship for the third consecutive year. After being selected for the World Cup roster, along with Canyon Barry, Robbie Hummel and Kareem Maddox, we went to Amsterdam and brought home a gold medal for the U.S. men for the first time in 3x3 history. It was one of those basketball experiences that you will never forget and one that makes all the sacrifices worth it.
Going through the ups and downs of sports is a challenge in its own right. This sport, the tournaments, the growth and the challenges have created a unique window of opportunity for our team to impact and shape what it becomes. We may have been one of the first teams in the U.S., but hopefully our impact will inspire new athletes to throw their hat in the ring.
In the end, all an athlete can ask for is a shot. This is our chance to help the U.S. qualify for the Olympics and our opportunity to make that team. Stay tuned because 3x3 basketball is about to take off.
Alanna McDonald (Force 10 3x3 Director of Basketball Operations)
In March, 2018, I met Alisha Valavanis for the first time. The CEO and General Manager of the WNBA Seattle Storm was giving a speech at a local event, and I decided to attend. At the time, I’d been developing some 3x3 projects on my own and had begun putting feelers out in the Seattle area for anyone who would be willing to partner with me. When I say “developing projects,” I mean, I had spent months doing in depth research on the (relatively) new FIBA 3x3 format, connecting with international basketball federations, emailing FIBA with lists of questions, and picking the brains of 3x3 event hosts around the world to identify best practices. I developed a deep knowledge of the sport.
I wanted to host the first international FIBA sanctioned 3x3 tournament to offer equal prize money to women, and it hadn’t been done yet. I had a vision, but I knew I’d need additional support and resources to build it out.
I knew how it must have looked – I was approaching people as a woman with no prior experience in hosting large-scale sporting events, no financial backing, I hadn’t even played basketball since the 8th grade. The “office” was my houseboat living room. I had been told “no” quite a few times already, and, most commonly, I’d been asked who would be willing to invest that kind of money in a women’s sport that no one had heard of yet. On the other hand, what I had going for me was that I’m resourceful and resilient. I’ve spent my entire life in sports and genuinely believed I could pull something like this off (which is a key factor). I simply needed to convince the right person that this mission was worthwhile, and I was willing to cold-call just about anyone to make it happen.
On this particular day, I was finally about to make the connection that would change the trajectory of my career, and my life, in a major way. It feels genuinely wild, and maybe a little cliché, to say that, but it’s true.
It’s now been two years, and I still can’t believe how this all went down. After Alisha’s speech I walked up and introduced myself. I elevator pitched my 3x3 ideas to her and explained that despite the sport being new, an opportunity and pay gap already existed for women. If we acted now, before the sport’s debut in the 2020 Olympics, we could close the gap before it widened. On top of that, this was a new frontier for basketball, and, as of yet, no one was building out the 3x3 space in the United States – the possibilities were endless! Alisha handed me her card and told me to get in touch the next day. Not only did she take the time to hear out a complete stranger at a public event, but she took my idea seriously. I was completely floored.
Over the next few months we explored a variety of ways for Force 10 Sports Management (same ownership group and CEO as the Storm) to get involved in the 3x3 space.
I still remember the day Alisha had me come to the office to give my formal pitch. I walked into a conference room to present my project to the shot-callers of a major sports organization - three owners, the CEO and CFO – and all of them were women. Nothing can really prepare you for how powerful a moment like that is. I was hoping for some sort of partnership, but instead, a few months later they offered me a job in the front office! I became the Force 10 3x3 Director of Basketball Operations.
The origin story for Force 10 3x3 is unconventional, and the journey since then has been no different. In late spring of 2019 we launched the first independently owned professional women’s 3x3 team in the country, Force 10 3x3 (or as we lovingly call them, the Founding Mothers). Our team was comprised of players who had all been on a WNBA roster before – top tier pros who were just wrapping up their overseas seasons or emerging from WNBA training camps. Think about how many incredible basketball players are coming out of Division I universities and fighting for spots on only 12 WNBA rosters. That’s only 144 jobs.
We want to create a model that provides paid opportunities for more of those elite athletes, while also offering an exciting new form of basketball entertainment in the American market. There isn’t enough space in this blog for me to tell you about all the challenges and barriers we had to overcome to bring that team into existence, but we made it thanks to some seriously creative problem solving, the support of USA Basketball and a group of women who were willing to fight to make it happen. The shared goal is to build out a new space for women and girls in basketball – from the grassroots level to the pros - to create more chances for kids to gain access to sports, and to simultaneously create new earning opportunities. How often do you get the chance to help shape the direction of a new sport from the ground up?
If you’re not already part of the 3x3 community, you’re probably learning about the sport for the first time. While three-on-three has been played for decades, FIBA turned it into an official international format in 2010. The rules are unique, and it’s an exciting, interactive experience for fans. I’d describe it as an insane basketball sprint that requires an incredible fitness level and a well-rounded skill set. It’s a game of athletic chess on a half-court, but the kicker is that players have to make decisions without a coach, and while their muscles and brain are deprived of oxygen. Similar to beach volleyball, in 3x3 there’s nowhere to hide. Your weaknesses as a basketball player WILL be exposed, which makes for a thrilling, and sometimes deeply stressful, experience for spectators.
For me, the other thing that was immediately compelling about 3x3 is how accessible it is. Men, women and kids play with the same ball. You can play indoor or outdoor at any time of year. Minimal equipment is required, it’s relatively affordable and the format has an element of freedom and creativity to it. In a time when youth sports have become so formal and expensive to participate in, 3x3 presents a new, low-barrier, inclusive option.
Let me share some quick 3x3 facts with you. In 2012 an international professional league for men was launched, the FIBA 3x3 World Tour. As of 2019, over 2 million dollars in prize money is offered every season at the top tier levels. National team competition is also held for both men’s and women’s teams with the FIBA 3x3 World Cup and regional zone cups taking place each year. The sport will make its debut at the Olympic games for the first time in 2020. While FIBA launched an international event series for women in 2019, the FIBA Women’s Series still does not offer any prize money. There have been a number of pro 3x3 events hosted in the U.S. over the past few years, however, only the Red Bull 3X events included women’s divisions. Do I have thoughts and feelings about this? Yes. Many. For now, I’ll let you form your own opinions, but if you’d like to hear mine you can give me a call.
The sport is still very young and we have this unique opportunity to continue shaping it into a model that’s inclusive, equitable, and sustainable. This story is about being proactive. It’s about being creative and solution oriented, and that’s what we choose to focus on at Force 10. We are looking toward the future, and working to change the game in a meaningful and lasting way. Keep an eye on us over the next couple of years - we’re in the business of dreaming big, and I’ve learned that anything can happen if you’re crazy enough to try.