3x3 Basketball is Serious Business for Players at Red Bull USA Basketball 3X Nationals
The 3x3 game is Steadily Becoming a Career Choice for Players
The X Games made professionals out of snowboarders and BMX bike racers. The way Chris Staples sees it, 3x3 basketball is doing the same for players like him.
Staples, maybe better known for winning dunk competitions than playing on the 3x3 circuit, says tournaments such as the 2021 Red Bull USA Basketball 3X Nationals that was held over the weekend at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, give the players who devote themselves to keeping in shape and mastering the particular brand of hoops that is 3x3 a chance to make a career in an unconventional way.
“You don’t have to go to the NBA,” says Staples, who lives in Southern California and plays for Team SLAM. “This is another way to play ball and have a career.”
The Red Bull USA Basketball 3X Nationals has no prize money, unlike tournaments overseas and some in the United States, but this tournament comes with a title: national champion.
Staples, who competed in the 2017 FIBA 3x3 World Cup Dunk Contest, reckons he works at his basketball career five days a week, playing 3x3, creating basketball content for YouTube, entering dunk contests — doing anything he can imagine to earn a living as a 34-year-old basketball player.
It’s more than a living he says, it’s a career. As long as he can make it last.
And if you talk to Eric Coleman, who played for 3BALL Minnesota this weekend, he sees 3x3 extending his basketball career for years.
“You can have more longevity in 3x3,” says Coleman, who is 35 years old.
He should know. Coleman’s been playing overseas since he graduated from the University of Northern Iowa, the last four years spent in Portugal, a country he’s grown so fond of that he plans on getting dual citizenship after his fifth year. Coleman says Portugal allows expatriates who work five consecutive years in the country to gain citizenship.
Coleman has been playing overseas, then augmenting his basketball career with 3x3 in the United States for the past four years. So, when he visits home, and is supposed to be relaxing, instead, he says, “I’m working when I’m on vacation.”
Coleman doesn’t want you to feel sorry for him, though, saying, “I’m making money and staying in shape.”
Tori Brooks, one of Staples’ teammates on Team SLAM, plays for both those reasons. He also has a bigger idea. He hopes that if he and others like him, former college players who weren’t big enough or skilled enough to make the NBA but whose love for playing ball drives them to keep competing, can make a career out of playing 3x3, then younger players might follow. He calls it, “An alternative route to making a living.”
One of his goals is for kids playing basketball to reject the idea that, “If I’m not in the NBA, I’m not good.”
Come play 3x3, says Brooks and Staples.
“It’s growing so fast, and it’s a different kind of basketball,” Staples said.
Just showing up at tournaments, say the players, is not enough to make a living. You’ve got to win. Staples says most tournaments pay the winners, and the teams finishing second and third get little. That’s why, “we’re not coming out here (to 3X Nationals) for nothing. This is our job.”
For some players, the work on the 3x3 circuit presents a difficult decision. Dylan Travis of Omaha, Nebraska, played for 3BALL Omaha who won the national title this past weekend, played his college ball at Florida Southern University and is eyeing a career in sports administration. He says he wants to enter a masters’ degree program so he can work as an athletic director in the future. He’s 28 years old and has played overseas in a number of places, including Australia.
“I’m trying to hang ‘em up,” he says, but then there’s always one more 3x3 tournament.”
Look and up down the rosters of the 15 men’s teams at the 3X national championship. You’ll find most players in their 20s and early 30s. Only seven players are over 35.
One stands out. Steffon Bradford, playing for national champion 3BALL Omaha, can say he has made a long career out of basketball outside the NBA. He’s played 17 years professionally in France.
Sitting outside the Basketball Hall of Fame on metal benches made for family lunches, Bradford, some gray hair creeping into his sideburns, says playing 3x3 extends the years he can play. But why keep at it? He’s 42 years old, and was the only player at nationals over 40.
He tilts his head and smiles when asked why. It’s not about him, he says.
“When I can find someone that can actually guard me, then I’ll stop,” he says.
It’s true, his teammates say. Bradford still plays at a high level.
He’s made a career of it — and 3x3 is just making it longer.
Greg Kerstetter is a freelance contributor to USAB.com on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.