When he finally decided to retire from basketball at 28 years old, Robbie Hummel left behind a career largely defined by what might have been.
The former Purdue University star had once been among college basketball’s most promising talents, making it to the NBA even after his time at the Indiana school was derailed by two anterior cruciate ligament tears. Fueled by a lifelong passion forged in Hoosier State’s frenzied high-school basketball scene, Hummel swerved one injury setback after another through two seasons with the Minnesota Timberwolves and one each in Spain, Italy and Russia. But after a brief, miserable stint with Moscow club BC Khimki, where he suffered a badly broken nose and a concussion, he’d found the joy he once took in showing up to practice each day was running dry.
It was right as Hummel was ready to leave his playing days behind and embark on a full-time broadcasting career when he received a phone call from Craig Moore, an old college basketball friend. Moore was convinced Hummel was too young to retire and would be a perfect fit for 3×3 basketball, which the International Olympic Committee had recently added as a medal event for the 2020 Games.
Hummel, who had just signed a deal to become an analyst for college games for ESPN and the Big Ten Network, was skeptical. Three years later, he is the face of the United States’ 3×3 men’s basketball team as the sport heads toward its Olympic debut in Tokyo.
“Honestly, the only reason I went was because I’d never been to Asia,” Hummel said of his decision to criss-cross the globe with Team USA and Princeton 3×3 on the Fiba World Tour. “It’s a free trip to Seoul and the worst case was I’ll go over there and at least get to see a country I’d never been to. I really wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into because some of the economics of it didn’t make total sense. But, you know, it’s a free trip.”
The United States, despite its long-running international supremacy in traditional five-on-five basketball, has typically lagged far behind Europe and Asia on the 3×3 scene. But Hummel’s arrival ahead of the 2019 Fiba 3×3 World Cup in the Netherlands has signaled a change.
The 6ft 8in, 220lb sharp-shooting forward was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player after leading the United States to a perfect 7-0 record and its first ever world championship. For his efforts, Hummel was named USA Basketball’s Male Athlete of the Year for his efforts, joining a roll of previous winners including Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James.
The rules for 3×3 basketball are made for a faster-paced competition than five-on-five. Teams play with one- and two-point baskets over a single 10-minute period (with a 12-second shot clock), though a game can end sooner if a team reaches 21 points inside the distance. If a game is tied at the end of regulation, the first team to score two points in overtime wins. Each side is awarded two free throws from the seventh team foul, then two free throws and possession after the 10th.
“I look at it like beach volleyball is to the normal volleyball,” Hummel said. “It’s a really cool spin on a really popular sport. I think that most kids growing up, you grew up playing in three-on-three tournaments, and you grew up playing three-on-three in the backyards, so it’s very relatable to the fans. Everybody has played three-on-three at some time in their life.
“It’s a different animal than five-on-five. You’re on offense, you’re on defense, you’re on offense. It’s so back-and-forth with the way the game is played, where if the other team scores and I’m defending, we’re taking it out of the net and running our offense immediately. It’s fast-paced and it’s fun to watch. The offense certainly has an advantage with how much space there is on the floor, but I think it’s really going to be popular because the style of play is so intriguing, but it’s also so relatable to so many people at home.”
Since 3×3 is played on a half-court and all defensive rebounds and steals must be cleared to the arc, the fast break in any traditional sense is non-existent. That places a greater emphasis on screens, isolation plays, quick backdoor cuts and offensive players backing down their defenders into the post.
Many of these skills transpose to the five-on-five game. But the game is different enough where countries than have placed a fuller emphasis on developing full-time 3×3 players have been rewarded accordingly on the global stage. Serbia, for example, are four-time world champions, while Qatar brought home the title in 2014.
Kareem Maddox, a 6ft 8in, 220lb forward who plays alongside Hummel for Team USA and Princeton 3×3, quit his job as a podcast producer with Gimlet Media to devote his full efforts to the Olympics. The former Princeton University captain has found the 3×3 game manages to boil down basketball to its essential elements.
“A lot of actions in five-on-five basketball involve three people while the other two are off in the corner doing something else,” Maddox said. “As a teaching tool, it can teach children how to play basketball the right way: how to position yourself in space on the court and how to use your teammates well and how to read situations.
“I think 3×3 is really in the spirit of the Olympics, which until pretty recently was about amateur athletics. There’s times where we traveled to these tournaments and the setting is urban, you’re playing outside, there’s music playing while the games are going on, you’re wrapping your own ankles at times. It feels gritty. And I think that’s the way a lot of people think about three-on-three basketball when they go to their local park and play with their friends.”
Hummel said the United States’ relative underperformance in 3×3 is simply down to domestic exposure, a barrier to entry he believes the Olympic platform will address.
“Part of it is a numbers game,” said Hummel, who balanced his preparations for Tokyo with his NCAA tournament broadcasting responsibilities for Westwood One radio. “We just haven’t had as many people playing. It hasn’t been as popular here as it has been in Serbia or some of the Eastern European countries or even Asia for that matter. Another barrier is that I think that in my 3×3 career, I’ve played in like two events in North America. There’s some serious barriers to the game I think for countries on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, because (the tournaments) just so far away and they’re not easy to get to. It’s not like you can just drive down the street to play in a Fiba 3×3 event. You’ve got to fly to Seoul, or you got to fly over to Europe and catch a connecting flight to a place like no Novi Sad, Serbia, or fly into an airport and drive a couple hours. These events aren’t always easy to get to.
“I think the Olympics are an incredible opportunity for the United States to maybe show players whether they’re on the downturn of their career, or they just don’t want to play five-on-five overseas or whatever their situation is, that you can go and make some money playing in the 3×3 universe. I certainly think that this can be a springboard for countries like the United States where now some of these guys that maybe could play in Europe but don’t want to spend that time overseas, they see the 3×3 is mostly a weekend sport where you’re away for a weekend and you’re literally home. We usually leave on a Wednesday or Thursday, get there Thursday or Friday, play Saturday and Sunday, and you can literally be home Monday morning.”
Maddox, the No 33-ranked player in Fiba’s individual world rankings, insists the sport has only scratched the surface of its potential in the US.
“One of the great things about 3×3 is that it’s accessible,” Maddox said. “You can build a 3×3 team with four players and a coach. It’s much less resource-intensive than five-on-five basketball. And I think a big part of what we’ve been thinking about and between USA Basketball and the players on the team that Robbie and I played for is: How do we reach more youth? How do you build a really strong program? How do you start to get the players that are going to get into the qualifying stages of events like the Pan-American Games, the Olympics, the World Cup? How are you going to find homegrown talents that want to play 3×3 from a younger age rather than make the transition from playing five-on-five to 3×3?
“The other thing that you have to understand is that a lot of these teams that we’re playing against on the professional circuit and internationally, they’re guys who have dedicated their careers to playing 3×3 and don’t really play five-on-five. And there’s reasons for that. In 3×3, you get paid when you win. Sometimes you’re covering your own travel in trying to get to these places and they’re a little bit further with their sponsorship model.
“What we don’t have is guys who play full-time 3×3 basketball. Not to take anything away from us: We’re perfectly fine basketball players, but we have day jobs. And I think that as that changes, some of the best talent will emerge from the United States and we’ll continue to have supreme dominance in the sport of basketball in all its forms.”
The USA men’s World Cup triumph clinched their spot in Olympic qualifying tournament next month in Austria. The top three of the 20 teams in the event, which originally had been scheduled for March 2020 in India, advance to an eight-team field in Tokyo.
For Hummel, what started as a free trip to Asia has blossomed into a career coda that’s renewed his flagging love for the sport. Capping it off with an Olympic gold would be the storybook ending that felt next to impossible only three years ago.
“We played in like 22 countries over the course of one summer,” Hummel said. “We’ve played all over the world. It’s been an incredible kind of experience. For me, I kept getting hurt every time I felt like I was playing at my highest level, whether it was my knees or my shoulder or breaking my hand in the NBA or whatever. So this is a really cool way for me to finish up my career and hopefully do it in a positive way in Tokyo.”