Dispatch From the FIBA Beijing Masters

As much as I love mainstream sports, I can't resist digging a little deeper and trying to understand and enjoy as a viewer things like lawn bowls, snooker, Aussie Rules Football, and so on. And it's with that in mind that I've discovered a basketball variant that you have surely played (if you grew up in the United States), but probably were not aware was sanctioned by FIBA or any other organization that didn't have "street" or "mixtape" in their name.

Yes, three-on-three half-court basketball is a thing, with World Championships and everything. It plays out much like playground half-court basketball. While they play to 21 (OMG, so did we growing up!) or whomever is ahead after 10 minutes on the game clock (whichever comes first), there are some differences in the way FIBA does it and the way you did in your driveway, but also some similarities:

* Twelve-second shot clock.

* Held balls go to the defense, always. I can't remember how we handled these. I don't think we did jump balls, but we definitely didn't do alternating possessions.

* Buckets are worth 1 point, and three-pointers are worth 2. We did standard scoring (and you had to win by 2, not a thing in FIBA three-on-three).

* While nobody fouls out in three-on-three, free throws come into play; you get one free throw if in the act of shooting a one-pointer, and 2 for a two-pointer.

* "Game play starts with the defensive team exchanging the ball with the offensive team behind the arc. This exchange is also used to restart the game from any dead ball situation." That's so great. I hope they do checks and double checks.

* "If the defense gains possession of the ball within the arc, by a steal, a block or a rebound, the team must move the ball behind the arc before being allowed to take a shot." Now I'm positively homesick. It's like FIBA was watching out playground games and taking notes.

* "After a made goal or free throw (except for technical or unsportsmanlike fouls and team fouls 10 or more), play restarts with a player from the non-scoring team taking the ball directly under the basket and then dribbling or passing it to a point behind the arc. The defense is not allowed to play for the ball inside the block/charge semi-circle under the basket." Oh man, we were totes allowed to do that. We were probably tougher on D trying to wrest possession of the ball before the other team got behind the arc (actually, we used the free throw line and not the arc) than we were when the other team could actually shoot.

Got it? So with that in mind, let's watch a game together from the recent Beijing Masters, in this case the finals between Slovenia and Qatar. I hope it's played outdoors and that I can smell the asphalt.

00:10: If I can take this announcer literally ("the sun has set..."), then the game is outside, hurrah!

00:13: Some classic Qatari names on their team like "Dominic James" and "Sammy Monroe II."

01:04: I guess it's outside? It also looks like it may be a soundstage meant to emulate the outdoors. Anyway, in the mixtape tradition, this is not a World Championship scenario, but the finals on a worldwide tour stop.

01:47: So this guy James is clearly pretty good. Perhaps he is the best basketball player in the world surnamed James? I can't think of any others.

02:36: He did it! He checked with the defender! Just like Mom used to make!

02:45: The teams get it back behind the arc much faster than we did. Perhaps because they actually pass.

03:07: It's 4-0 Qatar and could easily be about 7-0 Qatar with 8:50 to go. This game is unfolding like many three white guys vs. three black guys matches I have been a part of.

03:16: Slovenian misses the wide open bunny, gets his own rebound, makes it. Again, I'm positively nostalgic. (And on a more serious note, I'm starting to think that this resembles playground games because of fundamental differences between how three-on-three half-court and five-on-five full-court shake out).

03:30: So apparently Qatar's Dominic James is "Mighty Mouse" and his teammate Tanguy Alban is "The Doctor." Again, I'm impressed by how much FIBA has embraced the street culture of three-on-three.

04:02: More props to FIFA for employing a female ref here. Also, I've done these sort of "livestreams" before, and I see now it's much easier when you have a Youtube video you can constantly pause.

04:47: As Slovenia hits a 2 to cut the lead to 6-5, I notice on replays that this isn't even half-court, and the playing surface only extends a couple of feet beyond the top of the key.

05:32: My rough estimate is that so far the teams are combined for 2-100 on three-poi...- er, two-pointers, which also is just like home.

06:50: Are you watching along? Good. Now tell me: what is up with the cheerleaders' shoes?

09:41: The announcer keeps mentioning how these teams know each other from their recent match in Manila. How much are these guys paid to travel to world capitals and play three-on-three ball? Is it too late for me? At 39, fat, and terrible at basketball?

11:07: Slovenia takes the lead 10-9 and will be shooting two free throws the rest of the way out as Qatar has 7 team fouls. This seems overly punitive to me, as basically it's the equivalent of giving a team four free throws for every foul in a regular basketball game. Slovenia is in the quadruple bonus, if you will.

12:09: The announcer just referred to the five-second rule as "the ball hog rule." I like it.

12:51: Qatar now in the quadruple bonus, too. I just thought of something: each team has a fourth player as a substitute, and both teams have been subbing freely. That means these teams have coaches, presumably. Shouldn't one of them be the ghost of Tupac Shakur, spitting out pieces of his cigar? Wait a tick ... I'll be some team's coach! Hire me! Hire me!

17:46: This announcer is a trip and a malaprop machine. He just described a player toweling his face as "wiping the stress off his face ... he takes a shot of water too. He's good to go. He's good to go!"

20:52: Showing the teams during a timeout, they clearly do not have coaches. Damn, another dream denied.

21:21: Qatar now leads 19-16 and can win it with a two-pointer or by just hanging on to the lead with 1:16 left. Slovenia is taller, but Qatar seems much more physical and is pushing Slovenia around under the basket.

24:24: This game is getting super nutty. 6.4 seconds left, Slovenia ball, down 20-19. If they tie it at 20 and time runs out, overtime will be won by the first team to score 2 points. Alternatively, Slovenia can win it outright with a two-pointer here. Great game to use as an intro into this world.

24:55: Slovenia ties it with a dunk just before the buzzer. Overtime!

27:22: Dominic "Mighty Mouse" James, the first player mentioned in this piece, ends it with a two for Qatar and they are the "Beijing Masters" champions. It's fitting; they did seem like the better team.

I've looked into it a little deeper and, unsurprisingly, These Guys Are Good. Dominic James is a former Big East Rookie of the Year at Marquette. Tanguy Alban was drafted in 2011 by the Mavs and subsequently traded to Minnesota, but has remained in Qatar (via Congo-Brazzaville) for hoops.

I also want to read more about the tour and its stops, but if all the games are on YouTube, I do not want to be spoiled. My verdict: lots of fun, captures the spirit of street hoops (they apparently have a dunk contest at every stop, too), and a relaxing thing to watch for half an hour before settling in to bed. Good stuff!

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