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WNBA stars helping fuel 3-on-3 basketball’s golden moment in Olympics

Round up up three people and then find three more. Play to 21 by ones and twos or most points scored in 10 minutes.

It’ll be hot. It’ll be humid. Barely any fouls will be called.

Seriously. Check the ball. It’s yellow and blue, grooved like the skin of a pumpkin and weather-proof.

3×3 basketball

Welcome to 3-on-3 basketball, a sport that’s come all the way from your neighbor’s driveway to its Olympics debut, the latest in the Games’ attempt to take something familiar and make it younger, edgier, faster and wilder.

It’s just like a tornado,” Italian guard Rae Lin D’Alie said with a Wisconsin accent as thick as beer cheese soup.

It’s part car crash, part permanent fast break.

As the sun set over the event’s grand opening, U.S. First Lady Jill Biden jumped out of her seat to applaud a 17-10 victory by the U.S. over France.

On his way out of the Aomi Urban Sports Park, French President Emmanuel Macron was asked by an American journalist about the U.S. performance against his team.

“Come on, come on. They defeated us,” Macron said with a grin. “It was sufficiently painful.”

It was also sufficiently amazing.

Played outdoors under a canopy that fittingly looked like a circus big top, this iteration of basketball made for as electric an atmosphere as you can get when the only people in the stands are dignitaries, volunteers and a Japanese youth basketball team hanging out in the edges of the rafters.

They witnessed four WNBA players parachute into a sport played full-time by their opponents and mostly dominate FIBA’s top-ranked team.

“Did it look like I had jet lag?” U.S. guard Kelsey Plum said.

The former No. 1 overall pick said her attitude about playing in a perceived undercard to the main men’s and women’s tournament is “Why not” do this?

“To make a five-on-five team in the United States is nearly impossible, you know, and so as a young player, why not get the experience and then try to hit it on the next round?” she said.

The American men’s team, the reigning world champions, failed to qualify with no current NBA players after losing to the Netherlands in the quarterfinals of the qualifying tournament. The women’s team, with WNBA stars, picked it up quickly.

“I’m used to the air conditioning,” Allisha Grey said about adjusting to the wind and heat.

Each team has four players including one substitute who can check in after any stoppage. The game is played on a half court (the teams share the basket for pregame layups), with a 12-second shot clock. And just like at the park, you’ve got to take the ball back behind the three-point line, except it’s really a two-point line.

There was an in-house DJ and two in-house MC’s commentating with the players’ nicknames (one in English, one in Japanese). D’Alie is “Rae Rae.” USA center Stefanie Dolson is “Big Mama.”

They’re characters — D’Alie’s voice drips with her Wis-can-sen accent when she speaks Italian or when she proclaims her love for the Wisconsin Badgers and her pride in the Milwaukee Bucks’ championship.

Born in Waterford, Wis., she found the discipline by playing with some of her Italian league teammates and fell in love with the game — a form of basketball with the pace and space that NBA teams crave built right into the rules.

“It’s like backyard basketball, where … you just find a way to win. And sometimes it doesn’t look great. And sometimes it looks really awesome,” D’Alie, who hit the game-winner to qualify Italy, said. “It’s really fun that way and there’s a lot of space for creativity and spontaneity.”

And then there’s soon-to-be 39-year-old Ira Brown, a 6-foot-4 American power forward in Japan’s pro basketball leagues who somehow ended up as a Japanese Olympian after being an eighth-round pick of the Kansas City Royals to pitch in 2001.

When he was firing fastballs for the Edmonton Cracker-Cats in the Northern Independent League, he could’ve never imagined representing Japan in basketball. But 3-on-3? It’s a haven for things like this.

“That would have sounded very crazy,” Brown said. “Obviously, when I was younger, basketball was definitely not in in the cards. I love to play the game, but obviously baseball was my love. But, I’m here now so it’s a blessing. But for sure I wouldn’t ever thought it in my mind.”

Down by one in the final seconds of a game with Poland with DMX bumping on the speakers, Brown tied the game for the host country. But as fast as the party went up, it came crashing down when Poland hit a game-winner in sudden-death, first-to-two overtime.

Still, Brown got to compete in the Olympics.

“I can’t even express that. I mean, I can’t express it,” Brown said. “It’s just, it’s just, mind blowing, mind blowing that I’m here.”

FIBA Secretary General Andreas Zagklis called the debut “historic.” Players such as Plum, D’Alie and Brown beamed after their debuts. It felt like a weird, wonderful success.

Zagklis noted how the Belgium men’s team managed to upset Latvia — the lead changing four times in the last 25 seconds is kind of the template for what a professional 3-on-3 game can look like.

The U.S. women, the major favorites, won twice, helping put American eyes on the sport. And other nations provided the fireworks, showing why people believe this formalized version of street basketball can grow.

If you can award medals in indoor and outdoor versions of volleyball, why not in basketball?

After beating France, they cruised past Mongolia, a country that’s never played Olympic basketball before 3-on-3’s introduction Saturday. A gold medal will be given out Wednesday, the Americans almost a certainty to claim it.

But along the way, enjoy Big Mama, the fastball-throwing baller, the Italian Badger and the rest of the characters.

“Five on five is where players make their money,” U.S. 3-on-3 coach Kara Lawson said. “But they’d say this is more fun.”

Wisconsin’s ‘Rae Rae’ leads Italy’s 3×3 squad at Tokyo Games

To Italians, she sounds American. To Americans, she sounds Wisconsin. That’s fine by Rae Lin D’Alie, because now she’s an Olympian.

“Rae Rae” — only her mom calls her Rae Lin — is the 5-foot-3 point guard of the Italian 3-on-3 basketball team fully capable of surprising the favorites at the Tokyo Olympics.

The 33-year-old D’Alie is a bona fide star in the 3×3 world, earning MVP honors at the 2018 World Cup when Italy won gold by defeating the United States, China and Russia. Her late jumper against Hungary last month clinched Italy’s ticket to Tokyo.

Oh, she also wrote and recorded FIBA’s 3×3 anthem.

“I happen to be a dreamer so my mind is continuously thinking about what could be,” said D’Alie, pronounced “Duh-LEE-Ah.”

It becomes a reality for the Wisconsin native on today when Italy opens its Olympic campaign against Mongolia. A few hours later they face heavyweight France before taking on other medal contenders like China, Japan, the United States and the Russian team in the following days.

The half-court 3×3 is an Olympic sport for the first time. Games are 10 minutes or first to 21, with scoring in ones and twos.

D’Alie is Italy’s spark plug, court general and unofficial spokeswoman — in two languages.

“I’m grateful to the Italian people because they’ve really embraced me, and my accent they get a kick out of. I’m not perfect grammatically. They like how I do the interviews,” D’Alie told The Associated Press a few days before departing Rome for Tokyo.

She had moved to Italy after being a four-year starter at Wisconsin from 2006-10 and gained citizenship. By chance, she discovered that her great-great-grandfather was from Salerno — where she had moved to — but she and her five siblings were well aware of their Italian roots while growing up about 30 miles southwest of Milwaukee.

“We were the loud Italian family that was always together, eating pasta on Thursdays at grandma’s house, inviting the whole neighborhood over. Lots of sports, lots of energy,” she said.

That energy is key in the fast-paced chaos of 3×3.

“I always joke that in the basketball family we’re kind of like the fun little sister that’s growing up and kind of wild, a little bit crazy but really fun to be around,” D’Alie said. “Hopefully everybody will get a chance to experience that.”

The anthem came about after D’Alie began writing songs to inspire her 5-on-5 teammates; she splits her time between traditional basketball and 3×3. Two years ago during the 3×3 World Cup in Amsterdam — held outside in the Museumplein — she started writing lyrics. She pitched it to FIBA and they were off to the studio.

“I was really inspired by Amsterdam. There’s the museums, the court, we were in the downtown. It’s such a creative space,” she said. “I’m a believer in God, so I was just praying. I really believed that one day it was going to be the anthem.”

The United States team that Italy beat ,17-14, in 2018 was a University of Oregon squad that contained future WNBA players Sabrina Ionescu and Ruthy Hebard. Ionescu was the No. 1 draft pick in 2020.

For Tokyo, the US has sent a squad of four WNBA players, including former top draft picks Kelsey Plum (2017) and Jackie Young (2019). Italy plays the Americans on Monday. The eight-team tournament concludes with the gold medal game Wednesday.

“It’ll be a cool moment — I’m still American,” D’Alie said of facing the United States. “They’re going to be a very tough team to play against and a very tough team to try to beat but we’ll give our best shot and see what happens.”

3×3 basketball (pronounced three-ex-three) is a variation of basketball played three a side on one basketball hoop.

According to an ESSEC Business School study commissioned by the International Olympic Committee, 3×3 is the largest urban team sport in the world[citation needed]. This basketball game format is currently being promoted and structured by FIBA, the sport’s governing body.

Its primary competition is an annual FIBA 3X3 World Tour, comprising a series of Masters and one Final tournament, and awarding six-figure prize money in US dollars. The FIBA 3×3 World Cups for men and women are the highest tournaments for national 3×3 teams. The 3×3 format has been adopted for both the 2020 Summer Olympics and 2022 Commonwealth Games.