Vishesh and Yadwinder during the 2013 SABA qualifiers

Vishesh Bhriguvanshi and Yadwinder Singh, two of the four members of the current Indian 3 on 3 team which won silver at the recently concluded Asian Beach Games, seen here during the 2013 South Asian Basketball Associaiton (SABA) qualifiers.

In the alternate universe of international 3×3 basketball exists a strange and pleasantly surprising reality. In this other reality – across the wormhole of interstellar hoops travel – India is actually one of Asia’s most successful teams, constantly contending for the podium, fielding the best little group of players in the continent, and playing with unmatched confidence.

In the mainstream basketball universe, India is a hoops underdog, ranking 61st in the world and usually finishing in the bottom rungs of Asian tournaments. But, as recent results have shown, the 3×3 format has been a whole different ballgame, as India have collected gold medals and accolades and returned home with their heads held high in pride.

Since FIBA began to hone the official rules of the halfcourt 3×3 game for the international level, India has been one of the federations to take full advantage of the quicker, less popular style of the game, sending out their best players to tournaments that other nations usually reserved for players outside the regular national team system. India has won the 3×3 basketball gold medal twice (once for men and once for women) at the Asian Beach Games since 2008, including our Women’s squad defeating China for the gold in China’s home court in Haiyang in 2012. In May last year, India’s Women won the FIBA Asia 3×3 gold in Qatar. A week later, India’s under-18 men and women both won silver medals at the U18 FIBA Asia 3×3 championship in Thailand. India dominated the South Asian Beach games, winning double gold for both men and women a few years ago. India’s under-23 men’s team have also won a bronze at the KFC 3×3 international challenge in China.

Most recently, the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) sent men’s and women’s squads to Phuket for the 4th Asian Beach Games. The women failed to continue their recent momentum, but the men’s side – featuring India’s top players like Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, Amrit Pal Singh, Pratham Singh, and Yadwinder Singh – defeated all comers with ease until the Finals, where they lost to Qatar and had to settle for a silver medal.

There is no better feeling for an Indian basketball fan than to see Indian basketball players on the podium, enjoying the fruits of their success, draped with a tiranga flag over their shoulders and basketballs in their palms. Even if it’s “just” 3×3 basketball, it’s still kind of a big deal for the athletes responsible for this success.

Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, the Varanasi-born player who has been the captain of India’s national team for several years and one of India’s best domestic and international level players, has also been part of nearly every senior international 3×3 men’s team that India has fielded since 2008. With Bhriguvanshi in the lineup, India won the 2008 Asian Beach Games gold medal, the 2011 South Asian Beach Games gold medal, and the 2014 Asian Beach Games silver. If there is any singular athlete most responsible for India’s successful results in this modified version of the game, it is him.

“3×3 basketball is a ‘fun’ thing,” he told me in a conversation recently, “You can enjoy basketball playing it. But the “proper”, full version of the game, is of course more important to me.”

As it should be: call me old-fashioned, but 3×3 wins are not satisfying for me as a fan of Indian basketball. I would rather see India beat China in the group stage of the FIBA Asia Cup – and still ultimately finish at 7th place – than see a dozen 3×3 gold medals. The level competitive is just not the same, and the format leaves more room for chance than for the validation of actual talent.

In many ways, 3×3 halfcourt basketball is one of the common formats of the street, casual game. Almost every basketball player has played this modified style of hoops among their friends or pick-up with strangers at their nearest court. What FIBA 3x has done is basically brought official structure to basketball’s unofficial cousin.

In the half-court basketball competition, each team has four players: three starters plus one substitute. Each game is 10 minutes long, with two halves of five minutes each. A one-minute overtime is held if the score is tied at the end of regulation. The shot-clock is 12 seconds, and the scoring limit is 21 points (that is, the first team to 21 wins). No time-outs are allowed: substitutions are made in dead-ball situations.

The games are short, fast, unpredictable, and thus, can be exciting. At international tournaments that feature 3×3 tournaments, you could watch dozens of countries play in a couple of hours, around the same time period of a full-length basketball game. But the unpredictability and faster format of the game also takes away from the full potential of the tactics and athletic abilities that make basketball such a lovable game – something that deters many serious players and fans from taking the 3×3 format seriously.

Which is also why most of the top basketball teams around the world (USA, Spain, Argentina, Lithuania, France) and even the top Asian teams (China, Iran, Korea, Jordan, Philippines) name ‘B’ or ‘C’ or junior players in their 3×3 rosters and save their biggest stars for the version of the game that matters: 5-on-5, full-court, 40 minutes per game. Not India, though, who, in the young history of official 3×3 events, have had no qualms about doubling up the same stars for both formats.

Part of the reason for this is to give India a chance to get a competitive result at such events. The other reason is that India doesn’t have a professional basketball league back home and India’s best players rarely get the international exposure to match top players from other nations. Through the 3×3 circuit, top players like Bhriguvanshi get another rare chance to showcase their skills internationally.

But is there a benefit that can cross over from 3×3 success to the full version of the game?

“It’s a different thing,” said Bhriguvanshi, “And we can’t convert it [3×3 success] to “proper” basketball, because it’s small court, only up to 21, etc.”

Sure, 3×3 has its benefits. It helps to promote the game to a newer, more impatient fanbase, who only have the time or attention span for the shortest blimp of competition possible (call it the ‘twitterization’ of basketball). It brings a more level playing field between players from different countries, and thus every country – be it the USA or India – has a real chance of winning any team. Like T20 remixed the longer version of Cricket to a shorter, faster pace, FIBA wants 3×3 to do the same for basketball.

But, just like there is nothing to match the class and timeless quality of Test Cricket, there is nothing like ‘Real’ basketball success that can be matched by 3×3.

3×3 Basketball is here to stay. Even though the International Olympic Association (IOA) ruled the format out from the 2016 Olympics, FIBA will continue to push the game internationally. 3×3 World Championships and tours are now being heavily promoted by basketball’s governing body. The NBA is boosting it with 3×3 tournaments across India (and Asia). And India’s national teams have begun to participate (and dominate) Asian 3×3 tournaments.

Last year, the BFI launched the first-ever national 3×3 basketball championships in India, holding competitions for Men and Women at the senior and the under-18 level. The tournament became a vehicle to better prepare and scout Indian players for 3×3’s global rise.

India’s growing national and international clout in 3×3 basketball is a wonderful thing, but the last thing that the BFI and Indian players need to do is grow complacent with 3×3 success. If India chooses, we can still occasionally send our best players to international 3×3 tournaments to help expand their international exposure, but like other countries, we should also think about using it as a vehicle to develop youngsters. 3×3 success is one thing, but the BFI cannot boast of gold medals at the Asian Beach Games if they are losing by 30 or 40 to the same teams in full FIBA Asia tournaments.

Despite recent improvements, India are still the minnows in traditional basketball tournaments at the international stage. Good performances at 3×3 tournaments have been a flicker of hope, but this success should be part of the journey, not the destination. Instead of resting our laurels with 3×3, we should use the confidence of those performances to propel our game where it matters.

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[KARAN MADHOK]