By Tom Hayward
BAKU (Reuters) - With thumping music, ferocious slamdunks and sublime skill, 3x3 basketball came out with a bang on Tuesday at the inaugural European Games, but the sport with inner-city backyard origins has far bigger ambitions -- a place at the Olympics.
It has been played as "streetball" and other guises for years but in 2007 the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) identified it as a "sport with a young, urban and positive image" and began to focus on heightening its profile.
Three-a-side basketball enjoyed a hugely successful debut at the 2010 Youth Olympic Games before emerging at the maiden European Games in Azerbaijan's capital Baku. Now, with 250 million people playing worldwide, according to FIBA, it is one of the most popular recreational sports on the planet.
A potential catalyst to enhance basketball worldwide, 3x3 basketball has rules predicated on simplicity and flexibility.
In official competition, matches last 10 minutes or until the first team gets 21 points, allowing many players to compete in multiple fast and furious games within a short span of time.
It is played between teams of three, with one substitute, wearing standard basketball shorts and vest on a court measuring 15 meters (49 feet) wide by 11 meters (36 feet) long with one hoop instead of two.
Baskets scored within the arc are worth one point while shots from outside are worth two, but must be scored within an allocated 12-second shot clock.
At the European Games that began on June 12, attendance at Baku's Olympic Stadium for the athletics was disappointing. But fans swarmed to the arena for the opening 3x3 basketball match, creating a carnival-like atmosphere on the Caspian seashore.
Russia beat Belgium on Tuesday and the near-capacity crowd cheered and gasped in unison at the players speed, skill, physicality and commitment despite searing heat.
“It was really fun. With the announcer it has a really American feel about it. I think it was great with a really good atmosphere,” Domien Loubry, Belgium’s top scorer, told Reuters.
“I think when you get a high-scoring game the crowd can get into it. It’s a really high pace. It’s different. It’s more physical, it’s a more up-and-down pace but I like it and I think as it progresses it’s going to get even bigger," he said.
“It’s an easy way to get people involved in basketball. All you need is a rim, six guys and a ball."
In conventional basketball, matches last 48 minutes divided into four quarters with five players on each side, a long rectangular court and two hoops at either end.
With mass participation in parks and schools worldwide, 3x3 basketball is easily accessible to youngsters -- an asset International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach has long championed.
Despite FIBA efforts it will not, however, be played at the Rio Olympics next year. But basketball in its more traditional five-a-side, full-court format has a rich Olympics history.
The 1992 U.S. "Dream Team", featuring the likes of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, were widely seen as the greatest ever assembled, and won gold at the Barcelona Olympics. In 2012 a team including LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant were among the star attractions in London and won gold.
The 3x3 format enjoys support from New York Knicks guard and 11-year NBA veteran Jose Calderon, who said the platform created by the European Games was the perfect way of showcasing its merits as a future Olympic event.
"I think it is a good trial here to see how it goes," he told reporters during a visit to the European Games.
"The sport is growing all the time. Everybody is playing 3x3 lately, in every city there is a different 3x3 tournament, so why not? I don’t know what impact it could have but surely there would be more professional 3x3 players if it becomes an Olympic sport."
The European medal matches in 3x3 basketball will be played on Friday 26.
“There’s a niche to the game that speaks to a lot of guys who maybe don’t like the tactics of the slow pace of a normal Euroleague game," Belgium's Loubry said.
"While we have this kind of format, and crowds get into it, of course there’s an (Olympic) future.”
(Reporting by Tom Hayward; Editing by Mark Heinrich)