TOKYO — It all started with “White Men Can’t Jump.”
Dusan Bulut was 9 years old and channel surfing at home in Novi Sad, Serbia, when the street ball caper starring Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes appeared on the television.
He was transfixed. He decided he wanted to become good at basketball.
From roughly that point forward, Bulut oriented his life around the game, measuring his progress by where he was playing. In the unglamorous neighborhood where he grew up, where basketball courts served as asphalt oases between gray buildings, this meant proving his worth on a hierarchy of pickup courts, each one featuring older, better players than the last.
Bulut, 35, is now widely considered the greatest player in the fledgling sport of three-on-three basketball, which made its Olympic debut on Saturday. Consider his record: Since 2012, FIBA has organized six World Cup tournaments in 3×3 basketball, as the game is officially known; Bulut and his Serbian teammates have won four of them, on courts in Greece, China, France and the Philippines. He has spent much of his career as the No. 1-ranked three-on-three player in the world.
The arc of Bulut’s career has run parallel to the rise of the game itself. On Saturday, he sauntered onto the court in Tokyo and led Serbia to a win over China in its first game, exhibiting just a sliver of his beguiling skill set: a long-range, behind-the-back assist; a fake-out Eurostep layup; and a step-back game-winner. It was a showing befitting the game’s biggest, most accomplished star.
These are relative terms, of course. Bulut remains unknown to a vast majority of sports fans around the world, and the notion of three-on-three basketball as an organized, international competition still prompts a chorus of skeptics. But a big stage, a flashy performance and a gold medal could change things.
“We deserve it the most,” Bulut said of the Olympic title. “No one will be happy with anything else.”
Since 2017, when three-on-three basketball was added to the Tokyo Olympic program, the sport’s players, officials and commentators have devoted considerable energy toward explaining what exactly it is, dispelling common misconceptions and in some cases trying to justify its existence.
It was a decade and a half ago that FIBA took on three-on-three basketball as a project, formalizing a universal set of rules, organizing test events and, most importantly, unifying a chunk of the many existing tournaments around the word into a pyramidal network under its governing umbrella.
The enterprise has perplexed some traditional basketball fans. Why fiddle with a good thing, a thing that happens to be one of the most popular sports in the world?
But FIBA’s motivation was clear: The leaner, quicker game of three on three, it hoped, would engage a younger generation of spectators that enjoyed endless options for entertainment and, in its view, had shorter attention spans. The sport was also seen as a way to lower the barrier of entry into international competition for basketball-loving countries that could not match the resources or talent pools of powerhouse nations like the United States, which has dominated previous Olympic tournaments.
Crucially, three on three also fit into the broader Olympics effort to wedge youth-oriented, nontraditional sports — like skateboarding, BMX and rock climbing — between its more traditional events.
“I look at it a lot like beach volleyball is to normal volleyball: a really cool spin on a really popular sport,” said Robbie Hummel, a member of the U.S. men’s three-on-three basketball team, which failed to qualify for the Tokyo Games.
Short-burst intensity, then, is three on three’s chief appeal. Games run to 21, points are scored in 1s and 2s, and the shot clock ticks ominously down from 12. The space freed by having fewer players on the court promotes movement and creativity. There are no coaches and few breaks in play. And the game, players say, is much more physical than traditional basketball, with referees allowing a level of contact that shades closer to the playground than the pro arena.
“You get away with a lot more fouls than you get away with in five-on-five,” said Allisha Gray, who plays for the W.N.B.A.’s Dallas Wings and will represent the United States in Tokyo.
Bulut has never been the fastest or strongest or tallest on the court. He has a well-deserved reputation as a flashy player, but he said he believed his main gifts were his stamina, versatility and willingness to work. He gets as many plaudits for his scrappiness as he does for his showmanship.
Some of that mentality comes from his father, a sports journalist, who often told him to “be a short blanket” on the court.
“It’s hard to translate it to English,” Bulut said, laughing. “It means you’re always making someone uncomfortable. If you pull it up, your legs are going to be cold. If you put it down, your arms will be cold.”
Bulut makes players uncomfortable with an array of intangible skills — foresight, timing, geometric awareness — and an arsenal of audacious tricks.
Four years ago, at a competition in Amsterdam, he threaded a Shammgod — a one-handed, inside-out, crossover dribble invented by the former N.B.A. player God Shammgod — through the open legs of an opponent on his way to a game-winning layup, braiding together what many consider to be the quintessential highlight of three on three’s short history.
“As we say over here, he’s a dog,” said Kyle Montgomery, a commentator from Los Angeles. “A dog is someone who’s got heart, a guy who’s relentless, a guy who likes to seize the moment. He plays with pride. He’s a winner.”
After the initial spark of “White Men Can’t Jump,” Bulut began following the careers of players like Stephon Marbury and Allen Iverson. He read Slam and Dime Magazine whenever he could get his hands on a copy. He spent hours watching clips of the AND1 Mixtape Tour.
He took in these influences and expressed them anew on the courts outside his apartment. Everyone hung out there — “moms with kids, alcoholics and drug addicts, nerds” — and the easiest way to grab people’s attention, to earn their respect, was to unveil a fancy move or flashy pass.
Summer Olympics Essentials
Those instincts did not serve Bulut as well when he began his professional career as a five-on-five player, bouncing around teams in Serbia, Hungary, Bosnia and Macedonia. He disliked the schedule, a numbing stream of anonymous cities and villages, and bristled against his coaches’ suffocating systems.
As a release, he focused more of his energy toward playing in three-on-three tournaments, and everything clicked. As he and his teammates watched the prize money accumulate and sponsorship opportunities start to materialize, they began devoting themselves to the game full time. FIBA’s marketing materials regularly refer to Bulut as the G.O.A.T. — the greatest of all time.
“He’s a great example, and his team, that if you put every effort and every bit of time into 3×3, you can have a phenomenal career with it,” said Michael Linklater, a former player from Canada who will provide commentary on the Olympics this month for the national broadcaster CBC. “They have their own facility. They train other teams. They’ve kind of figured out how to play the game.”
Bulut pointed out that most of the players involved with the Serbian national team were from the Novi Sad area. Their humble beginnings and hardscrabble environs had remained a motivating force, he said.
“This game is always hard. It’s always uncomfortable, always somebody is breathing up your neck, wanting to beat you, wanting to cheat you,” Bulut said. “That’s why we’re good at this. We go and win money, and we can live properly here. But take, for example, guys from Canada or Sweden or even Qatar. If they win a tournament, they still get less money than if they just worked at a bank or something.”
“For us,” he added, “it’s a matter of survival.”
The matter of money could dictate the future of three-on-three basketball. If the sport’s profile and prize grow with an Olympic boost, more players might view it as an outlet for their skills, an alternative to working at, say, a bank.
In that regard, the failure of the American men’s team to qualify represented a missed opportunity to introduce more people from the United States, which has the world’s largest surplus of basketball talent, to the game. But Kareem Maddox, who represented the U.S. men’s team in the qualifying process, said he thought American players would be drawn to it soon anyway.
“Not to take anything away from us. We’re perfectly fine basketball players, but we do other stuff, too,” Maddox said, laughing. “We have day jobs. 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.”
That may be so, one day. But the only dominant force in 3×3 thus far has been Bulut, who now has the chance to triumph on a basketball court unlike any he has ever played on.