Pursuing Olympic Dream by Excelling in 3×3 Hoops, PU Alum Maddox Playing for U.S. in Pan Am Games
THREE BALL: Kareem Maddox goes up for a shot in the 2010-11 season during his senior campaign for the Princeton University men’s basketball team. Maddox, the Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year and a unanimous first-team All-Ivy League selection in 2011, is moving up the ranks in the United Stares 3×3 hoops program. Recently, he teamed up with Robbie Hummel, Damon Huffman, and Canyon Barry to help the U.S. defeat Latvia for its first World Cup championship title at the FIBA 3×3 World Cup in Amsterdam. In late June, Maddox was selected for the USA Men’s 3×3 Pan American Games team that will play in the Pan American Games in Lima, Peru, from July 27-August 10. (Photo by Stephen Goldsmith)
By Justin Feil
Five years after former Princeton University men’s basketball star Kareem Maddox retired from playing professional ball overseas, he has a realistic shot at the 2020 Olympics.
After working as a radio host and producer in his hometown Los Angeles and then Colorado, the 2011 Princeton graduate has revived a chance at his childhood dream through 3×3 basketball which will be contested at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo for the first time.
“It’s unbelievable,” said the multi-talented 6’ 8, 220-pound Maddox.
“When I was a radio host out in Colorado, I seriously considered taking up Olympic speed walking. I thought that might be something I could make the Olympics for. I love the Olympics. Being able to walk with Team USA into the opening ceremony and to compete with ‘USA’ across your chest, there aren’t many honors like that in the sports world, so the fact that I have the potential to do that for playing basketball is unbelievable. When you think of Team USA basketball, you think of LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul, you don’t think of Kareem Maddox.”
Maddox boosted his confidence and his Olympic team chances when he teamed up with Robbie Hummel, Damon Huffman, and Canyon Barry to help the United States defeat Latvia for its first World Cup championship title at the FIBA 3×3 World Cup in Amsterdam on June 23.
“To win it the year before the Olympics is massive,” said Maddox. “It’s important to show we can have that success. It was also important because we have to finish in the top three in that World Cup to get a bid into the Olympic Qualifying Tournament (OQT). There’s still a chance that the USA can qualify automatically to the Olympics.”
If the United States finishes in the top three at the OQT, it would qualify automatically for one of eight spots in the Olympics. The other spots will be taken by the top FIBA ranked teams on November 1, 2019, based on results at worldwide FIBA events. USA Basketball is ranked eighth currently in a FIBA system that awards points for tournament finishes.
“You basically travel and play tournaments all around the world,” Maddox said.
“Last year, we played in 17 tournaments in 14 different countries. This year, we’ve been in China three times already. We played another tournament in Novi Sad, Serbia, we played one in Moscow. You travel around and do these tournaments and try to gain points. Every tournament has a cash prize for finishing first through fourth. Most Eastern European guys that play 3×3, that’s how they make a living. For us, we all hold day jobs and try to travel on weekends and play in these tournaments.”
Maddox, for his part, is still a producer five days per week and juggles being an aspiring Olympian several weekends per year. He lives and works in New York City and produces “The Pitch,” a Gimlet Media podcast that he calls an audio version of the TV show “Shark Tank.” He loves his day job, but also is determined to get to the Olympics, something he wasn’t sure could happen with basketball after he retired in 2014 following two years playing overseas and even after jumping back on the court in 2016-2017 with a season in Poland.
“When I retired, I did three years of radio journalism for different NPR stations in L.A. and Colorado, producing and hosting, but then I woke up one day and said, ‘I still want to play ball,’” recalled Maddox.
“I came out of retirement and went to Poland and had a pretty good season. When I came back, I was torn. I wanted to play and I had a whole other career. I had made headway in being a host and producer, but I felt like I still had ball in me. It just so happened that 3×3 had become an Olympic sport, and my dream had always been to play in the Olympics since at least 1996 when I went to the Atlanta Olympics. It felt like everything happened for a reason. I needed that year in Poland to get me back and then convince me that I wanted to play potentially in the Olympics in 2020. Once I saw that, I felt like I don’t need 5×5 anymore, I’m a full-time 3×3 player.”
The FIBA 3×3 game is different from what many grew up playing at basketball camps, playgrounds and practices. Games are first team to 21 points or 10 minutes with baskets earning one-point, or two-points if from behind the international three-point arc. The 12-second shot clock begins as soon as a team rebounds the basketball or takes the ball from a made basket.
“There’s only three guys on the court so everyone has to be able to do everything – dribble, pass, and shoot,” said Maddox. “Everyone has to make quick decisions, be good with the ball, be good off the ball. There’s nowhere to hide on a 3×3 court. The best 3×3 players are versatile. Being tall because everyone needs to rebound is helpful. A lot of guys in 5×5 can specialize and do one thing really well. You can be a shooter. That’s a little different for 3×3. Everyone has to be able to do everything at all times. You have to be in pretty good shape. It’s like a 10-minute sprint. It’s a lot more taxing, we think, than most 5×5 games.”
As the Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year and a unanimous first-team All-Ivy League selection in 2011, Maddox is using some of the same skills he honed at Princeton to make a name for himself in 3×3. He was selected June 28 for the USA Men’s 3×3 Pan American Games team that will play in the Pan American Games in Lima, Peru, from July 27-August 10.
“Chemistry is huge,” said Maddox. “Chemistry and teamwork are very big in 3×3. It’s more important than in 5×5. The teams that are the best at 3-on-3 are Eastern European teams that have been playing 3×3 exclusively for the last eight years. They’re ahead of the game. Having three guys that have been competing against the best teams in the world in 3-on-3 – namely Serbia, Slovenia, and Latvia – it’s huge. It’s another sport. It’s played differently and there’s a style. There’s things that work and things that don’t. Having three guys that played together and know the game was very big in terms of us being able to win the World Cup.”
As of July 3, Maddox was ranked sixth among American 3×3 players, but statistics can’t tell the full story of how Maddox can help a team. His defensive value is undeniable, and Maddox has spurts offensively. He had a tournament-high six points against top-seeded Serbia at the World Cup. He gathered 6.0 rebounds per game in the World Cup as well.
“My game was probably always more suited towards 3×3,” said Maddox.
“I’m a better shooter now. You have to be able to be able to shoot the 3-pointer. I’ve always been a driver/slasher. You have to be able to play inside-out. I haven’t really changed my game.”
Maddox was named as the Most Valuable Player of the 2018 USA Basketball 3×3 National Championship and played for the winning 2019 Red Bull USA Basketball 3×3 Nationals winner.
Nationally, he plays for Team Ariel Slow & Steady, a nod to Princeton University graduate John Rogers, the CEO of Ariel Investments who has been a supporter of former Tigers players. Dan Mavraides, another Princeton graduate who played with Maddox, is part of the team. Internationally, they play at Team Princeton (FIBA requires every team to be attached to a town/city). Team Princeton was second in the Nanjing Challenge in China. Maddox’s play in the national championship tournament helped earn him selection to the World Cup team.
“Almost everyone on our team comes from the greater Coach Carril tree, having played for a coach who was a former Princeton coach or was mentored by Pete Carril,” said Maddox, who scored 822 points and had 456 rebounds in 104 games during his Princeton career.
“We play the system. It’s natural for us. We all know the Princeton system. It just so happens that the Princeton system is pretty applicable to 3×3. We do a lot of passing, and cutting and shooting from behind the arc. It’s twos and ones in 3×3 so the 2-point shot which would be the three-point shot in 5×5 is more valuable in 3×3 because it’s worth twice as much as a normal shot.”
Over the next few months, Maddox will be bolstering his resume and preparing for the Pan Am Games. He anticipates playing international tournaments twice per month with commitments already to go to Chengdu, China and Amsterdam. He’s trying to put himself in the best position when USA Basketball selects an Olympic team.
“It’s No. 1, balancing everything and making sure that I’m in the gym every day becoming the best basketball player I can be,” said Maddox.
“No. 2, it’s about playing my role to help the USA potentially qualify either automatically or if it comes down to the qualifying tournament and making that team as well. All those things come down to me being the best basketball player I can. If I do that, I’ve done my job. Obviously continuing to play on the pro circuit, which is how I can help the USA earn points toward qualifying, is important. All those things come back to being consistent, and being in the best shape, and being the best basketball player possible.”
Maddox always wanted the opportunity to represent the United States in the Olympics and his Princeton career was a big part of his initial development as a player. The advent of FIBA-sponsored 3×3 was crucial too, and even in the United States, 3×3 basketball has gotten exposure through the recent Big3 league that uses former pro players. It’s opened a door for Maddox, not just to get back into basketball but to possibly make it to the Olympics.
“Somehow it makes sense,” said Maddox. “It’s one of those things where I feel like I learned how to play basketball at Princeton the right way, and it also instilled a love for the game in me. It’s not going to be easy to get rid of. I appreciate every moment of this journey.”