Chicago Sky center Stefanie Dolson has played at some of the highest levels of basketball. And while she has been a member of the USA Basketball family since 2010, she will make her first trek to the Olympics this month to represent the United States in the 3x3 basketball competition in Tokyo.
The 3x3 competition is the first of its kind on the Olympic stage with rules and procedures of its own. However for Dolson, basketball is basketball, and she'll be joined by familiar faces on the U.S. women’s 3x3 squad with Allisha Gray, Katie Lou Samuelson and Kelsey Plum.
“It's usually fun. We're always competing against each other, during season and even offseason, when we're all playing overseas,” Dolson told Bally Sports. “So, whenever we get to do USA, it's different because we get to come together and hang out, kick it with each other and laugh.”
Enemies during the WNBA season, Dolson and her U.S. teammates join forces when it’s time to compete for their country.
During the past 11 years, Dolson has represented America at the youth level (under-18 and under-19) and at World Cups (2014 and 2018) and FIBA Americup (2019). She is 43-3 with USA Basketball and has won three gold medals. Olympic gold would be a crowning achievement.
“For me, going to the Olympics is a huge deal,” Dolson said. “I've dreamed about that my whole life. … When that moment happens, I'll never stop smiling. I'll be so excited.”
The road to the Olympics hasn't been an easy one. First of all, there aren’t many athletes who have to prepare physically and mentally for the Summer Games and their current professional season at the same time. But for Dolson and her 3x3 teammates, that’s been their reality.
Their undefeated reign in the FIBA 3x3 Olympic Qualifying tournament occurred during the WNBA season, forcing them to miss several games. While Dolson was on Team USA duty, Chicago lost five consecutive games between May 19 and June 1.
However, Dolson said the U.S.’s four-person team of WNBA stars gained the experience it needed to compete in this different, international game.
“It's so specific,” Dolson said. “It's knowing the strategy that goes into 3x3 and knowing what works. For us, that tournament was so key because we've never played international 3x3. So now we have more of an idea of what we'll see and train and focus more on specific things we know will work.”
Fortunately for the USA 3x3 team, it has Kara Lawson to guide it along the way. The 2008 Olympic gold medalist has served as the USA 3x3 women’s coach/advisor since 2017, and if there’s anyone Dolson is getting tips from, it’s Lawson, the current Duke women’s basketball head coach.
Said Dolson: “She's been around 3x3 the most when it comes to coaching and how to go about it.”
Before they focused on strategy, the training had to be top notch as well.
“It’s (training) more about fitness. We played against guys from Trinity College. … We were playing against these guys who were so fast and so strong and really skilled, and we would still sort of beat them. So we knew we were training the right way,” Dolson said. “Kara would have us play four or five minutes straight so that we knew our fitness would be better than other peoples as well. I think that was the most important part, making sure that the fitness level was different because it’s such a faster pace game than 5x5.”
So, other than pace, what’s so different about 3x3 basketball?
Well, 3x3 is played with a 10-minute game clock, 12-second shot clock and half court only. A shot within the arc is worth one point, while made baskets beyond the arc are worth two points. The winner is decided by the first team to 21 or the team leading by the end of regulation. There are three players on the court at all times with one substitute. Lastly, no coaches are allowed during the game.
It’s not extremely complicated, but for players who have played one way competitively for most of their lives, it takes time to get acclimated. However, Dolson says one thing she can always rely on — despite skill, strength or rules — is her basketball IQ.
“I can use my size when I know I have an advantage, but the minute I don't, I'm able to pass and I have three really good guards who can cut and screen and move around me so that I can get them the ball,” Dolson said. “So it's just using those things that I'm good at. Also, screening. We had a few games in Austria when I set a hard screen (and) they couldn't guard it.”
The USA 3x3 team will join seven other qualified teams in Tokyo — China, Mongolia, Romania and Russia (which qualified in November 2019), France and Japan (May 2021 qualifier with the U.S.) and Italy (which qualified on June 6).