They may not be Denver Nuggets, but these Colorado athletes are competing for basketball glory outside the NBA

Listen Now
2min 16sec
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Marquis Cunningham of the Suicide Squad leaps up for a basket against Team Omaha in Hoop It Up’s three-on-three basketball national championship at Aurora’s FieldhouseUSA. Nov. 4, 2023.

Ty McGee has been a basketball star everywhere he’s played.

The 6-foot-5 inch player grew up in Littleton. He was Jeffco Male Athlete of the Year and a Colorado High School Activities Association  second-team All-State selection at D’Evelyn High School. McGee went on to shine at Colorado Christian University for three years and Regis University for his senior year. During that time, he racked up several Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference honors.

McGee has been playing basketball for a long time, and when the defunct — now resurrected Slamball — restarted, he was named offensive player of the year. Now, his new challenge is 3X3 basketball. He and a group of former RMAC players participated in the Hoop It Up 3X3 National Championships recently in Aurora. 

“I love these rules. I love the pace of the game. It's a lot quicker, so a lot more space to work,” McGee said between games. “That first game back is definitely always shell-shocking how quick it moves, but once you get that flow, there's nothing wrong with it. I love it and it's going well.”

His team was one of five local teams trying to qualify for the Pro-Am portion of the event. Teams of all ages from all over the world traveled to FieldhouseUSA in the city. And all the Pro-Am teams shared one goal … win and you got an all-expenses paid trip to compete in the FIBA World 3X3 Quest event in Hong Kong later this month.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Ty McGee stands amid games in Hoop It Up's three-on-three basketball national championship at Aurora's FieldhouseUSA. Nov. 4, 2023.

Every player with hoops dreams of playing against Nikola Jokic and Candace Parker or winning Olympic gold — but not many make it to that level. For them, the sport has given lifelong hoopsters a new path to showcase their skills on the international stage.

Klaye Rowe and his Omaha team are one of the best in the world. A former first-team JUCO All-American at Iowa Central Community College, Rowe played for NAIA Bellevue University and has helped this 3X3 team to a top 15 world ranking. They’ve been competing across the world over the last months. Rowe called the schedule grueling.

“We went to Shanghai Masters. We placed fourth there. Then, we played in Chengdu. I think we finished fifth,” Rowe said. “I flew back, I played only one tournament last weekend. We were in Abu Dhabi and we came home and now we're here.”

The Omaha team won the last two national championships. If you describe the roster, you wouldn’t think they are one of the best teams in the world.

“We're different. We've got a teacher on the team. I personally do foster care myself, so I have to have a good nucleus of family and support in order for us to do this,” Rowe said.

“You get a few days in there, you're in and you're out because you got to get back to your responsibilities. I got a family, I got kids to take care of, stuff like that. But once you get to that top level, you can actually really make some decent money on the weekend just playing in these tournaments.”

The Hoop It Up tournament is part of the FIBA World Tour. The prize money for winning the world tour is over $1.5 million for the winning team.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Brannon Hopkins of team Omaha drives the ball during Hoop It Up's three-on-three basketball national championship at Aurora's FieldhouseUSA. Nov. 4, 2023.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Carlos Nichols (left) and Tim Mitchell try to block a dunk during Hoop It Up's three-on-three basketball national championship at Aurora's FieldhouseUSA. Nov. 4, 2023.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Alice (9) of Arvada's B&B Basketball Academy avoids Joaquin (10) of Erie's Young Basketball during Hoop It Up's three-on-three basketball national championship at Aurora's FieldhouseUSA. Nov. 4, 2023.

Hoop It Up and 3X3’s Beginnings 

During the tournament, Dan Cramer moved from court to court to check on players, referees, and other things to keep the event running smoothly. Cramer played his ball at Lakewood High School. He continued his career at the University of Denver and once held the school’s single-game scoring record of 50 points — scored against the University of Southern Mississippi. 

After trying out for the Denver Nuggets, Cramer spent 10 years playing overseas in Europe. Through his father, he was eligible to play for the Netherlands Men's National Basketball Team. He did, and now Cramer is a member of the Dutch Basketball Hall of Fame.   

Hoop It Up was founded in 1989. It is one of the largest 3X3 basketball tours in the world. The organization was bought by Basketball Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett’s company Big Ticket Sports in 2019. Cramer is executive vice president with the company and national director of the Hoop 3X3 National Championships.

“We partnered with the NBA, and we've had cycles where basketball has been up and down, but now it's now called 3X3. It used to be called 3-on-3,” Cramer said. “I helped write the rules for the games because of my experience with Hoop It Up and all the 3-on-3 that I did. And, also I knew a lot of those people from my days of playing internationally in Europe.

The sport has long been played on the court recreationally, and there are some differences to traditional basketball. FIBA rules stipulate teams are made of four players that take turns playing each game. Compared to five-on-five basketball, the ball is the size women use to play, but is weighted like a men’s ball. There’s a 12-second shot clock. Shots count one and two points instead of the usual two and three. And the game lasts just 10 minutes. The first team to score 21 points before time runs out wins. 

The popularity of 3X3 basketball has grown rapidly, and globally, over the last decade. There’s the Spokane Hoopfest in Washington State. Professionally, rapper and actor Ice Cube founded the Big3, which is not affiliated with FIBA. 

FIBA held its first 3X3 event at the 2010 Youth Olympic Games in Singapore. The FIBA World World Cup featuring national teams was held in 2011 in Italy. It officially became an Olympic sport in 2017 and was included in the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Sam (10) of Erie's Young Basketball drives the ball past players with Arvada's B&B Basketball Academy during Hoop It Up's three-on-three basketball national championship at Aurora's FieldhouseUSA. Nov. 4, 2023.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Team Omaha and the Suicide Squad compete in Hoop It Up's three-on-three basketball national championship at Aurora's FieldhouseUSA. Nov. 4, 2023.

The Future

If the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens showed how the rest of the world has caught up with the USA in basketball, the qualification for the 2020 3X3 Olympic qualifying tournament punctuated it: Team USA’s men lost to the Netherlands in the quarterfinals and failed to qualify for a basketball event for the first time in Olympics history.

“If you look at the top players in the NBA, probably five of the top eight players are international players. They’re not USA players. So the game is definitely international,” Cramer said. “And what 3X3 allows is a country that doesn't have the depth that other countries do, but has four very good players, and they can compete.”

Team USA men’s team will be the 3X3-version of a “Redeem Team” after they qualified for the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris. The team has strong Colorado ties, counting former Cheyenne Mountain High School star Canyon Barry, former Colorado Public Radio employee Kareem Maddox, and former College National Player of the Year Jimmer Ferdette — who lives in Highlands Ranch, among its players.

The women’s team won the gold medal in Tokyo. They will look to repeat next summer. Cramer hopes the women’s game will grow even more. One of the local teams is Walking Buckets. It features Texas native and former DU player Anna Jackson and former Ralston Valley High School star Chloe Gullach. They both believe that more advertising could help the women’s game grow.

“Having events like this, getting people out and communicating, word of mouth,” Jackson said. “I think that's kind of what it takes, (and) just creating the league so people will come.”

As for the tournament, the Omaha team became three-time national champions and will compete in the Hong Kong event later this month. Cramer is heading to New York for a Hoop It Up event hosted in tandem with the New York Knicks this weekend. He says the sport is here to stay: Hoop It Up plans to start its own professional league in the near future.