3X3U National Championship Puts a College Spin on Three-on-Three

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Photo Credit: Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

Paris Collins was reeling after a disappointing early exit from the Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament last March. It was an unceremonious end to the career of the senior guard from Jackson State, and he wanted nothing to do with anyone. But as he wallowed in his apartment, his phone rang. A strange number flashed on the screen. He didn’t answer, but a voicemail dinged.

It was Intersport Vice President Mark Starsiak, who called to invite Collins to be part of the inaugural Dos Equis 3X3U National Championship, a three-on-three basketball tournament for college seniors. Collins accepted and, following several standout performances on the court in his hometown of San Antonio, he was invited to five NBA workouts. He ultimately bounced around the NBA G-League before ending up in Mexico.

“It changed my life,” Collins said. “A lot of people saw me, saw the SWAC has good players.  That tournament is the only time in my life I wasn’t judged by the school on my chest.”

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Now the tournament is back, with the second-annual 3X3U National Championship beginning Friday at the Mall of America in Minneapolis featuring a grand prize of $150,000. With one year in the books, Intersport believes they are much better prepared to organize the best event possible, something that should have a direct impact on the players’ futures.  Of the 128 players in last year’s 3X3U National Championship field, nearly 90 signed professional contracts this past year. This year, the rosters might be even more loaded with potential pros.

“One of the things we learned last year was [to] get ahead of it,” Intersport Executive Vice President Drew Russell said. “Especially for the small conferences trying to get as much exposure as possible. Last year we couldn’t get in touch [with players] or they made spring break plans. These are guys that have been in programs for four years, and if they have a taste of freedom, they’re gone.

“Last year, we had to go deeper into rosters. This year, we got pick of the litter.”

Case in point, prior to the Sweet 16 games in the NCAA Tournament, Starsiak had already filled all but 11 of 128 roster spots in this year’s event, with each Division I conference represented by a team of four seniors. At the same point last year, he didn’t even have 40 in place. As they picked through teams no longer in the postseason, Starsiak said plenty of all-conference players have signed on hoping for one more pre-draft showcase. Likewise, conferences were eager to help connect the best players to the event.

“The more chances they have to get their players and conferences exposure is a good thing,” Starsiak said. “The conferences have really embraced it.”

With the conferences on board and the players being willing to vouch for the tournament, Russell expects the event to continue growing beyond this year. Along with pathways to the NBA and other leagues, Russell believes three-on-three is a growing career path for basketball players, one accelerated by the sport’s inclusion in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games as well as Ice Cube’s BIG3.

“We feel this is the top-level, premier event in the world but definitely in North America,” Russell said. “When we created this, we didn’t want to use gym rats. We wanted elite level basketball players that would go on to continue playing basketball. We wanted to give them one last time to put on the jersey, compete at a high level and have fun.”

The professional ranks have taken notice, too. According to Starsiak, five NBA teams had a scouting presence at last year’s tournament even without the league reaching out to NBA staffs. This year, to better drum up interest, Intersport sent a one-sheeter to the NBA’s director of scouting, who then passed it on to each team.

“It should bring in way more than five,” Starsiak said. “It’s the biggest aggregation of draft-eligible talent. Guys who are scouting [the Final Four] will also be at our event, full of late-first- to second-round talent that could eventually change a franchise.”

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For the seniors at the tournament in Minneapolis, it’s one last opportunity to wear a college jersey as well as one extra job audition. But after going through the process himself, Collins’ advice to this year’s crop would be to make sure to have a good time, too. 

“I was happy as heck to be there,” Collins said. “It’s a national tournament, still business talking to reporters, teams and people about what you do. But have fun, be grateful.”

Collins hasn’t stuck with an NBA team, but he’s had more opportunities than he ever thought would. He’s off to China in May for his next professional venture. By this time next year, he could run into another alumnus or two from the Dos Equis 3X3U National Championship along the way.