Three's the magic number for Yi

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Guangdong Southern Tigers goliath Yi Jianlian could compete at his fifth Olympics as part of China's 3x3 team. [Photo/Xinhua]

With China needing a miracle to qualify for the regular Olympic basketball tournament, Yi Jianlian is being tipped to take a more realistic shot at the Games-in the 3x3 discipline.

The failure to secure Asia's only direct berth to the Tokyo Olympics at the FIBA World Cup earlier this year looked to have ended the veteran forward's dream of competing at a record fifth Games.

However, recent comments from a Chinese Basketball Association official suggest the former NBA player might suit up in Tokyo after all, as part of 3x3's Olympic debut.

"If he has the interest and wants it to happen, it's technically possible that we recruit him on the national roster," Chai Wensheng, director of the CBA's 3x3 department, told at a recent event in Shanghai to announce the national team's new sponsor.

"We definitely would love to have a player like Yi, whose level is without question.

"But he needs at least two months to adapt to the 3x3 game, given the difference in rules and the faster pace of the discipline. It's a big challenge."

FIBA rules permit each participating nation to register a maximum of two players without 3x3 rankings on its four-member Olympics roster, opening the door for the likes of Yi to make the shift, said Chai.

Both China's men's and women's 3x3 national teams have qualified for the eight-squad Olympic tournaments in Tokyo directly through the FIBA rankings, which are calculated by totaling players' individual ranking points gained at FIBA-sanctioned events.

China's five-a-side team is on the brink of missing out on the Olympics for the first time since 1984 after it failed to advance to the second group stage at the home World Cup in September, losing the sole Tokyo qualification ticket to Iran.

Now China has to defy long odds against a number of global heavyweights, such as Greece, Lithuania and Canada, in a 24-team qualifying tournament next June for the remaining four tickets, which will be awarded to each of the six-team group winners.

Yi, who is now competing with the Guangdong Southern Tigers for a 10th league title in the 2019-20 CBA season, has yet to respond to the potential 3x3 call-up.

However, his interest in helping grow the smaller, faster and younger 'streetball' version of the game is clear.

The 32-year-old former NBA player's annual youth training program has featured 3x3 tournaments since 2011, while he has often voiced his support for the discipline.

"The 3x3 game has always been popular at the grassroots level. The increasing number of teams signing up for the national tournament is proof of its growing participation rates. Its Olympic inclusion will for sure draw greater attention," Yi said during the 2018 CBA 3x3 League finals.

The national league's 2019 3x3 season reached out to 300 cities across the country, involving over 100,000 players in two age groups, for both men and women, before concluding with the national finals in July.

Aimed at making the Games more appealing to young people, the International Olympic Committee voted in June 2017 to add the 3x3 game to the Olympic program, starting with the Tokyo 2020 edition.

Each 3x3 game lasts a maximum of 10 minutes (21 points is the winning threshold for a team), with a 12-second shot clock. It is played with no halftime, quarters nor timeouts, and is typically accompanied by non-stop pop music.

The accessible nature of the high-energy discipline, which can be staged at shopping malls, city squares and landmarks, helps bring basketball more directly to the public, according to Chai.

"For us the goal is to compete for a podium finish at the Olympics to further boost the discipline's popularity in the future," said Chai, a former team manager of the country's 5x5 national squad.

Considered more of a fun sport than regular basketball, 3x3 saw its profile significantly enhanced in the world's most populous nation after the Chinese women's squad won the inaugural FIBA 3x3 World Cup, beating Hungary 19-13 in the final in Amsterdam in June.

The historic triumph was the first major international basketball title won by any Chinese team.

"China has been a pioneer when it comes to 3x3 development and a very successful one too," FIBA executive director David Crocker said at this year's 3x3 Asia Cup in Changsha, Hunan province.

"In both the grassroots community and elite level, China has put in tremendous effort to make it happen. We have no doubt that, in the long term, China will constantly be a strong force for development, and also a regular medal winner on the global stage."

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