How Mongolia became a 3×3 basketball powerhouse

The Mongolian national 3×3 basketball team players celebrating a win at the FIBA 2023 Asia Cup. Screenshot from the video “Mongolia | Asia Cup  Winners Mixtape | FIBA 3×3 Asia Cup 2023″ from FIBA3X3‘s YouTube channel. Fair use.

At the FIBA 3×3 Basketball Asian Cup held in Singapore from March 27 to 31, Mongolia recorded its best tournament results, with the men’s and women’s national teams winning bronze medals. These feats helped Mongolia cement its position as one of Asia’s basketball powerhouses. According to the International Basketball Federation, the country is ranked 9th globally and 2nd in Asia.

Mongolia's national teams’ unprecedented historic run in the last seven years in 3×3 basketball have helped it climb so high up the rankings. This version of the game is similar to and yet different from regular 5×5 basketball. The differences include playing on half-sized courts with one backboard, teams consisting of three players, and games lasting ten minutes. FIBA started promoting it as a stand-alone sport globally in the 2000s, and the sport debuted at the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics.

Here is a YouTube video that explains 3×3 basketball.

At the 2020 Olympics, Mongolia’s women’s national 3×3 team created history by participating in the first-ever team sports competition. Prior to it, they won the FIBA 3×3 Asian Cup in 2019. Since then, they have won two silver and one bronze Asia Cup medals. The men’s national 3×3 team’s accomplishments are equally impressive. Between 2017 and 2023, they have won two gold and two silver medals at the FIBA Asian Cup tournaments, turning basketball into one of the most popular sports in the country.

Here are the highlights from the 2017 FIBA 3×3 Asia Cup final game, when Mongolia won the tournament for the first time.

The start of the rise of basketball’s popularity in Mongolia coincided with the country’s transition to democracy and a free market economy in the early 1990s. In that time period, Mongolians were exposed to foreign cultures, including basketball, which reached unprecedented global fame with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls dominating the NBA and the US men’s national team, dubbed as “Dream Team”, winning gold at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona.

Of all the modern team sports introduced to Mongolians, basketball was the one that stuck and managed to reach the status of a national sport. A big reason for it is that basketball is primarily an indoor sport, which is crucial given the country’s harsh and cold climate that makes it impossible to play outside for at least six months in a year.

An even bigger reason for the growth of basketball has been investments made by businesses. Mongolia’s mining boom in the 2010s saw the country make a significant economic jump, in the process of which major mining companies amassed immense wealth and started sponsoring local basketball teams, which helped them bring in foreign coaches and players, build infrastructure, and organize tournaments.

The day when the first Mongolian player enters the NBA seems close. In 2023, the country's top player Enkhiin-Od Sharavjamts, widely known as Mongolian Mike at home, received a prestigious D-1 athletic scholarship to attend a university in the US, where he is working towards being drafted by an NBA team.

Here is a YouTube video about Mongolian Mike.

The national teams’ success in basketball has broken the popular belief that Mongolians can only excel in individual sports. There may be some truth to the belief since all of Mongolia’s 30 Olympic medals have come in judo, boxing, wrestling, and shooting. In this regard, the 3×3 basketball is a good compromise since it is a team sport with a format and rules that involve fewer players and promote individual play.

Basketball is not the first foreign sport conquered by Mongolian athletes. Japanese sumo has been dominated by Mongolian wrestlers since the early 2000s. With more interest and resources poured into it, one can be certain that more glory awaits Mongolia on the global basketball stage.

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