If Ira Brown ever entertained Olympic dreams as a kid growing up in Texas, it’s all but certain this isn’t what he had in mind. When he was drafted as a pitcher by the Kansas City Royals in 2001, maybe, just maybe, he might have had what it took to play baseball for Team USA at the Games.
Fast forward 20 years and Brown, who will turn 39 on Aug. 3, is indeed competing at the Olympic Games in Tokyo.
In 3x3 basketball.
"When I was younger, basketball was definitely not in the cards," said Brown, a member of the four-man squad representing Japan as 3x3 basketball makes its Summer Games debut. "I'm here now so it's a blessing. But for sure I would have never thought it in my whole entire life."
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Brown was drafted in the eighth round of the 2001 draft (235th overall) and spent five seasons bouncing around several cities and teams. His baseball journey reads like a minor league travelogue: Davenport, Fla., Spokane, Wash., Surprise, Ariz., Shreveport, La. Burlington, Vt.
“I wanted to be someone that was goal-oriented and set a five-year goal to make it to the majors,” he said in a 2017 article on FIBA.com. “If I didn't do it, then go back to school and get a degree and play basketball."
That’s just what he did.
His five years up, and nursing an elbow injury, Brown ended his baseball career while play for an independent team in Edmonton, Alberta. He played in 84 games over five seasons, compiling a 16-18 record, eight saves, and a 4.49 ERA, according to baseball-reference.com.
So, the chiseled 6-foot-4 turned to basketball. He played two years of junior college in Phoenix before returning to Spokane to play for coach Mark Few at Gonzaga University. From there came stints in the NBA development league and eventually pro ball in Japan, where he married and became a Japanese citizen.
"I'm Japanese. I live here," Brown said. "I'm honored to be able to play with these guys and play it on an Olympic stage."
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Brown still plays traditional five-on-five basketball for the Osaka Evessa team but he sees huge potential in the faster, more compact 3x3 version, which he has played on the international circuit.
The game is played on a half court with three players on each side. A team wins by reaching 21 points or having the most baskets at the end of 10 minutes. Courtside DJs play hip-hop music, in a nod to the sport's urban roots.
The sport's organizers say 3x3 exemplifies second chances, both for countries too small to support five-on-five leagues, and athletes who thrive on a half court. There are many players at the Games who, like Brown, are in their 30s and finally getting a chance to shine on a global stage.
The Japanese men have struggled to find a groove in the Games. But Brown has fired up the pandemic-limited crowds with a tournament-leading five dunks.
"Dunking is what I love to do," Brown said. "I love to get the fans excited for it, to be a part of the game. And it energizes a building and energizes me."
Information from Reuters was used in this report.