They packed a gym in Southeast Washington, dozens of basketball players from all over the planet who brought with them the spirit of pro ballers even if their skills and their game were a miniature version of the NBA’s.
It was three-on-three hoops Saturday in an international tournament at the Barry Farm Recreation Center: two half-court games at a time, and eight minutes a game or 21 points, whichever came first.
Hip-hop thumped, an emcee provided play-by-play, and the finals brackets read like the Olympics: 14 nations, including Canada, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, South Africa, Russia and the United States, to name a few. If you felt like it, you could get a trim in the barber’s chair set up for free haircuts at half court. You could scream at the referee until the ref yelled back. A U.S. team from Minnesota walked away the winners with an $8,000 purse.
For the second consecutive year, the District hosted the Red Bull Reign World Finals in a Southeast neighborhood whose courts and summer league are renowned for street-ball legends and dreamers, college standouts and even the occasional Wizard.
Red Bull also put on a U.S.-only women’s finals competition, its first. The Maryland Jewels, representing the Washington-metro area, beat out Atlanta, Philadelphia and New York.
More than 2,500 athletes — men and women — took part.
“Oh, it’s exciting for us,” said Fikret Shatri, a player on Kosovo’s team. At 6-foot-5 and 44 years old, Shatri said he was playing out a dream. Not only did he make it to the finals, he was visiting the United States for the first time, still thankful for its intervention in the Balkan crisis more than two decades ago. “We love the United States. We have a different country because of the United States,” he said.
Way on the other side of the gym, Mia Ou cheered for Taiwan, the land of her birth. Ou, an MBA candidate at George Washington University, said she also came out to support her best friend’s best friend, who was on the Taiwanese team.
“So I had to be here to cheer for him, and for Taiwan, of course,” Ou said. She said she loved the way the tournament brought together such a diverse group and how they all seemed to be getting along.
“There’s a lot of positivity around the basketball,” said Antonio Thomas, 36, viewing the action from courtside as a barber trimmed his beard. “Just that ball creates a lot of positivity — it creates a life.”
Thomas, a D.C. resident who drives a truck, said he was a kid when the legendary George Goodman Basketball League formed, further establishing basketball as a way up or out, or at least a way to stay busy.
“It keeps the kids off the street,” said Antonio Prince, a barber who returned to his childhood home to volunteer his time with the clippers. Prince, 47, who lives in Hyattsville, Md., said that without organized basketball, there were plenty of things to lead kids astray.
“You got people who are selling drugs, who can rob you, kill you — all the negativity. It keeps them away from that,” he said.
The three-on-three tournament showcased the sort of pickup game that can be found almost anywhere there’s a hoop, while the various nationalities showcased different styles of play. The Russian team — featuring 7-foot-2 Nikolay Rogozkin — tended to stake out a perimeter of giants around the basket while the Canadian team ran a pass-and-maneuver attack.
No matter the nationality, several players appeared well past their prime, and a few seemed built more for first base than power forward.
Akiah Luceus, 26, whose New York team finished fourth on Friday, said she saw tournaments like these as a way to maybe reach the pros. Meanwhile, as sneakers squeaked and scuffed, and bodies ran and bodies fell (sometimes in Academy Award-worthy performances intended to draw a foul), she screamed herself hoarse — first at the players, then at a referee.
“You get to experience the world in one small weekend,” she said.