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U.S. women take gold in three-on-three basketball, which at times felt more like a carnival

From left: Stefanie Dolson, Jacquelyn Young, Kelsey Plum and Allisha Gray helped Team USA win the first three-on-three basketball gold medal. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

TOKYO — Behind a chain-link fence, the members of the first team to win an Olympic gold medal in women’s three-on-three basketball lined up late Wednesday night. It was time for the medal ceremony, and the four players from the U.S. team gathered as a group for one last time in this oddest event they had come to love.

Behind them, in a makeshift arena with a circus tent for a sunshade, the scoreboard still said they had beaten the team playing under the name of the Russian Olympic Committee, 18-15. There were people around them. Olympic volunteers, officials, other teams. In the faint light it was hard to tell. In an Olympics governed closely by rules and restrictions, three-on-three seemed the one place where chaos ruled.

But there was one figure who was impossible to miss: the head of China’s basketball federation, who loomed tall in the dimness. America’s biggest player, Stefanie Dolson, left her teammates to take a picture with him.

“Yao Ming,” the giant man said, introducing himself.

Dolson laughed. As if she didn’t know.

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They made quite a sight standing together in the frenzy, the two tallest figures posing for a photo while surrounded by people with dubious credentials, the 6-foot-5 Dolson’s head barely reaching Ming’s armpit. And yet somehow it all seemed to fit in the carnival of a sport that had become a hit in its Olympics debut. The 10-minute game that just finished had felt like pickup hoops at the beach, with Super Mario sound effects and “California Love” shaking from the speakers during the critical late seconds.

In many ways, Dolson had carried the U.S. team on Wednesday night. The ROC players had been physical, twice knocking American players out of bounds, trying to mitigate the United States’ quickness. Dolson was the one who had to fight a big ROC lineup, blocking shots, getting rebounds and scoring seven points.

“She’s very hard to defend,” Coach Kara Lawson said, standing a few feet from Dolson, who thanked Yao with praying hands and a deep bow. “She forces teams to foul.”

Fouls are critical in three-on-three basketball. While they aren’t called frequently because referees tend to let a lot of things go, they do hurt a team when called. Six fouls put a team into the bonus, and nine make every subsequent foul a technical. Dolson quickly got the ROC into the penalty and helped put the game away with ROC’s 10th foul late.

For a second, it had looked as if the ROC would make a frantic comeback in a game it had trailed throughout. But Dolson, the former Washington Mystics and current Chicago Sky player whose three-on-three nickname is “Big Mama Stef,” squelched the late run with two rebounds and a free throw in the final 35 seconds.

After that came the celebration. The shout in unison at the buzzer, the group hug, the cries of “Kara!” while looking into the stands for Lawson because three-on-three rules say coaches can’t be near the court. They retreated to the open tent that served as a sort of locker room behind Aomi Urban Sports Park until they were walked into the chain link pen where Yao and it seemed dozens of others stood.

The week had been a sort of life-changing experience for them, three-on-three being a strange but beautiful break from their lives in the WNBA. There had been only a few weeks of practice, and after another player, Katie Lou Samuelson, wasn’t able to play in the tournament because she was in coronavirus safety protocols, Las Vegas Aces guard Jackie Young joined late. Really late.

In fact, Young was on vacation in Florida 10 days ago when she received a frantic late-night phone call asking whether she could replace Samuelson. Two days later, she was on her way to Japan. Once here with Dolson, Kelsey Plum (who also plays for the Aces) and Allisha Gray (Dallas Wings), the four formed a quick bond, tearing through the tournament with a meaningless loss to Japan as their lone defeat. It became the time of their lives.

“I would say [winning Olympic gold] ranks very high,” Dolson later said.

They smiled as they walked back into the arena for the medal ceremony, stepping onto a platform laid across the free throw line, staring at the American flag rising in the corner.

“I got goosebumps,” Dolson said.

She and the other three watched the flag slowly rise, listening to an American anthem that a couple of years ago they couldn’t have imagined being played for them at an event like this — an Olympic tournament that was more like a traveling show played under its own big top. When the medals were presented, Dolson jumped off the platform, grabbed the medals and draped one around each of her teammates’ necks.

“I’m the tallest,” she said, “and so we figured I would be the one to do it for all of us.”

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