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How four Nebraskans are turning heads on the national stage of a rising sport: 3-on-3 basketball


By Clark Grell

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    LINCOLN, Nebraska (Lincoln Journal Star) — The 16-team field had squads from places where basketball roots run deep under hundreds of street courts.

New York. Chicago. Los Angeles. Washington, D.C. The Bronx.

Those cities formed many of the country’s top 3-on-3 basketball teams. They were big, fast, young and very skilled.

Four players from Nebraska wanted to prove they can ball, too. And when Trey Bardsley, who grew up in Beatrice, drove around a defender and swished a running right-handed floater in the final of the 3X national championship tournament, it not only clinched the players’ biggest victory together, it dispensed pride.

“That was unreal,” said Bardsley, who was named the tournament MVP. “That was our goal for the past year and a half roughly — we were excited for the national tournament, so finally to get that to go in and then realize that we won it, it was incredible.”

Bardsley, Steffon Bradford, Klaye Rowe and Dylan Travis make up the team of 3BALL Omaha, which won the national championship on June 13 in Springfield, Massachusetts. A 21-20 victory over top-ranked Harlem in the final solidified a No. 1 national ranking for the Nebraska squad, and has it on the cusp of going on a world tour where the prize money can add up.

“It was a very big moment because when we first went in, people definitely doubted us,” said Bradford, who played college ball at Nebraska. “Being out of Nebraska … you know how that goes. You have New York teams in there and they’ve been on the circuit for so long … so when it comes to Nebraska, they look down on us.

“Beating them, it felt amazing.”

So how did a group of four players from Nebraska with different playing backgrounds quickly become one of the country’s top 3-on-3 units?

The sharpshooting Bardsley points to team chemistry.

Bradford, a 6-foot-6, 240-pound force in the middle, puts it another way: “Four cerebral players that play the game and have a high basketball IQ.”

Bardsley, of course, was making headlines more than five years ago when he scored 30 points or more 15 times as a senior with Nebraska Wesleyan. That included a school-record 55 points in one game. He was the NCAA Division III player of the year.

The 36-year-old Rowe, a Papillion-La Vista graduate, played at Bellevue University from 2006-08, and was an NAIA All-American. Travis, a 2012 Omaha Gross graduate, concluded his college career at Florida Southern.

Bradford’s basketball credentials run a bit deeper. He played two seasons (1999-2001) for the Huskers before embarking on a 19-year pro career overseas.

They were brought together by Michael Wranovics of 3BallUSA. He reached out to Bardsley a couple of years ago. The Beatrice graduate, who was just about to wrap up his playing days with the Washington Generals, never heard of competitive 3-on-3 hoops, but he gave it a try.

“After the first tournament, it got me hooked,” Bardsley said. “I wanted to keep doing it.”

Bradford, meanwhile, was back from overseas when Wranovics approached him. No way, some thought, that a former Husker who found success playing internationally would go around the country for 3-on-3 tournaments.

“But 3-on-3 is something that I’ve been playing since I was a kid,” said Bradford, who coaches boys basketball at Brownell Talbot High School. “I love how physical it is. I love how intense it is and I love how fast it is.”

The games are played at a frantic pace. The shot clock is set at 12 seconds, and when a basket — 1s and 2s — is made or missed, the opposing team quickly takes the ball to the top of the key. The first team to 21 points wins.

“You got to be in really good shape and you still get pretty tired,” Bardsley said.

Said Bradford, “The hardest part is having that basketball IQ firing at all cylinders in 12 seconds. In 12 seconds you got to think if you’re going to shoot, or get your teammate involved, or position yourself to score, or to rebound.”

Bardsley, Bradford, Rowe and Travis are playing a game that is growing. This year’s Summer Olympics in Tokyo will feature 3-on-3 basketball for the first time. Team USA qualified a women’s team but failed to get a men’s team in.

That isn’t derailing the sport’s momentum.

“It’s really exploding like a time bomb,” Bradford said. “We’re (the United States) just catching up. That’s why the European teams are better than the USA teams is because they’ve been doing it for so long. They have thousands and thousands of fans just gathering around watching. It was huge in France.”

Now it’s a huge part for four guys from Nebraska who get to stretch their basketball careers a bit longer.

“I’m going to keep playing as long as I can,” said Bardsley, who is working toward his master’s degree and plans to teach and coach.

Bradford, 42, doesn’t see himself slowing down anytime soon either. He promised his young daughter that he’d step away from his professional career as she began to grow up. Three-on-three basketball has extended his competitive fire.

“I said I’ll stop playing when I think someone can guard me,” Bradford said. “When I feel someone can guard me and I’m not doing what I need to do, I’ll stop. Other than that, I haven’t found a beep that can guard me yet, so I’m going to keep playing.”

3BALL Omaha is waiting for an official invitation to go on a world tour, and there is hope it can make a run at the 2024 Olympics. In the meantime, the summer will remain busy.

Bardsley said the team will compete in about 10 tournaments on the Red Bull tour over the next three months, including stops in Chicago and Raleigh, North Carolina. They’ll play in a FIBA international tournament, too.

The court is much smaller. The rosters are, too. But 3BALL Omaha is living large and remains hungry to prove that a foursome from Nebraska can compete with anyone.

“It’s been a blast,” Bardsley said. “My teammates are great, love playing with them. Winning always helps a little bit, too.”

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