Kareem Maddox’s path back to the court

Kareem Maddox of the United States plays in the semi-final against Poland at the 2019 FIBA 3x3 Basketball World Cup
Kareem Maddox of the United States plays in the semi-final against Poland at the 2019 FIBA 3x3 Basketball World Cup

After almost giving up basketball, the United States 3x3 player re-ignited his passion and is aiming to achieve a life-long dream.

It was 1 August 1996.

And silence fell over the Centennial Olympic Stadium as Michael Johnson readied himself for the final of the men’s 200m at the Atlanta 1996 Games. As the starting gun went, the crowd roared to life as the American sprinter crossed the finish line in world record time and became the first man to win the 200m/400m double.

Sitting in the 83,000 strong crowd during that history-making moment was a six-year-old Kareem Maddox alongside his father, cousin, and friends.

Golden Johnson's 200M Sprint Victory in Atlanta 1996

A unique athlete with unique style, Michael Johnson laces up his golden shoes to break the Olympic world record in the 200m at Atlanta 1996.

That night sparked the dream of wanting to go to the Olympic Games for the now United States 3x3 basketball team member.

“The thing that I always want to emphasise in my experience of going to the Games, the reason I tried to make it every summer, is just the environment,” Maddox told Tokyo 2020. “I remember the race, it was kind of a runaway race. Michael Johnson came out of the curve, just kind of blew them out of the water and [just] hearing the silence right before the race starts.

“I think what stuck with me was gradually [the cheering] gets louder and louder than the time flashes — it’s 19.32 seconds — people were just going crazy because they realised, they had witnessed history. I think that's probably the feeling that stuck with me more than the other actual feat.”

Maddox, who was part of the United States team that won gold at the 2019 FIBA 3x3 World Cup, is now on the verge of fulfilling his dream of becoming an Olympian.

The United States are preparing to compete at the 2021 FIBA 3x3 Olympic Qualifying Tournament next month. It’s one of the last chances for 3x3 teams to book their ticket to Tokyo 2020, which will be the first time the discipline debuts on the Olympic sport programme.

“I think we're going to do our best to go. It would mean a lot. I feel like my basketball career, from a personal standpoint, was very interesting,” said Maddox, who took three years away from the sport after playing abroad.

“I just feel like maybe [there's] something about being like a late bloomer and finding my confidence in the sport a little bit later than a lot of players do.

“I've never thought I'd have the chance to do it in the sport I've been playing my entire life and just at the time when I found out what it means to love the sport and to want to be really good at it,” he said before adding: “I think that the reason that I love the Olympics so much is because it's a place that brings the whole world together and that's really special.”

Playing ball at gym re-ignites spark

After graduating from Princeton, where Maddox was a senior co-captain during their Championship winning 2010-11 NCAA Division I that season, the then 21-year-old spent almost two years abroad playing in the Netherlands before a season in England but in 2013, he decided he was finished with basketball.

“I actually was a little bit misguided in what I thought [how] the rest of my life was kind of going to look like. I had a lot of friends that were in the finance industry or were going to get like starting graduate degrees of some sort,” the now 31-year-old reflected.

“I came back and started kind of applying cold to those things, not knowing how the world works necessarily,” added Maddox, who ended up volunteering at his local National Public Radio (NPR) station.

Volunteering a couple times a week eventually turned into every day.

“After a couple of weeks, I was like, ‘I really think I can just show up every day and no one is going to say anything’ so I just basically started coming in every day and asking for more and more work. They were great and finally they said, ‘All right, you're here a little too much, we're going to pay you for some stuff’.”

Maddox, who has a clear passion for radio and audio storytelling, produced short interviews for the national show he interned on before becoming host of a show called ‘All Things Considered’, which saw him behind the microphone from 2-7pm. With a later start to his day, he’d wake up and head to the gym next to the station in Greeley, Colorado but by the time the Californian native walked in mid-morning, there was rarely a soul in sight.

As a warm-up he would shoot some baskets before going on with the rest of his workout but eventually he never made it past the basketball court.

“I was like, ‘I think I can get better at this thing that I was never very good at when I was playing before’,” Maddox recalled.

“I approached basketball from such a different perspective. It was more casual; it was more fun. I was able to test the limits of what I thought that I could do. And I just fell in love with the game of basketball again and the idea that you can find these little skills and work on them then see improvement.

“That had got lost some point along where I kind of lost that love for it and maybe that's why I stopped playing in the first place.”

Along the way, Maddox found himself playing in the 2015 USA Basketball 3x3 National Championships in Colorado Springs with Ariel Slow & Steady finishing fourth.

For Maddox, the drive to return to basketball came with the realisation that he wasn’t at all finished – he wanted to play again and found himself in Poland, which is where he discovered that 3x3 basketball had been selected by the International Olympic Committee for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 sports programme.

“I was like, this is perfect. I'm going to move back home and work on this other career that I have, which turned into podcasting then try to make it [to the Olympics].”

The travelling podcaster

After moving back from the United States, in October 2017 he became a producer at Gimlet Media, which is owned by Spotify, for a show called 'The Pitch', which is a similar concept to the television show Shark Tank.

Around the same time his 3x3 side, Team Princeton, who had never played on the professional 3x3 circuit before, decided they wanted to get into the top 10 in the world for the FIBA 3x3 Team Ranking in 2018.

“I'm at work, like, ‘Hey guys this week, I'm going to take [some] days off. I'm going to go to China but don't worry about it, I'll be back Monday’,” Maddox recalled telling his colleagues.

Heading to Huai’an for a 3x3 Challenger event, which allows the best teams to qualify for World Tour Masters tournaments, Princeton would win their first-ever title on the 3x3 pro circuit. Not only that, they also secured a ticket to the Kuala Lumpur Masters, their third World Tour spot for the season.

Maddox even shared the MVP trophy for the tournament.

“We kind of had a nice little splash onto the World Tour and then from there, we started moving our way up and getting more and more tournaments and more often,” he said.

By June 2018, Princeton was the fastest growing team in the Top 30 for the past month climbing up 12 positions to 16th.

And as long as Maddox had his laptop, he wasn’t far from his job, editing on the go as he travelled around the world. Then in 2019, on top of 3x3 World Tour – Princeton would finish second overall – there was also the 3x3 World Cup and the Pan American Games, which saw the United States win gold.

While it wasn’t always easy to juggle a professional career with being an athlete – Maddox recalled days when he’d come straight off the plane, work the whole day but by the following day, he was falling asleep at his desk but he loved what he did.

“It wasn't even the right time zone, and but I was going to try to push through.”

However, last year the basketballer decided to quit his job with Gimlet Media to focus solely on his Olympic dream with Tokyo 2020 in sight. But with Tokyo 2020 now taking place in 2021 Maddox decided to get back into work, pitching a concept he had.

While not much can be revealed right now, the 3x3 player was excited about the project.

Kareem Maddox of Team Princeton during the FIBA 3x3 World Tour 2020 in Doha
Kareem Maddox of Team Princeton during the FIBA 3x3 World Tour 2020 in Doha

Joining the US basketball dynasty

When each player receives their USA basketball jersey, they always receive the same number. When Maddox played at the 2019 FIBA World Cup and then at the Pan American Games a few months later, he was given the same number for both tournaments.

His number: 9

“So from the Dream Team, Michael Jordan's number is nine. Nine also just happens to be my favourite number, like my birthday is on the 9th. And I didn't pick that number. It was just given to me. I mean, I just feel like there's a lot of special things happening around it,” Maddox said.

The United States have a long and successful history in Olympic Basketball winning a combined 23 of 28 gold medals on offer across the men’s and women’s tournaments. It’s a feat unmatched.

So with 3x3 being a new basketball discipline introduced at Tokyo 2020, the USA will surely be looking to continue their reign and see players make their mark in history.

And there is no doubt the world no. 2's could make their mark in Olympic 3x3 Basketball if they are able to qualify.

But for Maddox, a dream that started over two decades ago is within reach.

“Being able to stand next to guys like you're LeBron’s, who use their platform for positives for their entire careers, but to be captured within the same organisation and strive for the same goal, which is to get there and to make it to the medal stand is definitely something that has crossed my mind,” Maddox said.

“But step-by-step, we've got to get there first.”

Catch Maddox and the United States battle it out for one of the final three qualification spots at Tokyo 2020 at the 2021 FIBA 3x3 Olympic Qualifying Tournament between 26-30 May in Graz, Austria.

The Olympic 3x3 Basketball will take place from 24-28 August 2021 at Aomi Urban Sports Park.