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Monday, September 20, 2021

Meet the Serbian Jordan who added style, nutmegs to 3×3

No one executes it better than Serbia’s Dusan Bulut. Though his team, four-time world champions, had to contend with a bronze medal, Bulut was the event’s golden boy, scoring 33 of his team’s 96 points, most of those fetched in eye-catching style.

Written by Sandip G |
Updated: July 29, 2021 11:59:38 am
Dusan Domovic Bulut of SerbiaTokyo 2020: Dusan Domovic Bulut of Serbia during training. (REUTERS/Andrew Boyers)

The Shammgod Nutmeg is three-a-side basketball’s equivalent of a Cruyff turn, the nascent Olympic sport’s most iconic move and its weapon of marketability. It begins with a Shammgod, patented by former American basket-baller God Shammgod, in which a player throws the ball in front of his body, drops his shoulder, pulls it back with his opposite hand and performs a crossover dribble. In Shammgod Nutmeg, the executioner follows the Shammgod with a nutmeg, threading the ball through the nutmegee’s legs, leaving him utterly embarrassed.

No one executes it better than Serbia’s Dusan Bulut. Though his team, four-time world champions, had to contend with a bronze medal, Bulut was the event’s golden boy, scoring 33 of his team’s 96 points, most of those fetched in eye-catching style. Against China, he unfurled a behind-the-back-assist, against ROC in the league game, he produced a delicious Euro Step layup, a skill where he moves in one direction before exploding the opposite way after picking up his dribble, and a step-back shot against Latvia. And in his final game, against Belgium, he unfurled the Shammgod Nutmeg.

Some consider him its inventor, though Bulut himself claims he had seen it before in Serbia’s street-ball (which is not always three-a-side) melee and had only improvised the move, adding more layers of deception into it. But primarily, Bulut, considered the GOAT of three-side basketball, tells Sportski Zurnal that “it’s a trick of the eyes”. “Simple, your eyes move that side, you move this side,” the 35-year-old explains. The eye-body synchronisation is difficult to achieve though. Every movement — of eyes, hands, foot and upper body—needs balletic timing and geometrical precision.

Dusan Domovic Bulut of Serbia poses before the match. (REUTERS/Andrew Boyers)

A split-second early, the marker would second-guess the move; a microsecond late, he would sniffle out the ball. But Bulut is precise, his feet and muscles synchronising mellifluously like an orchestra. He says he has practised it so much that it’s instinct now. He could do without eyes blindfolded, or without thinking. “Hundreds times a day,” he says.

It’s not a trick you find in textbooks or coaching manuals. It’s derided — a reason even the nutmeg is rare in five-a-side basketball — as showmanship, an attention-streaming gimmick. Indeed, to sway attention was his motive when he started pulling out the nutmeg in a half-court game near his crowded apartment block. “I played mostly on courts outside my apartment. There were all sorts of people there, junkies, alcoholics and nerds. So to grab their attention, I needed to pull out such fancy tricks. I always liked the attention,” he narrates in that interview.

That there was no coach to tweak or tamper with his home-spun ways ensured his organic growth. Though basketball is a popular sport in Serbia and his locality, Novi Sad, in particular, formal coaching and access to conventional basketball courts were out of his bounds.

His parents could not afford formal coaching, and in the pre-Youtube days, he learned his game by reading basketball magazines like the Slam, which his sports journalist father provided, and watching VHS tapes of Allen Iverson and Jay Williams. “I laid my hand on whatever was accessible at that time, and almost all the learning was on my own. So whatever you learn by yourself sticks to your mind,” he says.

Like every child who had picked up a basketball in the late twentieth century, he dreamt of playing in the NBA. But by the time he hit his mid-20s, he realised his basketball future was dark and dreary. “There was neither money nor progress. I had no joy,” he said in an interview with the Olympics website.

Returning to street-ball was both an escape and redemption. Besides, FIBA was beginning to harness the crunched version’s popularity by formalising a universal set of rules and bringing independently organised tournaments into its governing fold. Introduced to the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore in 2010, it joined the international calendar in 2012 with a 3×3 world championship. Three-a-side was quicker and more attacking in nature, that it was the perfect format to bring a new audience to watch the sport, besides expanding its global appeal.

Dusan Domovic Bulut Serbia’s Dusan Domovic Bulut celebrates a victory over Belgium following a men’s 3-on-3 bronze medal basketball game at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Wednesday, July 28, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Unexpectedly, there was more money, exposure, with frequent trips to the Middle-east, sponsors, and beyond it, the perfect stage to showcase his dazzling oeuvre of tricks. But Bulut, monikered Mr Bulletproof and street-ball’s Michael Jordan, says he is a showman with a cause: “Every sport needs a guy like me to survive. A dash of glamour. I might not earn like an NBA guy. But I can be happy that I have done my best to make this game (three-a-side) glamorous.”

And in the journey, he has not just become a maverick of his sport, and its greatest yet, but also its marketing face. Even if settled for a bronze, he was three-a-side basketball’s golden boy.

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