Kareem Maddox’s eyes begin to well up when he thinks about the opportunity before him.
Maddox was on Team USA’s gold medal-winning squad at the FIBA 3x3 World Cup last June and has put himself in position to represent his country when 3x3 basketball makes its debut as an Olympic sport at the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo next year.
Just six years ago Maddox, 29, thought his basketball career was over when he walked into the KCRW studios on the campus of Santa Monica College. The 6-foot-8, 220-pound Princeton graduate grew up in Los Angeles as an avid listener of the National Public Radio member station but after playing two seasons professionally in the Netherlands and United Kingdom, he was back in L.A. looking for work.
“I came back home and I didn’t know what direction to go,” Maddox said. “So I just started volunteering at KCRW and they told me to come in two days a week. I ended up coming in five days a week and no one said anything to me. They were teaching me radio and I was loving it.”
Despite being runner-up for league MVP honors in his two seasons abroad, Maddox wanted to be a storyteller. He was always a journalist at heart. He was the editor-in-chief of the Oak Park Talon, the school newspaper at Oak Park High near Agoura Hills, and attended weekend journalism workshops held at The Times.
As Maddox took part in the final U.S. stop for the FIBA 3x3 World Tour at the Los Angeles Times Street Festival this weekend outside of the Times’ new building in El Segundo, he couldn’t help but think back to his weekends spent at the old offices in downtown.
“I was part of a program called ‘Saturdays at The Times’ where they brought in high school journalism students to work with L.A. Times journalists.” Maddox said. “I got to work with Steve Lopez and there was different seminars and sessions where you learned how to write a lead, write a headline and write features. It was amazing getting to learn from someone like Steve, who is one of my favorite writers.”
As much as Maddox’s heart was in journalism, a six-inch growth spurt between his junior and senior years made him take a slight detour as he headed to college. After being recruited by Yale, Cornell and Penn, Maddox decided to go to Princeton. He was a senior co-captain of the team that went 25-7 in 2010-11 and earned a degree in English literature. Following two years of playing abroad, Maddox spent three years working for NPR member stations in the United States. He produced “All Things Considered” in Los Angeles before hosting the show locally in Greeley, Colo.
“I think the people at KCRW saw someone that really loved radio and loved telling stories,” he said. “They encouraged me the same way coaches did during my basketball career.”
The love for basketball, however, returned when he played in the USA Basketball 3x3 National Championships in Colorado Springs, which is two hours south of Greeley. The experience motivated him to return to professional basketball in Poland in 2016.
“I was doing the radio thing when I got the urge to play again and moved to Poland and the next year 3-on-3 was announced as an Olympic sport,” Maddox said. “I was sitting in my apartment in Eastern Poland when I heard the news and that’s when I decided I needed to figure out how to get back in radio and make the Olympics.”
That’s right, Maddox hasn’t given up his day job as he pursues his dream of being an Olympian. In addition to playing in the FIBA 3x3 World Tour with an eye towards the 2020 Summer Games, he’s a producer at Gimlet Media, which is owned by Spotify. He regularly tracks down stories, does interviews and cuts tape for “The Pitch,” a venture funding podcast similar to the television show, “Shark Tank.”
“I’m lucky to work at a place that allows me to pursue my dream,” Maddox said. “The one thing that that has been the thread throughout my career has been storytelling. That’s what I’m still doing to this day.”
The main rules of 3x3 basketball make it a fairly easy sport to follow for traditional basketball fans. The game is played on one half court with one basketball between two teams of three players and up to one substitute per team. There’s a 12-second shot clock and the first team to reach 21 points or the team with the highest score after 10 minutes wins. There’s no halftime, no quarters, no breaks after scoring and non-stop music during play.
There are three ways to qualify for the 2020 Olympics in 3x3 basketball. There are four spots per gender from the FIBA 3x3 Federation ranking, three spots per gender via an Olympic qualifying tournament and one spot per gender through a University Olympic Qualifying tournament.
Maddox gets emotional when he thinks of the possibility of playing for Team USA in the Olympics next year. Given his journey to get to this point, it would be a fairy tell ending to a story he couldn’t have dreamed of writing when he worked for the school paper.
“I just feel so lucky to have this opportunity,” he said. “It’s something I can’t even put into words. I didn’t play in the NBA or anything. I just think this is such a unique opportunity. I have moments where I think why do I deserve this? How did I get so lucky? I put in the work but Team USA believed in me when there were times I didn’t believe in myself. They’ve made me believe my dreams can come true.”