Teen team 32, Central African Republic 28

SINGAPORE -- If Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James were to suit up and play a little three-on-three against the three best guys the Central African Republic had to offer, what would the final score be? Would the spectacle call to mind the routs the U.S. Dream Team laid on the rest of the world at the Barcelona Games in 1992? Would the spirit of Charles Barkley show up to elbow another skinny African?

Meaning no disrespect of any sort to Angelo Chol, Sterling Gibbs and Brandan Kearney, the three Americans who played Thursday  -- a fourth, Kyle Caudill subbing in for all of 37 seconds -- they were in no position to joke about anything after a preliminary-round game over the Central African Republic.

Final score: USA 32, Central African Republic 28.

This is already what it has come to, the Americans barely squeaking by a country most Americans have never heard of (landlocked, central part of the continent, bordered by Chad, Sudan, Cameroon and two other nations, both of which feature the word "Congo" in their names).

This is also exactly the kind of thing basketball's international governing agency, FIBA, was hoping this first-ever Youth Games 3-on-3 tourney would yield.

The only thing better would have been if the Central African Republic guys had actually won.

Mind you, at FIBA they're not rooting against the Americans.

They're rooting for the game.

And -- they can't, won't and don't say this, but it's incredibly obvious  -- the game wins when the Americans lose.

For the Americans, even allowing that it's American 17-year-olds, to beat the Central African Republic by only four -- that's a result that's "really great and that excites people," Patrick Baumann, the general-secretary of FIBA and an International Olympic Committee member, said.

"That excites the players. They will go back home and say, 'Yes, we can beat the U.S.' For everyone, the U.S. is the team to beat."

Prince Albert of Monaco dropped by the tourney venue, the *scape Youth Space, on Thursday. (That's the name: *scape. Cool space, with a skate park and other amenities. Dumb name.) He said of 3-on-3, "It's fast-paced. There's a lot of skill involved -- I mean, all the necessary skills and physical abilities for normal basketball. But it's just a shorter game -- but a very intense one …"

Absent the likes of Kobe, Dwyane and LeBron, in 3-on-3 pretty much anything can happen. The game is so fast -- two five-minute periods -- and so fast-paced that one scoring run can virtually seal the deal.

The four-point American victory, Baumann said, was "an amazingly exciting game."

As was Serbia's 31-30 victory over Puerto Rico.

And, also in the boys' preliminary round, Egypt's 33-31 upset over Lithuania.

Though there is still roughly a week to run in the Youth Games, it's already abundantly clear that 3-on-3 -- which coming in was one of the most intriguing YOG format experiments -- will be one of the major takeaways in all the Singapore debriefs.

"I think it's just what these Games needed," Prince Albert, who is also an IOC member and who took part in five Winter Games in the bobsled, said.

For one, the 3-on-3 game gives countries with little or no basketball heritage a chance against the Americans and Lithuanians, who do.

As Baumann said, it's one thing to expect India to find 12 guys with the skills to run with the NBA professionals in the Summer Games; it's quite another in a country of more than one billion people to find just three guys who can shoot jumpers and who thus might be able to give anyone a game.

Then there's this: Basketball is already popular worldwide. Why? In part because Michael Jordan and the other Dream Teamers helped make it so. Also, you can play without much of an investment. A ball, a backboard, a rim and you're good to go.

Even so, as FIBA figures it, there are fewer than 50 million people formally affiliated with clubs and teams; officials conservatively estimate there are 10 times that many people already playing, many in developing nations. The 3-on-3 format would seem a natural for drawing in all that new talent.

A game like 3-on-3 is played on a half-court and thus involves one net and backboard, not two; it requires only six players, not 10; and it's fast, so you can play it in the afternoon and still get home and do your homework at night. Or do your homework, eat dinner and go back out.

The rules are simple: Both teams score in one hoop. Ten-second shot clock. No time-outs. You can win before the end of the second five-minute period by reaching 33.

Baumann was asked Friday if 3-on-3 might someday be part of the traditional Olympic program. Not anytime soon, he made plain.

Then again, the odds are extremely good you'll undoubtedly see it in London in 2012, and probably in Rio in 2016 too, as part of the halftime shows, a FIBA effort to build buzz for the format. You're likely to see a boys' game at one end, a girls' at the other; you'll hear lots of loud rock music blaring away.

That's the action here.

Now: Can the Americans win out at these first-ever Youth Games? The boys get Spain in Saturday's quarterfinals.

Anything can happen. As Baumann said, "In this game, you have a chance."