Pickup basketball is the birthplace of many NBA greats. It’s where legendary players built up their skills and learned to play with the best. From Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant to Damian Lillard and Jimmy Butler, at one point or another, every player plays pickup basketball either in a park or gym.
However, different from a professionally officiated NBA game, pickup basketball has many variations of rules and regulations to play by. Of course, it’s all based on where you play, who you’re playing against, and just how competitive the games are.
We decided to poll a number of former and current NBA players, owners, and media members to contribute to our list of unofficial rules around pickup basketball. Some of these conflict, but ultimately everyone has a different opinion on how pickup basketball should be played. In fact, Ringer author Shea Serrano dedicated almost two chapters to the subject in his upcoming book Basketball (and other Things), so if you can’t get enough, go ahead and preorder.
Now onto the rules:
Never Wear A Full Uniform – Mark Cuban, Owner of the Dallas Mavericks
This is a very straightforward rule. It doesn’t matter how good you are, you shouldn’t be mister matchy, wearing an MJ jersey and matching Bulls shorts. We’re talking about pickup basketball and no one cares about your Michael Jordan jersey. All that matters is that you’re good on the court. Cuban puts it best, if you wear a full uni: “you’ll be laughed out of the gym.” And arguably, never welcomed back.
No Cherry Picking – Terry Porter, 17-Year NBA Veteran and Current University Of Portland Head Coach
The former Blazer great and current University of Portland head coach certainly knows a thing or two about the game of basketball. He grew up in an era where many played pickup and cherry picking was probably more prominent back then than it is now. But nonetheless, the idea of cherry picking in a pickup game is still outrageous. It ruins the game for others and creates a more boring outing when everybody’s camped out on the other end of the floor trying to grab touchdown passes for layups.
No Fouls On Game Point – Dan Dickau, Former NBA Player and Current On-Air Personality
“If you call a foul, you better have a good reason for it,” Dickau told DIME. “You will get completely talked out of any-kind-of respect ever.” He’s right. If you’re on game point and you call a bogus foul, you shouldn’t be playing. It’s essentially cheating and can only lead to arguments and complaints of playing with you.
Respect A Man’s Call – Chris Broussard, Fox Sports One Analyst
On the other side of the spectrum, Broussard says that you should respect a foul call. As long as everyone you’re playing with is trustworthy, you should do so. It makes it very simple and will allow you to play the game quicker, instead of getting frustrated at foul call after foul call. But, this is pretty difficult to do because there’s usually always one person that ruins the honesty and respect of the game.
No Excuses – Roger Mason Jr., President and Commissioner of the BIG3
“There are no excuses in pickup,” Roger Mason Jr., the president and commissioner of the BIG3 league told us. “It’s not about how you usually play or if you feel like you’re having an off day. Hoop is hoop, just play.” Mason Jr. is running the league that probably best illustrates pickup. The BIG3 is set to debut this summer
Shoot For Controversial Calls – Ryan Hollins, former 10-year NBA veteran
Shooting for someone’s controversial call can work in most pickup outings. However, there are always times where the animosity or disagreement level isn’t high enough to warrant shooting for a “controversial call.” It’s a fine line between something that nine of ten people agree with as opposed to four of ten. Controversial calls should be determined by a shot, but everyone on the court seems to have a difference of opinion of what is on the fence and what isn’t. The person fouled may claim he got fouled, while the rest of them will say otherwise. Yet still, the person fouled may shoot for the call even if just one person disagrees. Shooting for fouls and controversy is fine, but it should be more even on both sides in order to shoot.
No Blood, No Foul – Kristen Ledlow, NBA Inside Stuff Host
This goes without saying, but fouls shouldn’t be called unless it’s blatant and clear. Everyone has their own way of calling fouls, but the idea of an offensive player calling a foul after everything that would be called in an NBA game would get you kicked out. Pickup basketball isn’t for the floppers or the fakers. We asked Saul White Jr. of the Harlem Globetrotters what his most important unofficial rule was and he agreed with Ledlow, saying “I got an old school soul. I’m from Chicago, we played straight hard nose, in your face basketball. So I’d probably say no blood, no foul.”
Calling ‘And-One’ Isn’t The Same As Calling ‘FOUL’ – Brandon Armstrong, NBA Impersonator
This is so true. You can’t call and-one and expect a check up. Calling and-one implies that you made the basket, not that it’s a foul. If you want a foul call, call “Foul.” Armstrong went into further detail with the idea saying “people say and-one on every play when it’s not even a foul and get the ball back because they said and-one.” If there’s anyone who would know, Armstrong would, as he plays pickup ball quite frequently.
No Sweatband and Wristband Players – Brent Barry, NBATV Analyst And Former NBA Player
To go along with Cuban’s no uniform rule, sweatbands and wristbands should indeed be off limits. This is a pickup game, not a real competitive outing. Heck, even if it’s a competitive affair, you don’t want to be seen as that guy unless you’re getting the big bucks.
Along with this, Brent also says you should “win by two, play by twos and threes, allow no charges and no liberal traveling calls or over-and-back.” Overall, Barry has a few rules outside of what others told us.
No Sitting In the Post – Ben Golliver, Sports Illustrated Writer
“Post-ups are increasingly rare in the NBA, and for good reason,” Golliver told DIME. “Nothing kills the flow and efficiency of an offense like a big backing down for eight dribbles only to toss up an ugly contested jump hook. With that in mind, there’s no need for your pick-up game to time-travel back to the 1990s NBA: don’t slow the entire game down by pounding the air out of the ball just to exploit a size advantage on the block. Five dribbles per post-up, max. Keeping it to three is even better. There’s no glory or fun to be found in a poor man’s Charles Barkley impersonation.”
Clearly, there are taller, more physically imposing players that do this way too often. Using your size is one thing, but abusing it to a point of no return is a completely different subject altogether. Not only does it negatively affect the game, but your own teammates would probably be bored to tears watching one guy trying to do successive post moves and either failing miserably or taking too long.
The Player That Makes Game Point Has To Make Free Throw After – Jason Thompson, 8-Year NBA Veteran
This is like H-O-R-S-E where you have to chance it or prove it. Except, in this format, you only have one choice: prove it. We hadn’t heard of this, but it was certainly one that made sense. Pickup basketball is supposed to translate to the actual games and what better way to tie them in than by forcing you to make big shots in big moments when the game is on the line.
Get There Early To Play In The First Game – John Wallace, 8-Year NBA Veteran and Gotham Ballers Coach
John Wallace, former NBA player, Syracuse standout and current Gotham Ballers (Champions League) coach added a simplified rule for those who want to play right away. “My rule for pick up ball was to get there early so I played in the first game and never gave up game point.” This is very true, specifically if you aren’t one to sit around and wait for a game. If you aren’t the best player on the courts, you’ll probably need to show up early in order to stand a chance at getting picked.
Don’t Call Violations On Game Point – Briante Weber, Charlotte Hornets Guard
Similar to Dickau, Weber told us that people find any way to get out of losing by calling ticky-tacky fouls or silly violations. “On game point, people will call any violation in the rule book to not lose,” Weber told DIME. He’s not wrong, there are bound to be competitors and sore losers who like to try and run back game point for violations that have been committed throughout the game but haven’t been called until game point. These people are probably the people who call charges and offensive fouls as well.
Don’t Shoot The Ball Too Much – Bobby Jones, Former NBA and Professional Player
“Don’t shoot the ball too much unless you’re a legit scorer,” Bobby Jones told DIME. “Nobody wants the new guy shooting all the shots. Be aggressive enough to let everybody know you know what you’re doing and as the games add up, do more if possible.” Nobody likes to see a player jack up shots all day, especially in pickup. Even if the pickup is competitive, everyone wants a shot and really, they should all get chances as this is still a game. You don’t show up to the gym or the park to not get an opportunity to score.
Don’t Call Foul After You Know The Ball Isn’t Going In – Antonio Davis, 13-Year NBA Veteran and ESPN NBA Analyst
This happens ALL the time. Players drive to the rack and may’ve been fouled but they decide to wait until after the ball doesn’t go in to call the foul. It makes it seem like the player is not fouled or isn’t being honest with himself. Essentially, you’re the referee and the player in one body, don’t abuse it.
Always Play By Ones – Kyle Wiltjer, Houston Rockets Forward
“Games where every bucket counts as one,” Wiltjer told us. “It sucks because I shoot a lot of threes, so I miss out on points but I still continue to shoot threes anyways. It makes the game more physical when you play by one and the winner has to win by two.” We can visualize these games being much more intense along with being harder to win. But this is the way pickup should be played at it’s core. Closer games, harder earned buckets, no bailouts.
Eldridge Recasner, former University of Washington and NBA player, also weighed in from a background of playing in multiple cities. “In Seattle, we always played by two, but in New Orleans, it was always by one,” Recasner told DIME.
You Can’t Shoot Right Off The Check Up – Romeo Travis, Former Akron Standout and Current SIG Strasbourg Player
This seems like a given, but apparently, it isn’t! The fact that people are allowed to shoot off of a check up seems outrageous. Can you imagine how much damage Klay Thompson would do if this were the case?
Defense Calls Fouls Unless It’s Game Point – Xavier Silas, Chinese National Basketball League Player
Where most would say offense calls fouls, Silas says otherwise. It comes down to whether you can trust the players you’re playing with and if that’s so, you can usually work with any rules. The idea of defense calling fouls is a good one from a sense of stopping someone on offense from calling every little violation.