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What are the rules of pick-up basketball?

We asked 672 people. They didn't all agree!

Handout/Getty Images

Last week, I asked the Internet about their pick-up basketball habits. An impromptu game with friends and strangers in a park or backyard lends itself to variety, so I was wondering which of the various customs for scoring, picking teams, solving disputes and the like were most common, and if there were any regional differences. So, let's see!

The scenario: You're playing halfcourt pick-up basketball. Nobody's waiting for the court.* The questions:

How do you pick teams?

pick teams

A decent number of people pick captains or just divide teams up fairly -- which seems to me like something friends would be more inclined to do than strangers -- but most people line up and shoot to pick teams. Of those folks, most just send the first half of the group that makes their shots to the same team and get going. Others put people who make their shots onto alternating teams so that everyone has to make a shot before the teams are set. It's basically quicker vs. fairer.

Nearly everyone in our sample who followed that "makers alternate" pattern played in America:

View How do you pick teams? in a full screen map

Some interesting "others:"

- Several people said they shoot for captains, not for whole squads, then the captains pick their teammates. Seems sensible.

- Some people make a little game of it!

"Line up and everyone jumps either left or right. those are on teams. If uneven numbers, we'll divvy up in a way that makes sense."

"Players play rock, scissors, paper and all those who win are teammates and all those who lost are teammates."

- And:

"There's a sign-up board at the 24 Hour Fitness."


How many points constitute a game, and how many points constitute a basket in or outside the arc?


I neglected to include any scoring by all one-pointers (the obvious thing to do if your court doesn't have an arc) in the multiple choice options. All the "all ones" responses were fill-ins.

Many folks said their score total varies depending on how many people are playing and how tired they are. And I didn't find any regional differences whatsoever in scoring.

What jumps out to me most are the denominations, not the totals. Almost everyone around the world plays by ones and twos, which means a long-distance shot is worth 50 percent -- a lot! -- more in most pick-up games than it is in organized basketball. SHOOTERS REIGN.

Two more simple questions:


Only 23 percent of us permit one-point wins, though there were some more complicated explanations about how the "win by two" rule only applies up to a certain point. Eventually, everyone's too tired to care about decisive victories.

A majority of people play "winner's ball" or "make it take it," which permits big comebacks, but also provides for one superior team to just dominate and never let the opponent touch the ball. Interestingly, nearly all our European friends reward made shots:

View Who gets the ball after a made shot? (Halfcourt) in a full screen map

How very capitalist of you, Europe!

Some more notes from data that wasn't interesting enough to graph:

- 89.7 percent of people call their own fouls. Only a dozen or so people use the rule we played with in college where you can get the ball back if you call "and-one" and hit the shot. Obviously, you'd have to be playing full-court or "loser's ball" for that rule to apply.

Everyone else either plays "no blood, no foul" or eschews foul calls entirely. I call these people the Super Tough Seven Percent. They will rule the world one day.

- Some people just play one big game to 50 or 100 (by twos and threes.) Some fancy people play with a game clock!

- 68 percent of respondents answered "shoot for it" to settle an argument over a call. Just over 18 percent alternate who gets the benefit of the doubt in a dispute, essentially using a possession arrow.

Eleven and a half percent of people said "other," when asked how they solve call disputes, and "other" was usually somewhere on the spectrum from talking it out like adults to an all-out brawl:


- Here's a fun "winner's ball" variant:

"I played some pick-up ball in Zagreb, Croatia and they had an interesting rule for starting a new possession. It was make-it take-it on halfcourt, but you would inbound the ball under the basket immediately after the shot went in. So essentially, if you were lazy on defense, the other team could rack up multiple layups in a row."

- We do this where I come from, too:

"We decided first possession of the game by a shootout called Do or Die. One of the Captains volunteers to take a three-point shot from the top of the key. If he makes it then his team gets first possession. If he misses it then other team gets first possession."

- I intended to sort stuff by age, too, but it turns out every single person on the Internet is 25.

One thing I forgot to ask about was the "check" rule to start a possession and whether the offensive player checking the ball has to pass before his team is allowed to score. Please tell us about that and whatever else I missed in the comments. If you're a pick-up player from Europe, I'd love some more insight into those hints of statistical trends we saw in the maps.

The upshot: Pick-up basketball is a game of honor and a game for outside shooters. You pretty much always have to win by 2. And if we wanna make everyone happy, we should play our games to 16.73 points using 1.3-pointers and 2.2-pointers.

*Caveat to everything here: We have a pretty small, self-reported sample, especially overseas, and a lot of respondents didn't follow instructions or missed some of the specifications. And plenty of people noted that their rules and customs vary a lot, but many were kind enough to submit multiple entries to reflect that. Also, geotagging was done automatically, and is imperfect because of unclear responses, but I cleaned it up as best I could.


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