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The 10 rules of pickup basketball

Follow these rules to keep your pickup basketball vibes immaculate.

Canadian basketball star Steve Nash (R) Photo credit should read FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images

The summer heat is finally starting to break, which means fall is on the way, and Dallas Mavericks basketball isn’t far behind. You’re probably starting to get the itch to play basketball yourself, too. Before you head to your local court to play pickup with your friends, read these ten rules so you know what you’re doing. If I missed any, add them in the comments below.

Rule #1: Half-court pickup is always make it-take it

If you’re playing half-court, the rule is make it-take it. Anything else is an abomination. There’s just something unnatural about getting possession of the ball after getting scored on. You should have to earn the right to play offense. You want the ball? Get a stop.

Rule #2: Always play win by two

It doesn’t matter what score you play to—some prefer 11, 15, or 21. That’s up to you. But whatever the target score is, you have to win by two. I don’t care if you have to play to 100 to win by two, that’s what you do. Winning by just one point is too easy. Sometimes you hit a lucky shot. But winning by two takes grit, especially when the teams are evenly matched. Be an adult. Win by two.

Rule #3: Play by 1’s and 2’s

I’m not sure where the practice of keeping score with shots inside the 3-point line counting as one point and those outside the 3-point line counting as two, but it’s how the game is played. Maybe it’s just easier math, or the fact that you’re usually playing to a small number like 11, so regular basketball scoring would make the game go by too quickly.

Rule #4: The best format is 3-on-3 half-court

If you’re playing half-court, the best format is 3-on-3. Six people sharing half the court is a reasonable simulation of a regular basketball game, but with plenty of space to operate. You might be tempted to play 5-on-5 in a half-court. You’ll soon understand why playoff basketball is so physical and grinding. You’re not playing pickup for that kind of battle. You want to have fun. Stick to 3-on-3.

Rule #5: Never play full-court basketball with less than eight players

Conversely, if you’re playing full-court, you have to have at least eight players. Anything less than 4-on-4 just turns into running sprints on a basketball court. Ideally you’d want 5-on-5, but you can get away with 4-on-4.

Rule #6: Don’t call fouls unless you really get fouled

There’s a saying, a very old saying: “no blood, no foul.” I think that goes a little too far. You don’t need to be bleeding for there to have been a foul. But also don’t be the person who calls every little bit of contact a foul. There’s no free throws, you’re not James Harden, and basketball is a contact sport. If you get a hard slap on the hand when you’re shooting, call the foul. If it’s just a bit of a tap, let it go. You came to play basketball, not officiate.

Rule #7: Don’t cherry pick

When you’re playing full-court, there will always be someone who tries to lag behind the game action when their team is on defense. They’re hoping that once their team regains possession of the ball, someone can make a long pass down to them for an easy bucket. This is lame. Don’t be that guy. Not only are you making your team play 5-on-4 on defense, you’re ruining the game altogether. Play basketball.

Rule #8: There’s no charging calls or timeouts

I kid you not, I once saw a guy try to call a timeout when falling out of bounds in a pickup game. Everyone just laughed at him. There’s no timeouts like that in pickup ball. No charging calls, either. So if you think you’re going to get the ball back by planting your feet and standing your ground, you’re wrong. You’re just going to get run over.

Rule #9: Any disputes are settled by shooting for it

From time to time, there are going to be calls that aren’t obvious. Two opposing players reaching for the ball and it goes out of bounds, and no one knows who it’s out on. Maybe there’s a big dispute over a foul call. Whatever the case, the way to decide it is by shooting for it. If the player shooting it makes it, they’re right. If they miss, the call goes against them and they’re forever branded as liars. As Rasheed Wallace once said, “ball don’t lie.”

Rule #10: Respect the peaceful transition of power

The team that wins the game stays on the court. The losers sit. Whoever called “next” gets the next game. It’s that simple. How does it always seem to work? It’s a mystery passed down by Dr. Naismith himself. You don’t have to understand it, you only have to respect the process.