How does HORSE work in basketball? Here’s a rules refresher for the NBA-embraced backyard game

Many of the millions of people stuck at home in quarantine over the past month have been prompted to revisit their pasts. With so much time spent inside, there is something comforting about a mental return to a better time.

Nostalgia has arrived via Zoom calls with old friends, decades-old video games and cartoons, among other activities.

For the NBA this Sunday, nostalgia will come from a turn toward one of the world’s best-known basketball mini-games. The NBA HORSE Challenge, set to broadcast on ESPN, will include a collection of NBA and WNBA players competing in an activity they likely took part in growing up.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the game or want to know how the NBA version will go, here’s an explanation of what to expect.

How does HORSE work in basketball?

The simplicity of HORSE is what makes it such a favorite among amateur basketball players. Competitors take turns attempting shots from anywhere on the court, often with tricks mixed in, with the objective being to force an opponent into an effort they can’t convert. If someone makes a shot, then everyone else must replicate the feat or gain a letter. Once someone gets all five letters of “HORSE,” they’re eliminated from the competition.

There are two main strategies to the game: Hit long-range bombs, or get crazy with between-the-legs and behind-the-back attempts. Versatile shooters, then, are often at an advantage. Trae Young and Chris Paul are considered the betting favorites Sunday largely for that reason.

Why is the basketball game called HORSE?

The most likely explanation seems to be that players deemed five shots the ideal game time and picked a five-letter word known by people of all ages that just happened to be horse. In another universe, Trae Young and Chris Paul will be playing TAXES this weekend.

Other names for HORSE in basketball

PIG is an abbreviated version of HORSE meant for those in a time crunch. Aside from there being only three letters before elimination, the rules are the same.

Around the world is another backyard basketball game that is commonly confused with HORSE, but they follow very different rules.

NBA HORSE Challenge rules

Rather than placing the entire eight-player field in a single game of HORSE, the NBA’s version of the competition will be made up of a series of single-elimination one-on-one games. Players are required to give a description of each shot beforehand so they can’t say they meant to bank it in or have it hit the rim three times. Dunking is not permitted. A coin toss at the start of each game will determine who shoots first.

NBA HORSE Challenge quarterfinal matchups

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