How to Get into a Pickup Basketball Game
Whether you’re hitting the gym or a local playground court, pickup basketball is an entirely different beast from the officiated game. Players new to pickup tend to have lots of questions that need answering before they lace up. Who calls fouls? Is it cool to talk trash? Is shirts and skins still a thing?
To answer these questions, we turned to former college and semipro guard LaVar Merrell. Now a trainer at the East Bank Club—where none other than President Obama played on Election Day in 2008—Merrell gave us some tips on how to get the most out of your next pickup run. Turns out learning pickup basketball rules is easy enough—the etiquette is another story.
Be Proactive About Getting Into a Game
First things first. Sporting the latest shoes isn’t enough to get you into a game. When it comes to pickup basketball, a lot of guys will try to dress to impress, but that tends to backfire. "Whether you're wearing Jordans or Adidas or Nikes,” Merrell says, “we know some of those guys are just overcompensating because they're not that good.” So if you shouldn’t wear the latest, priciest gear, what should you do if you want to get into a game? Merrell's approach is simple: ask.
“All you can say is, ‘Hey man, do you have five? Can I play with you?’ Try to get in as soon as you can.”
Trainer and former semipro guard LaVar Merrell
Call Your Own Fouls, or Nobody Else Will
In pickup basketball, fouls can sometimes become a point of contention. The total lack of refs can make things a little confusing. Luckily, Merrell’s advice is unambiguous: "The offensive player always calls fouls." Some defenders will own up to fouling, but you shouldn't bank on it, especially if the contact is relatively light. Just try to keep a cool head and remember that flopping is no way to win friends and influence people. It’s good to remember that "a slight bump is not a foul,” and you might get looked at the wrong way if you keep calling it as such.
Know Your Skills (and Your Limitations)
Merrell advises all pickup basketball players to know their role on the court. "Stick to what you're good at," he says. If you know you can hit inside shots, don't stray far from the basket on offense. Still working on your three-pointer? Save the practice for when you're not in a game.
If You’re Hogging the Ball, Make Up for It
Nobody likes a ball hog, but your teammates should be fine with you jacking up lots of shots—as long as you make them. "If other people can vouch for you and you're a true scorer, then [it's OK to hog it]," Merrell says. But if you find yourself taking the lion's share of shots, be ready to make up for it elsewhere. You should be "getting rebounds, blocking shots, [and] at least playing some good defense.”
“If you find yourself taking the lion's share of shots, be ready to make up for it elsewhere, getting rebounds, blocking shots, [and] at least playing some good defense.”
Trash Talk Isn’t Just Allowed—It’s Part of the Game
If the player you're guarding scores a few in a row on you, don't be surprised to hear about it. Trash talk is part of what makes pickup basketball fun. "Trash talking is OK as long as it doesn't get personal," Merrell says, adding that anything said on the court stays there and shouldn't be taken to heart.
This Isn’t the NBA, So Relax and Have Some Fun
A good teammate plays tough defense, moves without the ball, and looks to make the pass, but don't get too wrapped up in your LeBron impression. Remember, this isn’t Game 7 of the Finals. As Merrell puts it, "At the end of the day, everybody's just playing for fun.”