As ESPN NBA commentator Mark Jones best put it, the NBA HORSE Challenge was the NBA’s well-intentioned attempt to continue “keeping score” during the sports hiatus caused by the coronavirus. Jones was also a commentator for this challenge, mediating over a select group of eight seasoned professional basketball players playing a traditional playground game on the nights of April 12 and 16.
The field included former NBA players Chauncey Billups and Paul Pierce, current NBA players Zach Lavine, Mike Conley, Chris Paul and Trae Young, as well as WNBA players Tamika Catchings and Allie Quigley.
For those of you who didn’t grow up playing in the parks, allow me to explain to you how HORSE works. It is a two player contest; let’s call one player A, and the other B. First, A attempts a shot in whatever way they like. If A misses the shot, then B gets to attempt a shot in whatever way they like, taking the role of A. However, if A makes the shot, then B has to copy the shot in the same exact way. If B fails to make the shot, B gets a letter from HORSE. The player that spells out HORSE first loses.
Given the gathering restrictions brought upon by COVID-19, the contest was self-recorded by the players in their own homes, with some of the family members also providing an extra camera to zoom in on shots. Some of the players, such as Conley, were working with state-of-the-art indoor courts, while others were playing on outdoor courts and even in their driveways. At times, these differences in conditions seemed to create clear advantages for certain players, but at other times, the sheer talent of these players triumphed in spite of the situation.
Sunday night featured the quarterfinals where we got to see the entire field showcase what they’ve been working on at home. Billups, or “Mr. Big Shot,” came from behind to defeat Young, who is regarded as one of the best shooters in the league, by hitting clutch shots from the 3-point line and the midrange. Mr. “Indoor Gym” Conley defeated Catchings, who was only working with a driveway hoop, quite easily. Finally, Lavine used his athleticism to defeat the older Pierce, while Quigley employed her fundamentals and shot-making ability to eke out a win against the equally talented Paul.
The four semi-finalists competed on Thursday night to decide the winner. Lavine and his athleticism proved too much to overcome for Quigley, and despite Billups’ reputation as a crazy shot maker, Conley defeated him with crazy shots of his own that Chauncey just couldn’t match.
The final was set to be a show mainly because both Lavine and Conley had used their strengths of athleticism and ambidexterity respectively throughout the tournament. Now was the time to see which strength would win out. It was a tough battle, but Conley got the win through off-hand shots and crazy layups that Lavine simply could not match. In addition, Lavine was hit with rainy and slippery conditions during the final, giving him a clear disadvantage against Conley. For his win, Conley was given $200,000 to donate to a charity of his choice in order to help with the coronavirus relief efforts.
Overall, the tournament was a far cry from what we have come to expect in regular game-play. The footage was grainy, and at some points the voices of the commentator and players lagged. In addition, at times the event was a drag as they kept switching between showing the different courts, as well as showing a myriad of advertisement breaks.
However, it was refreshing to see the NBA community come together in these trying times, especially in a way that allowed the roots of the game to be showcased through HORSE. Although through video cameras, the traditional smack talk and the post-match Twitter exchanges were all still in full swing, creating the competitive vibe that we have come to cherish about sports. We should be grateful to technology, for not only giving us an opportunity to maintain our civic duty in this ongoing crisis, but also giving us a short respite from worrying about the future and an inspiration to keep playing sports when this is all said and done!