How to Play 21 Basketball Game Like a Pro! (Even If You’ve Never Played Before)

The year is 2005. A 10-year-old version of yours truly walks over to the local YMCA with basketball in hand, ready to show off my beautiful jump shot to any and all challengers.

But wait… what’s this?

I show up to the court (one of those dreaded courts with the track that hung directly over it, making it impossible to shoot a corner three with any arc), and there’s a couple of other kids playing 1-on-1.

What do I do? I could go off and shoot by myself, but I can do that on the hoop at home. I go to the Y to sharpen my skills against other players.

Solution? 21.

No, not 21 questions. We’re talking about how to play 21 basketball for all those hoopers out there looking to increase their skills and have fun while doing it.

This famous game is loved by many and it’s simple, fun, and just as competitive as any big game.

The rules may differ from what you’re used to but don’t worry. I’ve got you covered.

I’ll walk you through step-by-step instructions on how to play 21 basketball game and even give you some insider tips on how to dominate the court. So grab your shoes, your ball, and let’s get started!

What is 21?

You know that half-court game you’re used to? Well that’s 21, except everyone is fending for themselves. It’s a game of 1-on-1-on-1-on-1 (depending on the number of hoopers in the gym).

The game is played with three or more players, and the object is to score EXACTLY 21 points before your opponents. Points are scored by making shots from anywhere with the same point system as a normal game.

However, if a player scores more than 21 points, their score resets to 13(or whatever is decided beforehand), and the game continues until someone reaches 21.

The game tests your shooting, defense, rebounding, and strategy, making it a fun and challenging way to test your skills against fellow ballers.

Reasons You Need to Know How to Play 21 Basketball

I don’t know how many times I’ve stepped into a gym to play basketball, and there is an odd number of players.

Instead of having someone sit out while you play 1-on-1, 2-on-2, 3-on-3 (hopefully you see where I’m going with this), this is a great game where everyone gets to play.

It can even increase your ability to win actual basketball games.

21 is also a very common game. If you’re invited to play, it’d be nice to understand the game a bit so you can show off your skills!

Step-by-Step Instructions to Learn How to Play 21

Let’s walk through the step-by-step instructions on how to actually play 21.

Trust me, it’s not rocket science, and by the end of this itty bitty post, you’ll have an understanding of the ins-and-outs like none other.

Ready to get started?

Are you sure?

Are you sure you’re sure?

Then let’s stop wasting time already! Read on to find out the rules and how to dominate like MJ himself!

1. Basic rules

In a nutshell, if you make a basket, you shoot free throws. If you make three in a row, you get to try to make another basket. It’s a free for all, sort of like a dance club at midnight.

Each player takes turns shooting free throws; if they make a shot, they get to shoot again until they miss. If a player goes over 21 points, their score resets to 13.

A player must be the first to reach EXACTLY 21 points to win. The scoring is the same as a regular game. Shots made above the 3-point line are worth 3 points, inside the 3-point line is worth 2, and free throws are worth 1.

Standard basketball rules are used throughout. You keep your own score and call your own fouls!

2. Free throw line or three-point line?

In all my years playing 21, the spot where a person shoots after a made basket can vary.

As I’ve gotten older (here I can see where the reference to 2005 doesn’t play in my favor), the most common spot is the 3-point line because of the increased difficulty, but there are many games where it starts at the free-throw line, too.

When you practice on your own, master both shots so you’re not left in the dust like a character from Dune.

3. The Tip-Off

Each player will “shoot for it” to see who starts with the ball. Pretty simple, right? Told you it wasn’t rocket science (or any sort of science… I’m bad at science).

The first person to make either a free throw or a shot from beyond the 3-point line is the first player who starts on offense and tries to score. And this is where the scramble begins!

4. Gameplay

21 is basically a game of king of the court except for one major difference: everyone is on the court at once.

The offensive player is looking to score against whoever else is on the court.

It’s safe to say that it’s tough when you’re trying to score near the hoop if you’re going against 5 or 6 people at once.

If you manage to get a basket (hooray!), the next phase is you will get up to three free throws or 3-pointers.

Whether you’re hoisting up 3-pointers or free throws, makes are worth 1 point each. (If you want to shoot a three like Steph Curry, check out this video.)

As soon as you miss, everyone on the court will scratch and claw in the hopes of becoming the next offensive player.

If you make all three shots, you get to stay as the offensive player and now with the opportunity to score from anywhere on the court. Again, against everyone else on the court.

5. How to win the game of 21

The game ends once one of the players reaches 21 points exactly. If you score over 21 points, your score will reset to 13.

You’re sort of in a pickle if you make a regular basket at 20, but, them’s the rules.

The primary skills that are important when you play 21 in basketball are shooting, dribbling, and rebounding. If you lack any of these skills, it could cost you the game.

Understanding the basic rules will help you out a lot, as well as being a solid free throw shooter.


I’ve played countless games of 21 during my basketball career. It is a game that players at every level play, and it is a perfect way to improve your offensive skills while having fun!

Just remember these basic rules and make sure to have an understanding of where you need to be shooting when it is your turn, and you’ll learn the game in no time.

In my experience, the best way to learn how to do something is to go out and do it. Head on over to your local court and put your skills to the test!


How May Players Can Play In a Game of 21?

As many as your heart desires! It can start at 3 and then basically however many players can fit on a basketball court at once. (Though I’d recommend keeping it below 100, since that gets a bit sloppy.)

Does The Game Need to Be on a Regulation Basketball Court?

Anywhere you can find a half-court will do. Hopefully you can find a court without a track above it so you can actually shoot corner 3’s when needed!

So, Wait a Second, I’ll Be Going Up Against Multiple Defenders At Once?!

Well, yes and no. You technically will be trying to score against whoever is on the court, but a lot of the time there will be a few guys sitting under the basket waiting for rebounds instead of playing defense. It’s just, you know, one of those things.

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