How To Play 21 Basketball

how to play 21 basketball

Key Takeaway: 21 Basketball is a simplified variant played individually with the goal of reaching 21 points. Originating in street basketball, it focuses on improving individual skills and provides various rule variations for a fun and challenging experience.

Have you ever wondered how to play 21 Basketball and why people play it? You’re in the right space because here’s all you need to know about 21 – a fun basketball game.

21 Basketball is the name of a simplified variant of basketball. The game happens with three players and uses a half-court most of the time. The game ends when one of you scores 21 points (Hence, the name). Participants play this game individually, which means you play without teammates against other individuals.

For those of us not familiar with 21, it can be slightly confusing at first. No worries, though! We’ve created this handy and comprehensive guide on what the game is and how it’s played. By the end of this written guide, you should be pretty comfortable with the rules and nature of the game.

History Of 21 Basketball

There’s really no formal history of 21 Basketball. The reason is that there’s no single style or arrangement that is universal; it evolved as more and more people got into it. This is also why we see that the rules can vary depending on the location and the participants.

21 Basketball (or Basketball 21 as some like to call it) most probably came up in asphalt and street basketball communities. One can imagine situations where there are a few players but not enough to team up. In these situations, a game like 21 Basketball would really help. 

Over time, a few school coaches and gym teachers also introduced it in training sessions. The reason was that it improved the individual skills and drills of the players.

The Basic Rules Of 21 Basketball

So, we know how the game 21 Basketball came to be. Now, let’s look at some fundamental rules. If you’ve ever asked yourself how to play 21 Basketball, knowing the rules is the right place to start. Remember that these points are some of the standard rules. However, they can vary from place to place.

  1. A player who scores from the 3-point circle earns 3 points.
  2. Other shots that happen within the 3-point circle will earn you 2-points each.
  3. Similar to regular basketball, free throws get you 1 point per shot.
  4. Players compete on an individual level. So, this rule prevents any partnering or team-ups.
  5. Whoever scores 21 points first, wins the basketball game.

These are some basic rules you have to remember to play 21 Basketball.

Playing 21 Basketball

The Game’s Tip-off

To play 21 Basketball, one of the players will shoot from the 3-point line. If he scores, he moves to the free-throw line, and if he misses, the other players scramble for the rebound. Whoever gets the ball will start trying to score.

Basic Gameplay

Since Basketball 21 is an individual competition, you’re always up against multiple defenders on your own.

So, if you score a 2-point or a 3-point shot, you move straight to the free-throw line. Here, you have to make three straight free-throws without missing. If you miss, the opponent who gets the rebound continues the play.

However, if you do score three free-throws, you get to keep possession. You check the ball with an opponent, and the play begins again.

If an opponent steals the basketball from our hand, he/she must dribble out beyond the three-point line. There he/she can either take a shot or continue play. But he cannot directly score if he steals the ball from inside the 3-point circle.

How To Win

A guide on how to play 21 Basketball would be incomplete without a description of how to win. The basic rule of winning is to reach 21 points before the other players.

However, this would be easy to do if you got a head start on points. Therefore, some other rules balance out the competition. So, if your score went beyond 21 points, your score will be reduced to 11. Also, if you’re on 20 points and you miss a free-throw, there’s a penalty. You have to start on 11 points again.

In some cases, even your opponents can contribute to reducing your score. If you miss a free-throw at 20 points, your opponent can intentionally score on the rebound. This would take your score beyond 21 points and reduce you back to 11.

After you reach 21 points, there is a final step. You have to score a 3-point shot. If you miss, you start at 11 again.

As you can see, winning a basketball 21 game isn’t as simple as it seems.

Other Rules In 21 Basketball

Here are some different variations you can use to play 21 Basketball

  • After scoring, you can make players shoot 3-point shots instead of free throws. This rule makes it more fun and challenging.
  • Normally, you get free throws after scoring. You can change this to four free throws. It will make it harder to earn points.
  • You can mix up the scoring system. For example, you can give 2 points for a free throw. This change would make regular shots worth only 1 point.
  • If you have players who have more advanced skills, you can make it harder. For instance, the final 3-point shot should be from a further distance.
  • The reset score is usually 11 if a player misses. But you can change this to any other figure (7, 9, 15, etc.)
  • 11-points is roughly the halfway mark to winning. If a player misses his next shot, you can reduce his score to zero.


As you play 21 Basketball, you’ll find that there are lots of opportunities for creativity. It’s a great past-time for pickup games with a few players. And it can also be a great drill to improve your scoring skills.

Now that you know how to play 21 Basketball, you can join any pickup game the next time you’re on the court. Remember, the rules can change depending on the participants. There are no fixed parameters. The whole idea is to participate, improve your game, and, most importantly, have some fun!!

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