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Ken Hoffman looks back on an epic game of HORSE with a Houston Rockets star

Ken Hoffman looks back on an epic game of HORSE with a Rockets star

Chester Pitts bowling event Robert Horry, Devi Dev, Duane Brown
Houston Rockets star Robert Horry (left) faced off against our intrepid columnist in a game of HORSE. Guess who won? Photo by Michelle Watson / CatchLightGroup.com

Due to coronavirus stay-at-home boredom and lack of live sports, ESPN will air the NBA HORSE Challenge, with early-round coverage Sunday, April 12, and the semifinals and finals on April 16. Thank you, ESPN. I’m sorry, I can’t watch “classic” basketball games from two months ago on AT&T SportsNet.

Here are the first-round matchups: Atlanta Hawks long-distance bomber Trae Young vs. ESPN analyst Chauncey Billups; Hall of Fame inductee Tamika Catchings vs. oft-injured NBA star Mike Conley; current NBA star and dunk machine Zach LaVine vs. retired NBA champion Paul Pierce; and future Hall-of-Famer and State Farm Insurance spokesman Chris Paul vs. WNBA player and 3-point specialist Allie Quigley.

Players will be stationed in private gyms so social distancing rules will be in effect. If you’re looking for a winner, do not listen to local sports talk hosts. I heard a few saying things like, “Paul Pierce isn’t in shape,” and “a woman is at a disadvantage.”

Wrong! Those observations would apply if — and that’s a big if — they were playing basketball. Of course current NBA star Mike Conley could out-strength a retired WNBA player. And a jumping jack genetic freak like Zach LaVine, in the prime of his career, could dominate a player who left the game three years ago.

But they’re not playing basketball. They’re playing HORSE, which has little to do with the actual game of basketball and nothing to do with NBA-level competition. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the reigning MVP of the NBA and likely will win that honor if the league ever resumes this season. In a game of HORSE, though, there are 14-year-old playground hotshots who could beat the Greek Freak.

That’s because HORSE is a pure shooting game, no dunks allowed, and the Freak isn’t such a great shooter once you get beyond 15 feet. Clint Capela makes $15 million a year playing center in the NBA. In HORSE, Capela ain’t worth a dime. That’s because his shooting range is dunk and closer.

HORSE is about creativity, a consistent shooting eye, distance and love for the absurd. The NBA has held HORSE contests in the past. In 1978, 32 current NBA players and Phoenix guard Paul Westphal beat All-Star (and Elizabeth, N.J. native) Rick Barry in the finals. In 2009-10 Kevin Durant was the HORSE champ. All three were improv artists.

Ken vs. a Houston Rockets legend
If you don’t believe that a backyard amateur can beat an NBA player in HORSE, let’s jump in Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine to 2009.

True story, I swear it:

I have a hoop on the garage in my backyard. Most days, when I have nothing to do, (and by most days, I mean every day), I go out my back door and shoot some hoops. Over the years, I’ve developed a few trick shots, which I copied from the times I played with the Washington Generals against the Harlem Globetrotters. I know, weird, but I really did suit up with the Generals — twice — when the Globetrotters visited Houston. And both times I kept the uniform.

In 2009, I read a sports story that said shooting was becoming a lost art in the NBA. I may have mentioned that I could beat an NBA player in HORSE under certain conditions. It had to be in my backyard and no dunking.
A week later, a friend of a friend of a friend emailed me, “Robert Horry says he’ll play you.”

Let’s compare and contrast: Starting as the Houston Rockets’ first-round pick in 1992, Robert Horry played 16 years in the NBA and earned seven championship rings, two with the Rockets, two with the Spurs and three with the Lakers. That’s more rings than Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.  His nickname is “Big Shot Bob” for his clutch shooting in the playoffs. Me? I once won a 5th-grade bowling tournament, and scored exactly one point on a lucky shot against Bjorn Borg in a fun match at River Oaks Country Club.

My doorbell rang and there stood 6-foot-10 inches of Robert Horry. “You ready?” he said. We walked through my house to my backyard. Prior to this, the most famous person in my house was pro wrestler Kamala the Ugandan Headhunter, real name James Harris from Senatobia, Mississippi.

A surprise winner
I reminded Horry about the no dunking rule and we took a few practice shots. We agreed to play best of three games. When the smoke cleared, I won in two straight. Apparently Horry wasn’t so good at shooting behind his back or bouncing the ball off his head or hook shots from behind my gas grill. In fact, in the second game, I skunked him — I didn’t get a single letter before he missed a behind-the-back bank shot from the left side to lose.

After I whupped Horry in HORSE, we sat in my living room and I asked him every stupid question about the NBA I could think of. Horry put up with my nonsense. He’s of my favorite pro athletes ever. He even autographed a photo for me, writing, “Thanks for teaching me how to shoot.”

That’s my point about the upcoming HORSE Challenge on ESPN. Don’t worry about Paul Pierce being out of shape (which probably isn’t the case, anyway), it doesn’t matter that Zach LaVine can jump eye-to-eye with the hoop. Don’t be concerned that Mike Conley is a current NBA man and Tamika Catchings is a retired WNBA woman.

They’re not playing one-on-one basketball. They’re not playing any sort of basketball. They’re playing HORSE. It’s about putting the ball in the basket. And if I can beat Robert Horry in HORSE, all bets are off. But since betting is allowed on those Internet sites … I’m picking Trae Young. He can heave it from half court, and I’m guessing he’s got some trick shots up his sleeve. If he gets hot, he gets the hardware, which will be delivered at a later date.