NEW YORK (Reuters) – After 13 seasons in the NBA, Utah Jazz point guard Mike Conley Jr. might have thought he had seen it all – that is, until he found himself playing HORSE on ESPN live via webcam on Sunday.
Competing on an empty court, away from fans, competitors and the glamour of a professional arena, the two-night NBA HORSE challenge tournament, a single-elimination basketball shooting competition, is far from normal for Conley – but he’ll take it.
“It’s definitely tough mentally not to have the game right now, to have a sense of normalcy in anybody’s day-to-day life,” Conley told Reuters from his Columbus, Ohio home, where he has hunkered down since the coronavirus outbreak prompted the postponement of the NBA season last month.
In the one-on-one HORSE competition format, one player describes the shot they are about to take and if they make it their rival must recreate the shot.
If the second player misses, they accumulate a letter in “H-O-R-S-E” and the first player to get all five loses.
The 32-year-old Conley, who defeated hall-of-famer Tamika Catchings in Sunday’s first round to set up a semi-final clash with five-times All-Star Chauncey Billups on Thursday, said the nerves are still there, even in the unorthodox competition format.
“As soon as they call your name to shoot a shot, I’m like, ‘Oh my God, my turn,’ and like, ‘What are people going to expect me to do?’” said Conley, the all-time leading scorer for the Memphis Grizzlies, where he played before being traded to the Jazz last year.
“I don’t want to miss a layup, just because you get nervous and don’t know what to do,” he said. “Immediately once you make your first shot, the competitive side kicks in and the creative side of you (thinks), ‘Alright, how do I win?’”
With fierce competitor Billups next on the horizon, Conley said he is working on some more creative shots, including spins and a one-leg shot.
The three-times NBA sportsmanship award winner has kept busy binging on TV shows like the drama “Designated Survivor,” with documentary sensation “Tiger King” next on his viewing list.
He said he would be open to more shooting competitions in the future if the NBA season stays on hold.
“If we’re going to be holding the fort down and there’s not much sports on TV obviously, for sports fans, this gives people something to kind of fill that void, scratch that itch,” said Conley.
The semi-finals and championship round of the NBA HORSE challenge are expected to air Thursday at 9 p.m. ET (0100 GMT, Friday) on ESPN.
Reporting By Amy Tennery; Editing by Toby Davis