This week marks the one-year anniversary of the United States Supreme Court ending the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992, which prohibited sports betting in every state except Nevada. Now, there are eight states that have legalized sports betting and that number will only continue to increase since other states are poised to follow suit.
NBA players obviously aren’t allowed to bet on games, fix contests or tip others to place a wager. The NBA’s constitution specifically states that “any person who, directly or indirectly, wagers money or anything of value on the outcome of any game” will receive an unappealable punishment from the commissioner such as “a fine, suspension, expulsion and/or perpetual disqualification from further association with the [NBA].”
With that said, players are allowed to gamble among themselves on things unrelated to the NBA such as card games, shooting contests, video games, March Madness brackets, etc. While this can serve as a team-bonding experience, it can also cause big fights (especially when big money is involved). HoopsHype talked to a number of NBA players about these fun bets that teammates place throughout the season. They spoke on the condition of anonymity since they were sharing private stories.
Card games are easily the most popular type of gambling that occurs among NBA teammates. Booray is the most-played card game in the NBA (and in professional sports as a whole). If an NBA team is on a flight, there’s a strong likelihood that some teammates are playing booray; it’s that ubiquitous.
“Guys bring a ton of money on the plane,” one NBA player said. “There would seriously be $300,000 on the plane. It’s wild.”
There are a few things to know about booray: Each deal, players have to ante to a pot (and in NBA circles, players usually have to double the pot in order to enter the game). At the end of the hand, whoever has the most tricks collects the pot and if a player gets booed (meaning they didn’t win a single trick), they must match the pot. People win and lose a lot of money very quickly, and this is particularly true if you’re playing against NBA players with lucrative contracts. (Here are the full instructions.)
There are plenty of stories about players losing huge amounts of money in booray games.
“How much money a player can lose really depends on the length of the flight,” one NBA player explained. “We’d play regular hands for most of the flight and then, once the plane started descending, we’d double up on the hands until we landed. We will sometimes play $100 a hand. On a long cross-country flight, I’ve seen a player lose $10,000 to $15,000. On a single flight! I usually just watch. Sometimes, I’ll go play $1 a hand with the training staff (laughs). When you’re playing booray at $100 a hand, there’s a lot of money being thrown around.”
Gilbert Arenas told The Action Network that when the Celtics had their Big Three of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, they would play booray on flights and they were “betting Rolls-Royces on [the] plane.” It’s not uncommon for players lose five-figures on a single flight.
“I played with one player who showed up with a big-a** bag of money and he lost it all,” one player said. “It had to be a quarter of a million dollars in that bag, and he lost it. Not only did he lose all of that money, the other players gave him credit and he lost that too. He had to bring even more money on our team’s next road trip to pay that off too.”
“I personally saw one NBA player lose $40,000 during the preseason, before we even got our first paycheck,” another player said. “He was on a minimum contract too. I was surprised he was playing!”
“If I added up how much some of my teammates lost, it was enough to buy a Bentley,” one former player said. “With booray, it just keeps adding up. One time, a veteran on our team punched an airplane window with everything he had because he was frustrated over booray. He was really mad. There are certain players – max-contract guys – who are so frustrating to play against. They can just keep putting more and more money in because they don’t care what they lose. Meanwhile, everyone else is scared of losing that much money.”
Of course, there are big winners too. Several players who spoke to HoopsHype had heard the same story about Ty Lawson once winning over $1 million from booray in a really short span. Four years ago, Lawson did a Reddit AMA and Danilo Gallinari jokingly commented that the point guard was “the worst booray player ever.” Lawson responded, “Check the scores… I bought a Bentley off of this,” which is the closest he’s come to confirming his big win.
“If you’re playing booray, you’re going to lose big at some point, but eventually those same guys usually win big too,” one player said. “I think, by the end of the season, most of the players walk away even – except for the guys who are really bad.”
While anyone is welcome to join the in-flight booray games on most teams, it’s typically not smart for rookies or minimum players to buy in (which can cost tens of thousands of dollars alone). They can’t afford to lose huge sums of money, unlike some of their veteran teammates.
“You need to know when to get out of those games, especially if you’re one of the young fellas,” a former player said. “Sometimes, you’ll see veteran players, who aren’t being good vets, baiting the young guys into playing. They’re like, ‘Come on! Come play! He’s scared!’ They’ll really have these guys in the hole and these young fellas can’t afford to lose that kind of money. My advice for all young guys: ‘Don’t jump in when the vets are playing booray. It’s not for you.’”
“I’ve seen rookies or G League call-ups play and then lose all of their money in a few minutes and then they’re just really hurt the rest of the plane ride,” another player added. “It can be hard to watch.”
“It’s usually just the veterans playing and the rookies will watch,” one player said. “A lot of times, the game will start before the plane has even taken off and that’s when the rookies are still getting food for everyone.”
It’s worth noting that booray does have a number of critics around the NBA.
“Booray, for my money, is the worst game ever created,” said one NBA player-manager. “I don’t understand why so many guys play it. It’s a dumb game that leads to a ton of conflict because there’s so much money in the pot. Also, there are a lot of regional differences, so how you play booray and how you interpret the rules really depends on where you’re from. When I go to a casino and play roulette, I know exactly what the rules are. In booray, it may take you a while to figure out [the dealer’s] rules, so you’re already down $20,000 to $30,000 by the time you know what you’re doing. Plus, when you join a game of booray, the buy-in can sometimes be $50,000. So you’re immediately losing that $50,000 and you want to continue playing to try to get it back. It’s like any other kind of gambling; you want to keep playing to get back what you lost. But with that kind of buy-in and no real end-point or way out, you may just keep losing more and more money. There’s no structure to it, so you’re going to eventually lose. It’s a terrible game. It’s big in the NBA, but it’s even bigger in the NFL. It’s everywhere in the NFL.
“It feels like you’re just throwing money away. Anytime you’re dealing with that much money in a game of chance, it can get really heated. Personally, if I was the general manager or head coach of a team, there would be no booray on the plane. I think it causes way too many problems. It’s not worth it. NBA teammates fight over booray more than anything else, even women. Many players have gotten an ass-whooping over booray.”
Remember when Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenton got into an argument that ended with them bringing guns in the Wizards’ locker room? That was over booray. Remember when Tony Allen punched OJ Mayo when they were teammates on the Grizzlies? That was over booray.
As the player-manager suggested, the Grizzlies did ban gambling on the team plane shortly after the Allen-Mayo fight in 2011. The year before, the Nets had also banned gambling aboard their team plane as a precautionary measure since the Arenas-Crittenton incident had just happened.
Some players refuse to play booray because it’s largely about chance and not skill. Earl Boykins, for example, hated booray and managed to convince his teammates to play a lot of poker during his stint in Charlotte.
“When Earl Boykins was in Charlotte, he didn’t want to play booray because it’s pretty much just a random game and the guys who have a lot of money [have a big advantage] since they can just keep putting in more and more money until they get back to even or go up,” a former player said. “Boykins convinced everyone to play poker, Texas Hold ‘Em, instead of booray. I’ve never seen anything like this: Boykins basically got himself another contract on that plane – that’s how much he made from those poker games. He literally took everyone’s money and he became the house. He was cleaning up so bad that he had a little notebook where he’d write down, ‘This player for two buy-ins. That player for four buy-ins,’ and so on. He had so much money and IOUs, it all couldn’t fit in his bag. It was one of the craziest things I’ve ever seen in my entire life. He cleaned up!”
Dirk Nowitzki is also a big fan of poker – so much so that he would put together big poker tournaments for the Mavericks’ players and staffers with a $20 buy-in.
Outside of card games, shooting contests are the next most-popular bets among NBA players (although wagering on video games is on the rise given how much players love video games nowadays).
After practice, big men will sometimes line up to do a three-point shooting contest and guards (and others) will do a shooting contest from halfcourt. How much they bet varies from team to team and player to player.
Compared to booray, there’s significantly less money being wagered on shooting contests. Still, it’s more than most people could afford. Two players said they’ve witnessed teammates betting $10,000 on who could sink a halfcourt shot first.
“Players will wager thousands and thousands of dollars on halfcourt shots, which is just dumb,” one player said. “I won’t participate in bets like that.”
“I’ve seen shooting contests where the players go shot-for-shot and the first person to miss loses their $1,000,” said the player-manager. “I’ve seen guys shoot best-of-10 from three-point range and whoever hits more shots gets $1,000. It’s not something that happens all of the time, though.”
“Some guys have running bets, where they’ll do best out of five from halfcourt or whoever hits a shot first from halfcourt wins $100,” another player added. “They’ll keep doing throughout the season rather than it being a one-time thing [so the money adds up].”
Some NBA teams fine players for specific violations. For example, if a player bites on a pump-fake, they have to pay a $200 fine. Other mistakes that could lead to a fine include showing up late to a meeting or if a rookie forgets to bring the veterans food.
On these teams that have fines, several times throughout the year, the players will all shoot from halfcourt and whoever makes the 47-foot shot first gets to keep the fine money that has accumulated. One player said that sometimes the players and coaches would all put up halfcourt shots and whichever group connected first got to split the money among themselves.
“There are some coaches who will challenge guys to shooting contests too,” one player said. “Byron Scott had a rule where if you were late to practice, you had to pay $50 for every minute you were late or something like that. He would let you choose to have a shooting contest against him for double-or-nothing on the fine.
“Whatever shooting bets you’d throw out, [Coach Scott] would take it because he can still shoot. After there were a number of players who got fined, we’d do a halfcourt shooting contest to see who wins that money. Sometimes, it would be players versus coaches and whichever group wins would split the money.”
Paying off a debt after losing a bet with a teammate is really important in the NBA. Some teammates are more lenient than others, giving players more time to pay them back. However, a lot of teams have a rule that you aren’t allowed to take part in any of these betting scenarios until you pay off your previous debt. (On some teams, players have until the next plane trip to come up with the money they owe their teammates.)
“There are some guys who try to push it off and push it off, saying, ‘It’s not real money.’ Yes, it is! Pay up,” one former NBA player said. “It’s about keeping your word.”
There are a lot of NBA players who love video games – from sports games like NBA 2K, Madden and FIFA to battle royale games like Fortnite, Apex Legends and PUBG.
Video games, especially the battle royale games, are extremely popular among young players. While there have always been NBA players who enjoyed gaming, it’s much more popular today than it was in past decades.
“I don’t know if I was born in the wrong generation, but I’ve always loved video games. My teammates, across multiple teams, weren’t interested in playing,” one retired player said. “Now, it seems like a ton of these guys in the league play video games. You see a lot of them talking about it on Twitter.”
Remember, NBA players have quite a bit of free time and many play video games in order to pass the hours and relax a bit.
“A lot of players travel with their video-game devices,” an NBA coach said. “They have a suitcase and it’ll have all their video-game stuff in it! They’ll take it up to their hotel room and play. Some teams have a lounge where players can play together too.”
The NBA launched their NBA 2K League last year and some of the professional gamers have stories of the NBA players wanting tips to improve or a chance to go head-to-head with one of the 2K League pros.
Like many friends, NBA players sometimes put money on their video-game match-ups to make things even more interesting.
“We’ll play games like NBA 2K, Madden or FIFA and bet $100 per game,” one player said.
When Fortnite spiked in popularity, a lot of young NBA players started playing and they would bet on those matches as well.
“When the team is at the hotel, some guys will play Fortnite and whoever gets the least amount of kills has to put in $100 and things like that. It’s all about finding fun ways to pass the time.”
In addition to betting on a head-to-head match-up, some players organize video-game tournaments where each player pays to enter and the winner keeps all the money.
Some teams will have an NBA 2K tournaments and Madden tournaments that featured a number of teammates competing in a single-elimination bracket for one large cash prize.
Betting on Non-NBA SPORTING EVENTS
Players are typically very interested in March Madness, especially if their college is participating in the NCAA Tournament.
Like many other people across the country, many NBA players fill out brackets and enter March Madness pools alongside their friends.
“Most teams do a March Madness pool,” one player added. “With the ones I’ve done, the buy-in was only $20 or something like that. I haven’t seen guys risk a lot of money over their March Madness bracket.”
However, one player said that he’s entered a March Madness contest with a number of NBA players and it costs $1,000 per person to enter. The $20-to-$100 pools are much common, obviously, and sometimes they include employees from all throughout the organization.
“We would have a March Madness pool every year,” one retired player said. “I won it one year! On a lot of teams, that’s bigger than just the players. Other people in the organization will participate in it too, like the trainers and equipment manager.”
Also, when two teammates’ colleges are facing off in basketball (and sometimes in football), there’s an automatic $100 bet between those two players. Several players brought this up, saying this is the rule on most NBA teams. Players may also add their own spin to the wager on top of the $100 up for grabs, like making the losing player wear the opposing college’s jersey in public. Again, this is mostly about building camaraderie and making the game even more exciting.
“You almost always see bets between players when their colleges play each other,” one player said. “If one player went to Duke and another player went to North Carolina, they’ll come up with a fun bet. Sometimes, it’s a cash bet. Sometimes, the loser will have to wear the other team’s jersey (especially if the two schools are rivals). Sometimes, it’s both.”
Also, a lot of NBA players have a favorite NFL team or MLB team too. If there are two players who are big fans of football or baseball their teams go head to head, that’s another automatic $100 bet. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade made a bet during the 2016 World Series, so James had to wear a Cubs jersey after they defeated the Indians.
There’s also just ordinary betting, especially when players are confident in their favorite team. For example, one player mentioned that Gerald Wallace (who is a big fan of the Patriots) would walk into the locker room and ask if anyone wanted to bet against New England that weekend.
This is the kind of stuff that constantly happens all over the country; the only difference is that the NBA players’ conversations occur in the locker room instead of at the watercooler.
Some NBA players come up with rewards for positive plays that occur during their own games. These incentives can be a team-wide thing (like giving any player who takes a charge a $100 reward, which many teams do) or these bets can be agreed upon by a handful of teammates (like competing to see who can dunk on an opponent first).
As previously mentioned, some teams that institute fines for various infractions (like being late) will then turn the fine money into a reward.
“That’s less about gambling and more about just incentivizing your teammates to do certain [positive] things during games,” said the player-manager. “I’ve heard of that. Sometimes, the reward isn’t cash, but another guy will pick up your check at dinner and things like that.”
Just to be clear, this isn’t like the NFL’s Bountygate scandal where players are being rewarded by coaches to hurt opposing players. Those who spoke with HoopsHype stressed that this is players rewarding other players for positive plays or fun achievements. These in-game incentives are a lot like prop bets: Who can posterize an opponent first? Who will hit a halfcourt buzzer-beater first? Will a short point guard be able to dunk by a certain game?
“Guys like Chris Paul and Mike Conley, who can dunk but rarely do it during games, would bet that they would have an in-game dunk by a certain game [on the schedule],” one player said.
“You’ll also see agreements for a team to divvy up playoffs shares a certain way to reward certain players,” the player-manager said. “NBA players are really good about taking care of each other when it comes to things like that.”
Playoff shares are the bonus that a team makes for achieving certain milestones (like winning the most regular season games or advancing deeper and deeper into the playoffs). Teams are given a lump sum and are allowed to split the playoff shares however they’d like.
There have been instances where a star on a contender will promise to give a player their playoff shares if they sign with the team (especially if the new player took a pay cut to join the squad). Following the 2017 playoffs, Damian Lillard encouraged his Blazers teammates to give their $223,864 playoff bonus to the organization’s employees who work behind the scenes rather than keeping it for themselves.
Several players said that on a short road trip, it’s not uncommon for all the players to put their per diem into a pot and whoever draws the highest card wins it all. Per diem is the money given to players on the road to cover the cost of meals. Players currently receive $133 as per diem for each day on the road.
That means in these winner-take-all per diem wagers, the pot could be nearly $2,000 (or more if players decide to include several days’ worth of per diem money).
While gambling together like this can bring a team together, there are also examples of it causing conflict and drama as well.
“It can be good for a team or it could be bad for a team – it really depends on the integrity of the people playing the game,” said one retired player. “It can go from fun to personal really quick.”
“I think anything that players are doing as a team that isn’t basketball-related can help build camaraderie,” said an NBA coach. “But you have to know where to draw the line between it being competitive and too competitive. That’s the biggest thing, knowing where to draw that line because the last thing you want is for it to cause problems.”