The Rules of Basketball Simplified and Explained

On November 6th 1861,  Dr. James Naismith was born in Almonte Ontario, Canada. He grew up and became the athletics director at McGill University then moved to Springfield Massachusetts where he took on a position as physical education teacher at the YMCA International Training Center. In 1891 Naismith invented the game of basketball which began with only 13 rules of play.

Old drawn image of kids playing original basketball game

When Dr. Naismith created the game of basketball he used a peach basket as the net but after a while it became tedious to have someone come in with a pole, stick it up through a small hole in the bottom and poke the ball out. Eventually the bottom of the basket was removed so the ball could quickly be put back into play. 

The Original 13 Rules

Original 13 rules of basketball

What are the 13 Rules of Basketball?

Here they are again in case the above is a bit hard to read. 

  1. The ball may be thrown in any direction with one or both hands.
  1. The ball may be batted in any direction with one or both hands (never with the fist).
  1. A player cannot run with the ball. The player must throw it from the spot on which he catches it, allowance to be made for a man who catches the ball when running at a good speed if he tries to stop.
  1. The ball must be held in or between the hands; the arms or body must not be used for holding it.
  1. No shouldering, holding, pushing, tripping, or striking in any way the person of an opponent shall be allowed; the first infringement of this rule by any player shall count as a foul, the second shall disqualify him until the next goal is made, or, if there was evident intent to injure the person, for the whole of the game, no substitute allowed.
  1. A foul is striking at the ball with the fist, violation of Rules 3,4, and such as described in Rule 5.
  1. If either side makes three consecutive fouls, it shall count a goal for the opponents (consecutive means without the opponents in the mean time making a foul).
  1. A goal shall be made when the ball is thrown or batted from the grounds into the basket and stays there, providing those defending the goal do not touch or disturb the goal. If the ball rests on the edges, and the opponent moves the basket, it shall count as a goal.
  1. When the ball goes out of bounds, it shall be thrown into the field of play by the person first touching it. In case of a dispute, the umpire shall throw it straight into the field. The thrower in is allowed five seconds, if he holds it longer, it shall go to the opponent. If any side persists in delaying the game, the umpire shall call a foul on that side.
  1. The umpire shall be judge of the men and shall note the fouls and notify the referee when three consecutive fouls have been made. He shall have power to disqualify men according to Rule 5.
  1. The referee shall be judge of the ball and shall decide when the ball is in play, in bounds, to which side it belongs, and shall keep the time. He shall decide when a goal has been made, and keep account of the goals with any other duties that are usually performed by a referee.
  1. The time ‘shall be two fifteen minutes, halves, with five minutes’ rest between.
  1. The side making the most goals in that time shall be declared the winner. In case of a draw, the game may, by agreement of the captains, be continued until another goal is made.

There have been some changes over the years to the rules of basketball including the complete removal of #4, #7 as well other small differences however for the most part these rules still ring true and continue to make up the backbone of one of the greatest sports ever known to man!

Object of the Game

The objective of basketball is to score the most points possible within the allotted time period by dribbling the ball passing it from player to player in an effort to get the ball into the hoop.

What are the Most Important Rules in Basketball?

  • Shoot the basketball into the other teams net or goal
  • Pass the ball from teammate to teammate
  • Dribble the ball when not shooting or passing
  • Block the other team from getting the ball in your net
  • Keep the ball within the boundary of the court
  • Turn the ball over to the other team after a successful basket

The above rules can be used as a quick start guide to get you playing right away. If you are completely brand new to the game, this is a really quick look at some very basic rules. These rules of basketball are enough that you could go out and have a great time playing without being overly concerned with the nitty gritty violations.

A Deeper Look at the Rules of Basketball

The rest of this article will go further into the meaning of basketball’s rules and how they should be implemented. Remember that basketball is a game and it’s meant to be fun. If your not playing competitively than just stick to the quick rules from above and keep it relaxed!

Game Start

Generally speaking, the rule of thumb is that the visiting team chooses which half of the court to start on. Teams will switch baskets or court sides at the end of the first half so that each team plays equal time on each side.

Play begins with a jump ball. A jump ball is where a player from each team stands at the center circle and the referee throws the ball up in the center of them. As the ball comes down, the two players try to jump up and tip the ball to his or her own teammates. Game play continues on from that point.

Equipment

Basketball

There are different sizes and weights of basketballs. NBA basketballs are 29.5 inches in circumference and are inflated to somewhere between 7.5 and 8.5 psi. Click here for more basketball sizes and weights.

Rim and Backboard

The back of the backboard is considered to be out of bounds however all other sides are fair play. The dimensions of the backboard are generally 6 feet wide by 3.5 feet high. 

Flat Court Surface

It is imperative that you have a flat surface to play basketball on. A surface with uneven terrain can be a dangerous trip and fall hazard. A grass court is ok for shooting but won’t work great for dribbling and that can be frustrating. Dirt courts work well in a pinch but get the ball so dirty and dusty that it becomes difficult to hold onto the ball. A clean, wooden surface is really the best option as it offers some cushion over a cement or blacktop court. Your knees will thank you if your able to play on a gym floor the majority of the time. Click here for NCAA basketball court dimensions.

Players

Number of Players

Each team has a maximum of 5 players on the court at any one time. There are often far more players on a team so that they can substitute in for one another when they get tired or injured.

Captain

The team captain is generally selected by the coach or voted on by the team. The team captain is a leader and should show positive leadership in all that he or she does. The team captains job includes:

  • Speaking with officials about rule interpretations (not calls) during timeouts
  • Setting the example for the rest of the team in game play, strategy, sportsmanship and effort
  • Encouraging team members to be and try their best and support them through difficulties on and off the court
  • Keeping the team mood focused, together and optimistic
  • Showing your teammates how to be a humble winner and a gracious loser
  • Reminding your team that it’s a game and it should be fun!

Scoring

A basket made anywhere from the baseline to the three point line counts as two points.

A basket made anywhere beyond the three point line counts as three points.

A free successful foul shot or free throw from the free throw line counts as 1 point for each basket made.

Winning

The team with the most points at the end of a game is considered the winner. In a playoff situation, the playoff winner is the team that wins “Best of 7”. In other words, the first team with 4 wins takes the championship.

Dribbling

CJ Fair NBA basketball player dribbling up court

Dribbling is one of the most basic rules of basketball. It’s how the ball is moved around the court when not being passed or shot. As the players run up and down the court they tap or push the ball downward with one hand causing it to hit the floor and bounce back up to the players hand. This is repeated when moving or while standing still. Dribbling ends under the following conditions:

  • The player touches the ball with both hands at the same time
  • They allow the ball to come to rest while he or she is in control of it
  • The player tries for a basket or goal
  • He or she throws a pass
  • They touch the ball more than once while dribbling, before it touches the floor
  • The player loses control of the ball
  • The player allows the ball to become dead for whatever reason

Free Throws

A free throw is a players opportunity to score points by shooting unopposed from the free throw line. This occurs when a player has been fouled during game play. The player has 10 seconds to take the shot from the line after receiving the ball from the referee. Each point scored from the free throw line is worth one point.

Fouls

Personal Foul

A player is allowed to commit 6 personal fouls in any single 48 minute game, the normal length of an NBA game. A 7th foul results in being ejected from the game. In a 40 minute game such as NCAA games, this number is reduced to 5 personal fouls with a 6th leading to ejection. A personal foul may be called anytime there is overly aggressive physical contact against another player from the opposing team during live game play.

The penalty for a personal foul can be losing possession of the ball or in the case of a foul during a shot on the basket a free throw equivalent to the value of the shot taken may be awarded. So if the fouled player was taking a three point shot he or she would be awarded three free throw shots from the free throw line valued at one point per shot.

Personal Foul Types

Illegal Screening

Setting up a screen in basketball can be a great tactic to help your team member with the ball reach the net, however, if you are screening an opponent who does not have possession of the ball than that would be an illegal screen and a foul may be called.

Holding

Holding a player in a way that prevents their movement at any point during play is not allowed.

Blocking

In basketball you are permitted to block a player as long as your feet are stationary and you keep your hands to yourself. Any other form of blocking is considered a foul.

Illegal Guarding

Illegal guarding is the use of your body to intentionally slow down or restrict the movement of an opposing player. Putting your hand in front of his or her face for example could be construed as an illegal foul.

Illegal Use of Hands

Using your hands on an opponent’s body to slow them down or restrict their movement while they are in possession of the ball may result in the referee calling an illegal use of hands foul. Players must have the ability to move freely without physical restriction. This does not mean a player can’t stand in front of another player in an attempt to block them. They must however keep their body from aggressively touching their opponents.

Pushing

Pushing is very straightforward and can be called whether a player has possession of the ball or not. Pushing is called when a player uses his or her body in any way to move an opposing player using force.  

Charging

Charging is called when a player aggressively hits another player. This could be a player with or without possession of the ball at the time. It could also be called when making too aggressive a play on the basket that results in an opposing player being hit or relocated in a major way.

Team Fouls

In the rules of basketball a team is permitted 4 fouls per quarter without additional penalties. For every foul committed beyond that, 2 free throws are awarded to the opposing team. Team fouls include any personal foul acquired by players of the team as well as any technical fouls (See Technical Fouls description)

Other Team Foul Types

Disqualifying Foul

A disqualifying foul would be called on a player who purposefully injures another player or is excessively aggressive to the point they act dangerously. In these situations there is no second chance. It is an automatic ejection from the game.

Personal Team Foul

Any time a player receives a personal foul, that foul also goes against his team. When a team acquires 5 fouls in a quarter, each additional foul will result in the opposing team getting 2 free throws.

Double Dribble

A double dribble occurs when a player stops dribbling and then begins again without passing or shooting the ball first. This can be because the player touched the ball with two hands and then continued to dribble again or because the player held the ball momentarily rather than the ball being in continuous motion.

Technical Foul

A technical foul is basically any foul that does not include physical contact with another player in some way. Think of it as dealing with the small technicalities involved in playing a team sport. Everyone must adhere to the same rules of basketball. There are many non-game rules that must be followed including a strict player dress code. Failure to adhere to any off-court rules may result in a technical foul.

Any member of a team can incur a technical foul. This includes players on the court and off as well as coaches. After a team member receives two technical fouls in one single game they are immediately removed from the game.

If a team member accumulates 16 technical fouls in a single season they are suspended from one game. They are suspended for one additional game for every two technical fouls after that.

Flopping Foul

A flopping foul is when a player intentionally falling or trying to mislead the referees into thinking a fall or hit was more serious than it was in an effort to have fouls called on the opposing team.

Double Foul

A double foul occurs when two opposing players incur a foul against each other at the same time. For example, a player grabs the shirt of an opposing player as he or she aggressively charges their way through the defense to make a play at the basket. The first offender should not have grabbed the clothing of the second and the second offender should not have been charging.

Unsportsmanlike or Flagrant Foul

A flagrant or unsportsmanlike foul occurs when a player intentionally hurts another player to prevent him or her from progressing toward the net. Clotheslining someone in the heat of a game may be considered a flagrant or unsportsmanlike foul.

Offensive Three Seconds

This is often affectionately referred to as “3 in the key” and is designed to prevent players from cherry picking or camping out under the basket to try and make an easy tip in. A player can not spend more than three consecutive seconds in the key.

Defensive Three Seconds

Similar to the Offensive Three Seconds, the Defensive Three Seconds is designed to prevent large players from completely blocking access to the basket. It also helps limit some goaltending.

Goaltending Foul

Goaltending is the act of grabbing or swatting the ball away from entering the basket as it descends from a shot taken. Large players could otherwise jump up and grab the ball just before it enters the rim.

Clear Path to the Basket Foul

A Clear Path to the Basket foul can occur when a player has a breakaway with a clear path to the basket in front of him or her and they are tripped or pushed from behind preventing them from making the play.

Punching Foul

This foul’s exactly what it sounds like it should be. A player punches or hits another player whether accidental or on purpose.

Away From the Play Foul

An Away From the Play foul is enacted in the last 2 minutes of the game or in an overtime situation. This is a foul that occurs away from the action of game play when there is some sort of illegal contact. It can also take place in the few moments prior to a ball being thrown in from the sidelines.  

Loose Ball Foul

A loose ball foul is the result of neither teams being able to get control of the ball. This may be the result of a tugging match over the ball with the players fighting for possession. Possession can be decided with a jump ball or a possession arrow may be in use at the scorekeepers desk.

For these fouls there is no line-up of players on the free throw lane and these fouls do not count towards personal or team foul totals.  

Throw In

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A throw in, also called an inbound pass, can occur after a loose ball foul or when the ball goes out of bounds. The team awarded possession has a player stand at the court boundary line, either at the baseline or sideline, he then throws the ball into a teammate. The ball must be passed into the same side of the court the throw in takes place on with the exception of the final two mins or overtime, at which point the ball can be thrown into anywhere on the court.

Substitutes

In the rules of basketball, any player who is planning on substituting in for another on his team goes to the scorer table and lets the scorer know which teammate he plans on replacing. He then stands in the substitution box and waits for the referee to signal him in to make the replacement. The substitution box is an 8′ wide area marked out in front of the scorer’s table.

Uniforms

Interestingly, the home team wears light colored jerseys and the visitors or away team wears dark colored jerseys. The players shirt is supposed to be tucked into the players shorts at all times and they are not allowed to wear t-shirts over their jerseys.

Chicago basketball jersey

Some leagues require all numbers on the jerseys to be made up of numbers that can be expressed on one hand (0-5) so that there is no confusion when the referee reports fouls to the officials. For example the number 24 would be fine as the referee can use his one hand to hold up 2 fingers and his other to hold up 4. The number 78 however would not be allowed as this would be more difficult to communicate. This is only certain leagues that have this restriction however.

Final Thoughts

Basketball is an amazing sport! Weather playing in the NBA, watching from the bleachers or enjoying a relaxing afternoon in the home driveway-court, basketball is a game that can bring friends together and provides hours and hours of fun. So now that you know a little more about the rules of basketball, get out there, grab a ball and start shooting!

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