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Basketball is very popular in U.S. colleges. Here, center Kent Benson of Indiana U. shoots a hook shot.
Basketball is very popular in U.S. colleges. Here, center Kent Benson of Indiana U. shoots a hook shot.

Basketball is a ball sport in which, under organized rules, two teams of five players each try to score points by throwing a ball through a hoop.

It is primarily an indoor sport, played in a relatively small playing area, called the court. The speed and grace of the game, combined with the close proximity of the spectators to the action, make basketball an exciting spectator sport. It is one of the "major sports" of the United States, and is also popular in other parts of the world, including South America, Europe, Asia, and some former Soviet republics.



Early basketball

Basketball is unusual in that it was invented by one man, rather than evolving from a different sport. In 1891, Dr. James Naismith, a Canadian minister on the faculty of a college for YMCA professionals (today, Springfield College) in Springfield, Massachusetts, sought a vigorous indoor game to keep young men occupied during the long New England winters. Legend has it that, after rejecting other ideas as either too rough or poorly suited to walled-in gymnasiums, he wrote the basic rules, and nailed a peach basket onto the gym wall. The first official game was played in the YMCA gymnasium on January 20, 1892. Then, there were nine players on the court in a court just half the size of an NBA court. "Basket ball", the name suggested by one of his students, was popular from the beginning, and with its early adherents being dispatched to YMCAs throughout the United States, the game was soon played all over the country.

Interestingly, while the YMCA was responsible for initially developing and spreading the game, within a decade, it discouraged the new sport, as rough play and rowdy crowds began to detract from the YMCA's primary mission. Other amateur sports clubs, colleges, and professional clubs quickly filled the void. In the years before World War I, the Amateur Athletic Union and the Intercollegiate Athletic Association (forerunner of the NCAA) vied for control over the rules of the game.

Basketball was originally played with a soccer ball. The first balls made specially for basketball were brown, and it was only in the late 1950s that Tony Hinkle, searching for a ball that would be more visible to players and spectators alike, introduced the orange ball that is now in common use.

College basketball and early leagues

Naismith himself was instrumental in establishing the college game, coaching at University of Kansas for six years before handing the reins to renowned coach Phog Allen. Naismith disciple Amos Alonzo Stagg brought basketball to the University of Chicago, while Adolph Rupp, a student of Naismith at Kansas, enjoyed great success as coach at the University of Kentucky. College leagues date back to the 1920s, and the first national championship tournament, the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) in New York, followed in 1938. College basketball was rocked by gambling scandals from 1948-1951, when dozens of players from top teams were implicated in game fixing and point-shaving. Partially spurred by the association of the NIT with many of the cheaters, the NCAA national tournament surpassed the NIT in importance. Today, the NCAA tournament it is rivaled only by the baseball World Series and the Super Bowl of American football in the American sports psyche.

In the 1920s, there were hundreds of professional basketball teams in towns and cities all over the United States. There was little organization to the professional game, as players jumped from team to team, and teams played in armories and smoky dance halls. Leagues came and went, and barnstorming squads such as the New York Rens and the Original Celtics played up to two hundred games a year on their national tours.

National Basketball Association

In 1946, the National Basketball Association (NBA) was formed, organising the top professional teams and leading to greater popularity of the professional game. An upstart organization, the American Basketball Association, emerged in 1967 and briefly threatened the NBA's dominance until the rival leagues merged in 1976.

The NBA has featured many famous players, including George Mikan, the first dominating "big man"; ball-handling wizard Bob Cousy and defensive genius Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics; Wilt Chamberlain (who originally played for the barnstorming "Harlem Globetrotters"); all-around stars Oscar Robertson and Jerry West; more recent big men Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton, playmaker John Stockton; and the three players who many credit with ushering the professional game to its highest level of popularity: Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and Michael Jordan.

The NBA-backed Women's National Basketball Association began play in 1997. As in the NBA, several marquee players (Sheryl Swoopes, Lisa Leslie, and Sue Bird among others) have helped the league improve its popularity and level of competition. Other professional women's basketball leagues in the United States have folded in part because of the success of the WNBA.

International basketball

U.S. Naval Academy "low-post" player attempts to dribble past U.S. Military Academy defender
U.S. Naval Academy "low-post" player attempts to dribble past U.S. Military Academy defender

The International Basketball Federation was formed in 1932 by eight founding nations: Argentina, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Portugal, Romania and Switzerland. At this time, the organisation only oversaw amateur players. Its acronym, in French, was thus FIBA; the "A" standing for amateur.

Basketball was first included in the Olympic Games in 1936, although a demonstration tournament was held back in 1904. This competition has usually been dominated by the United States, whose team has won all but three titles, the first loss in a controversial final game in Munich in 1972 against the Soviet Union.

In 1950 the first World Championships for men were held in Argentina. Three years later, the first World Championships for women were held in Chile.

FIBA dropped the distinction between amateur and professional players in 1989, and in 1992, professional players played for the first time in the Olympic Games. The United States' dominance briefly resurfaced with the introduction of their Dream Team. However, with developing programs elsewhere, other national teams have now caught up with the United States. A team made entirely of NBA players finished sixth in the 2002 World Championships in Indianapolis, behind Serbia and Montenegro, Argentina, Germany, New Zealand and Spain. In the 2004 Olympics, the United States suffered its first Olympic loss while using professional players, falling to the Puerto Rican national basketball team and eventually came in third after Argentina and Italy.

Women's basketball was added to the Olympics in 1976, with teams such as Brazil and Australia rivaling the American squads.

World-wide, basketball tournaments are held for all age levels, from five- to six-year-olds (called biddy-biddy), to high school, college, and the professional leagues. Tournaments are held at each level for both boys and girls.

The global popularity of the sport is reflected in the nationalities represented in the NBA. Here are just a few of the outstanding international players who have played or still play in the NBA:

Many outstanding non-US players, including Serbia and Montenegro's Dejan Bodiroga and past Olympian Oscar Schmidt of Brazil, have chosen to decline NBA opportunities. Jasikevicius himself only joined the NBA in 2005 after playing in Europe for seven seasons, the last three of which ended in Euroleague titles for the team he was with.

Rules and regulations

A modern basketball
A modern basketball
Main article: Rules of basketball

The object of the game is to outscore one's opponents by throwing the ball through the opponents' basket from above while preventing the opponents from doing so on their own. An attempt to score in this way is called a shot.

A successful shot is worth two points, or three points if it is taken from beyond the three-point arc which is 6.25 meters (20 ft 5 in) from the basket in international games, 23 ft 9 in (7.24 m) in NBA games and 19 ft 9 in (6.02 m) in US college games. A successful free throw is worth one point.

Playing regulations

Games are played in four quarters of 10 (international) or 12 minutes (NBA), or two halves of 20 minutes (college and WNBA) each. Fifteen minutes are allotted for a half-time break, and two minutes are allowed at the other breaks. Overtime periods are five minutes long. Teams exchange baskets for the second half.

The time allotted is actual playing time; that is, the clock is stopped while the ball is not in play, for example when a violation or foul is committed or during free throws. Therefore, games generally take much longer; games of the length above realistically take around two hours.

A diagram of a FIBA basketball court.
A diagram of a FIBA basketball court.

A time-out is a clock stoppage requested by the coach of either team, during which he can talk to the team. A time-out lasts one minute in international basketball and either 60 seconds or 20 seconds in NBA basketball, but if the game is on television and a commercial break is taken during a time-out, the time-out is extended to 100 seconds. In international basketball, time-outs are limited to two in the first half, three in the second half and one in each extra period. In NBA basketball, six time-outs are allowed throughout the game, though only three can be in the last quarter. Three are allowed in each extra period.

The game is controlled by the officials consisting of the referee, one or two umpires and the table officials. The table officials are responsible for scoring, timekeeping and the shot clock.


The only essential equipment in basketball is the court, which consists of two baskets with backboards, and a basketball. At competitive levels, much more equipment is needed, including clocks, scoresheets, scoreboards, foul markers, alternating possession arrows, sometimes whistle-operated stop-clock systems.

The men's ball's circumference ranges between 29.5 and 30 inches (749 and 762 mm) and weighs 1 lb 4 oz to 1 lb 6 oz (567 to 624 g). The women's ball's circumference is between 28.5 and 29.0 in (724 and 737 mm) and its mass from 1 lb 2 oz to 1 lb 4 oz (510 to 567 g).

A regulation basketball court in international games is 28 by 15 meters (approx. 92 by 49 feet) and in the NBA is 94 by 50 feet (approx. 29 by 15 meters). Most courts are made of wood and have various markings 2 inches (5 centimeters) wide to mark off the various sections.

A basket and backboard hang over each end of the court. The basket consists of a cast-iron rim and a net, and is connected by supports to the backboard. The backboard sits 10 feet (NBA), which is the same as 3.05 meters (FIBA), above the court and four feet inside the endline. They may have either a fan shape or rectangular shape. The fan shaped backboard is 54 inches (140 centimeters) wide, and has the "target area" at the bottom center. The rectangular backboard is 72 inches (180 centimeters) wide and has its "target area" in the lower center. Both "target areas" are 24 inches long and 18 inches wide.

The backboard and basket.
The backboard and basket.

Teams and uniforms

There are five players from each team, on the court at any time. Teams can have up to seven substitutes. Substitutions are unlimited but can only be done during a stoppage in play. Teams also have a coach, who oversees the development and strategies of the team, and other team followers such as assistant coaches, managers, statisticians, doctors and trainers.

For both men's and women's teams, a standard uniform consists of a pair of shorts and a sleeveless tank top. Players also wear high-top sneakers that provide extra ankle support. Years ago, female players' uniforms consisted of short-sleeved shirts and skirts. This type of uniform has long since been phased out. At all levels of competitive basketball, the basketball uniforms have the team's name printed across the upper chest area, plus a number. The numbers help identify a player to fans and - more importantly - other players, coaches and game officials. The uniforms of the home team are often white (or some other light color), while the visiting team wears a darker-colored uniform. A small number of high school teams, many college teams, and a large number of professional teams put the player's name on the back of the jersey. This practice is mandatory in the NBA.

International games mandate the numbers from 4 to 15. At the high school and college levels, numbers generally range from 1-5, 10-15, 20-25, 30-35, 40-45, and 50-55, plus 0 and 00; in NCAA basketball, these are the only legal numbers. In some states, high school teams must wear even-numbered jerseys if they're the home team and odd-numbered jerseys if they're considered the visitor. Also, teams may have either 0 or 00, but not both. Numbers ranging from 0,00-99 are allowed in the NBA (e.g., all-time great Bill Russell wore #6 with the Boston Celtics, and current star Andrei Kirilenko wears #47 with the Utah Jazz), and some players have worn numbers above 55 (like Dennis Rodman, who wore #91 while playing with the Chicago Bulls and George Mikan, who wore #99 with the Minneapolis Lakers).


The ball may be advanced toward the basket by being shot, passed between players, thrown, tapped, rolled or dribbled (bouncing the ball while running).

The ball must stay within the court — it cannot touch the floor on or outside the boundary line, or a person who is standing there. The last team to touch the ball before it does so forfeits possession. A player is allowed to "save" a ball that has crossed the vertical plane of the boundary line and return the ball to play before the ball or the player touches the ground.

The ball-handler may not move both feet while he is holding the ball and not dribbling, known as travelling, nor may he dribble with both hands or catch the ball in between dribbles, a violation called double-dribbling. A player's hand cannot pass the vertical while dribbling, so that his hand is partially below the ball; this is known as carrying the ball. A team, once having established ball control in the front half of the court, may not return the ball to the backcourt. No player may kick the ball or strike it with his fist. A violation of these rules results in loss of possession, or, if committed by the defense, a reset of the shot clock.

A team, having gained possession of the ball, must progress the ball past halfway within 8 seconds (10 seconds in college) and attempt a shot within 24 seconds (35 in college). However, there is usually no shot clock below the college level. After a shot, the shot clock resets to its original time if the ball hits some part of the rim; a shot that makes no contact at all (an air ball) or that only hits the backboard does not reset the clock. A closely guarded player may not hold the ball without dribbling (or, in the NBA, dribble with his back to the basket) for 5 seconds. These rules are designed to reward good defense. Also, an offensive (and, in the NBA, defensive) player cannot remain in the restricted area (also known as the paint or keyhole) for more than 3 seconds at a time. An offensive 3-second violation results in loss of possession; a defensive 3-second violation gives the offense 1 free throw and continued possession of the ball.

No player may interfere with the ball or basket on its downward flight to the basket, or while it is on the ring (or, in the NBA, while it is directly above the basket), a violation known as goaltending. If a defensive player goaltends, the attempted shot is considered to have been successful, and 2 or 3 points, depending on where the shot was taken, are awarded to the shooting team. If an offensive teammate of the shooter or dribbler goaltends, that team loses possession.


Main articles: Personal foul, Technical foul

An attempt to unfairly disadvantage an opponent through personal contact is illegal and is called a foul. These are most commonly committed by defensive players; however, they can be committed by offensive players as well. Players who are fouled either receive the ball to pass inbounds again, or receive one or more free throws if they are fouled in the act of shooting, depending on whether the shot was successful. One point is awarded for making a free throw, which is attempted from a line 4.5 metres (15 feet) from the basket.

There is some discretion with the referee when calling a foul — they consider if there was unfair advantage gained, for example, a player gained possession unfairly. This makes fouls sometimes controversial calls. Contact in basketball is unavoidable, and the calling of a foul can vary between games, leagues and even between referees.

If a team surpasses a preset limit of team fouls in a given period (quarter or half) – four for international and NBA games, six for college games – the opposing team is awarded one or two free throws on all subsequent fouls for that period. The number of free throws depends on the league. If the foul is in the act of shooting, the amount of free throws normally awarded for that shooting situation overrules the amount set here. Offensive fouls and double fouls do not result in free throws (just loss of possession); and they are not counted as team fouls in the NBA (though they are counted in international games).

A player or coach who shows poor sportsmanship, for instance, by arguing with a referee or by fighting with another player, can be charged with a technical foul. A coach with two technical fouls is disqualified from the game and is required to leave the playing area. In the NBA, players with two technical fouls are also disqualified. The penalty involves free throws and varies between leagues.

Blatant fouls with excessive contact or that are not an attempt to play the ball are called unsportsmanlike fouls (or flagrant fouls in the NBA) and incur a harsher penalty; in some rare cases a disqualifying foul will require the player to leave the playing area.

If a player commits five fouls (including technical fouls) in one game (six in some professional leagues, including the NBA), he is not allowed to participate for the rest of the game, and is described as having "fouled out". If no substitutes are available, the team must forfeit the game at some levels. However, in college and high school games, teams may continue with as few as two players – and even one if the officials feel the short-handed team still has an opportunity to win. Some leagues, including the NBA, allow fouled out players to re-enter the game at the cost of a technical foul on the team. But, if the team has a player that has fouled out, and the game goes into overtime, the player that has fouled out is allowed back into the game, though for one period only.

Common techniques and practice


During the first five decades of basketball's evolution, a player occupied one of three positions, as follows: two guards, two forwards, and one center. Since the 1980s, more specific positions have evolved, as follows:

  1. Point guard
  2. Shooting guard
  3. Small forward
  4. Power forward
  5. Center

On some occasions, teams will choose to use a three guard offense, replacing one of the forwards or the center with a third guard. They may also utilize the less common power forward.


Navy player releases a short jump shot, while her defender is either knocked down, or trying to "take a charge."
Navy player releases a short jump shot, while her defender is either knocked down, or trying to "take a charge."

The most common and recommended way of shooting the ball is outlined:

The ball is first held with both hands with the guide hand on the side of the ball and the shooting hand under the ball. The ball rests in the shooting hand, in the manner of a waiter carrying a tray. The ball should rest only on the top parts of the shooter's fingers. The power of the shot comes from the legs, passing through to the elbow and wrist extensions of the shooting arm, finally continuing through the fingers. The ball is shot toward the target by extending the wrist in a half-arc until the fingers are pointing toward the floor. The ball rolls off the finger tips while the wrist completes a full downward flex motion. The shooting elbow is extended upward, starting its extension from approximately a 90 degree flex.

The ball should be evenly placed between the index and middle fingers. Upon the wrist and finger actions, the ball ideally has a reverse, even spin, called backspin. This deadens the shot upon impact with the rim and applies touch to the ball.

The ideal trajectory of the shot is somewhat arguable, but generally coaches will profess proper arch. The ball should pass well above the hoop, depending on the length of the shot, and travel downward into the basket to create the best angle for success.

Therefore, a fluid shot involves a sequenced motion extending the knee, elbow, wrist and fingers. From behind, a shooter will have their arm fully extended with the wrist and fingers forming a gooseneck-like position.

The best shooters have great hand and eye coordination, excellent balance, and courage under pressure. Spotting a shooting opportunity is as important as basic technique; top players at the professional level rarely miss when given an unguarded look at the basket. Practice is a key element as well, of course. Many players will linger for hours after a practice session, taking hundreds of shots from various angles to perfect their technique.


A pass is a method of moving the ball between players. Most passes are accompanied by a step forward to increase power and are followed through with the hands to ensure accuracy.

One of the most basic passes is the chest pass. The ball is passed directly from the passer's chest to the receiver's chest. This has the advantage that it takes the least time to complete, as the passer tries to pass as directly straight as possible.

Another type of pass is the bounce pass. In this pass, the ball bounces about two-thirds of the way from the passer. Like the chest pass, it is passed from the passer's chest to the receiver's chest, and it is passed as directly as possible, for example, there should be no downward motion of the ball between the bounce and the time the receiver catches it. In this way, it is completed in the smallest amount of time possible for this pass. It does take longer to complete than the chest pass, but it is more difficult for the opposing team to intercept (kicking the ball deliberately is a violation). Thus, in crowded moments, or to pass the ball around a defender, this pass is often used.

The overhead pass is used to pass the ball over a defender. The ball is passed from behind the passer's head, coming over it and aiming for around the chin of the receiver. This pass is also a fairly direct pass and can cover more distance than a chest pass.

A pass is not necessarily always between two players a distance from each other; sometimes a clever cut by a team-mate can mean that a pass is to a team-mate who is in motion but at the time of passing next to the passer.

The most important aspect of a good pass is that it is difficult for the defense to intercept. For this reason, large arc-shaped passes are almost always avoided and cross-court passes, called skip passes, are only used in certain situations.


Dribbling is the act of bouncing the ball continuously. When a player dribbles, he pushes the ball down towards the ground, rather than patting it, because this ensures greater control.

When dribbling past an opponent, the dribbler should dribble with the hand furthest from the player. It is therefore important for a basketballer to be able to dribble confidently with both hands. In this way, the defender will not be able to get to the ball without getting past the dribbler. Also, the dribble will be lowered so that its movement is more frequent.

The dribble is also lowered when switching hands. This is because, when switching the hand that is dribbling, the ball travels in front of the player making it easier to steal. Alternatively, to switch hands, a player can dribble between his legs or behind his back.

It is common for beginners to dribble into a difficult position. A player should not have to watch the ball while he is dribbling. The pushing motion means that he knows where the ball is without having to see it; and a player's peripheral vision can also track the ball. By not having to focus on the ball, a player can look for team mates or scoring opportunities, as well as steer himself away from danger.


Being tall is a clear advantage in basketball. At the professional level, most male participants are above 1.90 meters (6 ft 3 in) and most women are above 1.70 meters (5 ft 7 in). Guards, for whom physical coordination and ballhandling skill are of paramount importance, tend to be the smallest players, though they can occasionally be quite tall. The shortest player ever in the NBA is Muggsy Bogues at 1.60 meters (5 ft 3 in). Forwards in the men's professional leagues are almost all 2 meters (6 ft 6 in) or taller. Most centers, and a few forwards, are over 2.1 meters (6 ft 10.5 in) tall. The tallest players ever in the NBA, Manute Bol and Gheorghe Muresan, are 2.31 m (7 ft 7 in). Currently, the tallest NBA players are Shawn Bradley and Yao Ming, both listed at 2.29 m (7 ft 6 in), although Yao has been recently reported to be 2.30 m barefoot and 2.34 m (7 ft 8 in) in basketball shoes.

At the US college level, most men are at least 5 feet 10 inches (1.78 m) and women 5 feet 5 inches (1.65 m).

The smallest high school players are usually 5 feet 6 inches (1.68 m) in boys' play and 5 feet (1.52 m) in girl's play.

Some shorter players experience success at the pro level. Anthony "Spud" Webb stood just 5 feet 7 inches (1.70 m) tall, but had an amazing 42 inch (1.07 m) vertical leap, and played for 12 years in the NBA, even winning the 1986 NBA Slam Dunk Contest.

Variations and similar games

There are some variations of basketball played in informal settings. In street (also known as 'pickup' or 'streetball') games, an arbitrary number of points by one team is set as the game's end point. Free throws are not used, and fouls are called, by the fouled player, only when a violation is flagrant or prevents a score. Fouls are almost always called by the player with the ball; off-ball fouls or fouls called by the defense are frowned upon unless the foul committed is especially egregious.

Full court games usually only commence if there are ten players. For smaller groups of people, the game is usually played in a half-court setting. In halfcourt games, only one basket is used, with the requirement that the ball be "cleared" - passed or dribbled behind the three-point line - whenever possession of the ball changes. A "make-it-take-it" convention, informally known as "buckets" or "winners out", is followed in some regions, whereby the scoring team retains possession of the ball. Because free throws are not generally used, baskets made in pick-up games generally count as one point. However, some courts have begun to add the three-point goal to their pick-up scenario. Some courts keep scores inside the three-point goal as one point and scores beyond it two, while others use standard basketball scoring rules: two points for scores inside the three-point goal and three points for scores outside.

Both fullcourt and halfcourt games require an even number of players so that each team has an equal number of players. There exist, however, games for odd number of players. Twenty-one is a game that can be played with two or more players. Each player has his own score, with the winner being the first to reach twenty-one. The game begins with one of the players starting with the ball, with the objective of scoring. All other players attempt to stop the score. On a missed shot, the rebounder clears the ball by dribbling it beyond the three-point line. Whenever a basket is scored, that player receives two points and goes to the free-throw line, where each made shot tacks on another point to their score. Common variations include:

  • Having the first made free throw in the game worth two points, while all others are worth just one
  • Limiting a player to no more than three made free throws in a row. Upon the third consecutive free throw, the player must start with the ball and try to score a regular basket with the others playing defense.
  • Having scores from behind the three-point line count as three points
  • Resetting a players score back to zero if they end up with exactly thirteen points
  • Resetting a players score back to zero or thirteen if their score exceeds twenty-one. This can happen if they have twenty points and are at the free throw line and miss their free throw. Since the minimum number of points they can henceforth get is two, once they hit twenty-two points rather than winning their score is reset to a lower value.

Another common, less atheletic game for smaller groups of players is H-O-R-S-E. In this game, players shoot in a particular order. To start, the first shooter may shoot from anywhere on the court. If they miss, the second player gets to shoot from anywhere on the court. If they make their shot, however, the second person must make the same shot made by the first; if the second player misses, they get a "letter" from the word "horse". The next player may shoot from anywhere they please. If, however, the second player makes the shot of the first, the third player must make the same shot, and so on, until the shooting cycles back to the first, in which he may take a new shot. A player is knocked out of the game once they have missed five shots, spelling out the word "horse". Oftentimes, the shots in H-O-R-S-E are trick shots that are rarely, if ever, taken in a real game.

Spin-offs from basketball include baseketball, which has some elements of baseball, korfball, which was born in the Netherlands and is played by mixed teams, netball, which was informally called "women's basketball" but now includes men's teams, slamball, and ringball. 21 basketball, Horse, and Around the world are popular variants.

Further reading

Wikimedia Commons has media related to:


  • Reimer, Anthony (June 2005). "FIBA vs North American Rules Comparison". FIBA Assist 14, p. 40.
  • International Basketball Federation (September 2004). Official Basketball Rules.



Game rules and play

See also

External links

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