Rules of the game

The rules of basketball have changed considerably since 1892. Different leagues now have their own, invariably arcane, sets of rules and regulations. There are more similarities between leagues than there are differences, but there is no comprehensive list of rules and regulations. The technical commission of the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) determine the international rules of basketball. The English Basketball Leagues (EBL) and Scottish Basketball League (SBL) comply with these rules. The official rules and regulations of international basketball can be found on FIBA’s official website. The National Basketball Association (NBA) determines the rules for the major U.S. basketball league. The following information is taken from The Official Rules of the NBA:

The basics

A basketball team is comprised of 5 players. The aim of the game is to put the ball in the opposing team’s basket. Players can pass the ball to each other and can move around any part of the court. They can also move with the ball by ‘dribbling;’ that is, by bouncing the ball at knee-height whilst standing still or travelling. The game is divided into four 10-minute periods known as ‘quarters.’ The team which has the most points by the end of the game wins.


The number of points awarded for successfully throwing the ball into the opposing team’s basket depends upon where the player was standing when they threw the ball: if they were outside the 3-point line, their team will be awarded 3 points; if they were standing inside it, their team will be awarded 2 points. When a player is awarded with the opportunity to take an unguarded shot at the basket from the ‘free throw’ line as compensation for a technical or personal foul, a successful attempt will be rewarded with 1 point.


All players are responsible for both scoring and defending, but also have particular roles to play. The 5 positions are:

  • Point Guard – The Point Guard is usually, but not always, the shortest player on the team. They do not usually play in close proximity to the basket and usually play a prominent role in offensive plays.
  • Shooting Guard – The Shooting Guard should be a skilled long-range shooter who is adept at taking shots from beyond the 3-point line. This player often works with the point guard during offensive plays, but also works closely with the Small Forward.
  • Small Forward – The Small Forward should be skilled at mid-range shooting and is likely to be responsible for scoring many of his/her team’s 2 point shots. The Small Forward should be adept at taking possession of the ball when it rebounds off the backboard after an unsuccessful attempt at a field goal, and takes a prominent role in defence.
  • Power Forward – The Power Forward should also be skilled at dealing with rebounds and works closely with the Small Forward in defensive plays.
  • Centre – The Centre is often the tallest player on the team. He/she usually plays close to the basket in order to be available to receive a pass during an offensive play.
Basketball Positions

Basketball Positions


A personal foul is some form of illegal body contact. If a player commits a personal foul, the opposing team will be awarded by a free throw or possession of the ball by the referee. A game official can also charge a player, coach or any other member of a team with a technical foul as punishment for unsportsmanlike or inappropriate behaviour. The following moves are considered to constitute illegal body contact and will result in a penalty for a personal foul:

  • Charging – When a player is moving with the ball and runs directly into a player who is attempting to guard them, the offending player will be penalised for ‘charging.’
  • Illegal guarding – Aggressively bumping into an opponent from behind them.
  • Illegal screening – This is attempting to slow down a member of the opposing team who is not in current possession of the ball.
  • Illegal checking – This is bodily contact made with a player who is attempting to release the ball by passing to a team-mate or making an attempt at the basket.
  • Hand checking – This is defined as deliberately trying to slow down an opponent by grabbing at them.
  • Blocking – It is illegal to create an obstacle, or ‘block’ a player who is dribbling the ball (unless the player defending has adopted a legal guarding stance).
  • Holding – Holding is making bodily contact with a member of the opposing team to somehow prevent them from moving.

Game officials

NBA rules state that there should be a crew official and two referees. (NB other leagues sometimes refer to an ‘umpire’ who is responsible for judging fouls, and a ‘referee’ who is responsible for judging the ball). There should also be an official scorer and two trained timers. One timer will be responsible for supervising the game clock, and the other will be charged with ensuring that rules relating to the elapse of time are complied with by referring to the 24 second clock.

Officials have "elastic power"; that is, the authority to make a decision about the legality of anything which is not specifically covered in the rules. The crew official has the authority to overrule or question the decision of other officials. If there is ambiguity about which team caused the ball to go out of play, a jump ball will be called between the 2 players involved in the dispute.

Termination of play due to a personal foul or violation is signalled by an official blowing his whistle. This whistle is also a signal to the official timer to stop the game clock. If play has been stopped on account of a personal foul, the official who blew the whistle should identify the offender and state the type of foul which has occurred. They should indicate the number of free throws that are to be awarded to the opposition, and, when relevant, should identify the spot where a throw-in should take place.

The scorers are responsible for recording important information about the game including: the number of goals made (and points accumulated); the number of free throws made and missed; the number of personal and technical fouls called on each player; and the number of time-outs called by each team.

The timers are responsible for recording the playing time. The game clock is stopped if a game official declares that there has been a violation or a foul. The 24 second clock is operated independently of the game clock and is used to ensure that all rules relating to time limits are complied with. The timers are constrained by very exact rules about when the clocks should be stopped and re-started. For example, if the ball is knocked out of play and the clocks are stopped for a throw-in, they should be re-started when the ball is first legally touched. The rules will not always be the same, however, for both clocks. For example, after an unsuccessful free throw attempt, the game clock must be re-started the next time the ball is legally touched, while the 24 second clock should be restarted when player possession is obtained.

Violations and their penalties

Free throws – Free throws are usually awarded in the following situations:

  • When a player has been fouled during a shooting attempt. The player is compensated for a missed opportunity to score by either two or three free throws (depending upon whether they were standing in front of, or behind, the free throw line when the foul was committed).
  • When a team is in the position of being punished by a team foul. This occurs when a team has committed more than four fouls in one period. Two free throws are awarded.
  • When a player, coach or other team member demonstrates unsportsmanlike behaviour they receive a technical foul. If the offence is committed by a player on the court, the opposing team receives two free throws.

Free throws must be executed with respect for the following rules:

  1. The player awarded with the free throw must stand behind the free throw line and make an attempt at the basket within 10 seconds.
  2. Players are not permitted to touch the ball or basket while the ball is on or within the basket.
  3. Players who occupy a free throw line space are not permitted to touch the floor on or across the free throw line. Players who don’t occupy a free throw line space must remain behind the 3 point line until the ball leaves the shooter’s hands.
  4. The shooter is not permitted to cross the free throw line until the ball touches the basket or backboard, or until the free throw ends.
  5. Players are not permitted to attempt to block the ball before it reaches the basket.
  6. The shooter is not permitted to fake an attempt at the goal.
  7. Opponents are not permitted to attempt to distract the free throw shooter.

If the team which has been awarded the free throw violates the rules, a point will not be awarded and possession will be awarded to the opposing team. If the opposing team violates these rules, no action is taken if the shooter is successful; if he/she is not, a point will be awarded and another free throw will be awarded in addition. If both teams violate the rules, the ball becomes dead and possession is decided by a jump throw between any two players in the centre circle.

Out of bounds

If a player causes the ball to go out of bounds the ball is awarded to the opposing team at the boundary line, as near as possible to where the violation took place. The only exception is when the ball goes out of bounds following a throw-in, when the ball is not touched by a player from either team. In this case, the throw-in takes place again at the original spot.

Dribble – The following rules apply to dribbling:

  1. A player is not allowed to move with the ball if he/she is not dribbling it.
  2. If a player steps on or outside a boundary line, they are out-of-bounds, even if the ball itself remained inbounds.
  3. A player is not permitted to dribble for a second time if he voluntarily ends his first dribble. He/she will be permitted to dribble again if he/she lost control of the ball due to: an attempt at the basket, on the condition that the ball touched the ring or the backboard; an opponent touching the ball; or, a pass or fumble which involved the ball being touched by another player.

If these rules are violated, possession is awarded to the opposing team at the sideline, as close as possible to the place of violation, but no nearer to the base-line than the foul-line.

Throwing-in – The following rules apply to throwing in:

  1. The thrower-in must not carry the ball onto the court.
  2. The thrower-in must release the ball within 5 seconds.
  3. The thrower-in cannot leave the spot designated as the throwing-in sport by a game official.
  4. The thrower-in cannot make an attempt at the basket from the throwing-in spot, before the ball has been touched by anyone on the court.
  5. The thrower-in cannot step over the boundary line while throwing the ball back onto the court.
  6. The thrower-in cannot cause the ball to go out of bounds again without being touched by anyone on the court.
  7. The thrower-in cannot simply hand the ball to a player on the court.

If these rules are violated, the opposing team will be awarded possession at the spot of the original throw-in.

Striking the ball

  1. Players are not permitted to strike the ball with their fist or to kick the ball.
  2. Kicking or striking the ball intentionally is a violation; doing so accidentally does not constitute a violation.

If these rules are violated by the offense, possession will be awarded to the opposing team at the sideline as close as possible to the site of the violation. If the violation is committed by the defence, the offensive team maintains possession. If the violation occurs during a throw-in, the opposing team is awarded possession at the site of the throw-in.

Jump ball – Players are constrained by the following rules whilst participating in jump throws:

  1. Each participating player must have at least one foot on or inside of the half of the jumping circle furthest away from his/her team’s basket.
  2. The ball must be tapped by one or both players when the ball reaches its highest point. If neither of the participating players manages to touch the ball before it falls, another toss will take place.
  3. The participating players are not permitted to touch the ball before it reaches its highest point.
  4. Neither of the participating players can leave the jumping circle until the ball has been tapped.
  5. Participating players are not permitted to tap the ball twice.
  6. Neither of the participating players can catch the ball until it has touched the floor, the basket, the backboard, or one of the other eight players on the court.
  7. The eight players who are not participating in the jump ball must remain outside of the restraining circle until the ball has been tapped.
  8. During a jump ball, a personal foul committed is called a "loose ball" foul. The game clock and 24 second clock should not be restarted until the ball has been legally tapped.

If these rules are violated, the opposing team will be awarded possession at the sideline. If both teams violate the rules, or, if the game official determines that he has made an unfair toss, it will be repeated.

The offensive 3 second rule

This rule states that an offensive player is not permitted to remain in his part of the free-throw lane between the end-line and the area extending 4 feet past the end-line and the furthest edge of the free throw line while the ball is in his/her team’s possession for more than three seconds. If the player is in the act of shooting as the third second ends, allowances are made. If the ball subsequently misses the basket, the three second count will be continued.

If this rule is violated, the opposing team will be awarded possession at the sideline.

The defensive 3 second rule

The regulations relating to the defensive 3 second rule are as follows:

  1. The count begins when the offensive team acquires possession of the ball in the front-court.
  2. A defensive player positioned in the 16 foot lane or the area extending 4 feet past the lane end-line must be actively guarding an opponent (i.e. be within an arm’s length and in a legal guarding stance) within 3 seconds.
  3. Any defensive player can guard any offensive player. The defenders can also double team any player.
  4. The count is suspended when: there is a field goal attempt; a team loses control; a defender is actively guarding an opponent; or, when the defender clears the 16ft line.
  5. If the defender is guarding a player with the ball, he is allowed to be in the 16ft lane. If another player is actively guarding the player with the ball, the original defender must either actively guard a player or exit the lane.

If these rules are violated, a technical foul will be considered and the offensive team takes possession at the free throw line.

The 8-second-Rule

A team cannot be in continuous possession of a ball in its back-court for more than 8 continuous seconds. This count will be restarted if a defender kicks or punches the ball, or commits a technical foul. Violation results in possession being awarded to the opposing team at the mid-court line.

The 5-second back-to-the-basket violation

An offensive player in his own front-court cannot dribble with his back or his side facing the basket for more than 5 seconds. The count finishes when the player picks up the ball, when he/she dribbles above the free throw line or when a defensive player intercepts the ball. Violation will result in possession being awarded to the opposing team on the side-line at the level of the free throw line.

Ball in Back-court

A player cannot be the first to touch a ball that he or another player on his team caused to go from front-court to back-court while their team was in control of the ball. The exceptions are occasions when neither team was in control of the ball, including during a jump ball, a field goal attempt or a rebound.

Swinging of elbows

Players are forbidden from vigorously swinging their elbows in the direction of an offensive player in possession of the ball, even if there is no contact between the players. If this rule is violated, possession is awarded to the opposing team at the side-line.

Entering the basket from below

Players cannot cause the ball to enter the basket from below. Violation will result in possession being awarded to the opposing team at the side-line.

Illegal assist in scoring

Players cannot hang onto the ring or backboard to assist themselves in scoring. Players are also not permitted to ‘boost’ their teammates to afford them an advantage in shooting. Violation will result in possession being awarded to the opposing team at the free-throw line.


The rules regarding travelling are as follows:

  1. A player who catches the ball while standing still can pivot (on either foot)
  2. A player who catches the ball while he is moving can use a "two-count rhythm" when passing, or shooting the ball
  3. The first count occurs as a player receives the ball, if he/she has either foot on the floor as he/she receives the ball; or, as one foot touches the ball or as both feet touch the floor simultaneously as he receives the ball.
  4. The second count occurs after the first count when either foot touches the floor, or when both feet touch the floor simultaneously.
  5. A player who comes to a stop on the count of one is permitted to pivot on either foot
  6. If a player comes to a stop on the count of two as he/she catches the ball, only the rear foot can be used to pivot.
  7. If a player comes to a stop on the count of two, and lands with neither foot in front of the other, he/she can use either foot to pivot.
  8. If a player is in possession of the ball and chooses to raise the pivot foot, he or she must pass or shoot before returning the pivot foot to the floor.
  9. If a player chooses to dribble after receiving the ball whilst standing still, the ball must leave the player’s hand before the pivot foot can be raised.

Dead, live and alive balls

When a ball is not in the legal control of either team, it is said to be ‘dead.’ It is put back into play by a jump ball, a throw-in or free throw, depending upon the circumstances. The ball is said to be live when it is handed to the thrower-in, free throw shooter or, in the case of a jump ball, to the game official. It is said to be alive when it is released by the free throw shooter or thrower-in, or when it is tossed by the game official in a jump throw.


The NBA mandates that:

  • A basketball court ought to be 94 feet long and 50 feet wide.
  • The backboard behind the basket should consist of a transparent board imprinted with a white rectangle measuring 24 by 18 inches.
  • The basket should be formed from an NBA approved metal ring 18 inches in diameter. The net suspended from this ring should be between 15 and 18 inches in length.
  • The ball ought to weigh between 7.5 and 8.5 pounds.

Squads, captains and coaches

Whilst only 5 players can represent each team on the court at any one time, teams usually keep a squad of around 10 players and substitute players ‘on the bench’ for those on the court throughout the game. A team is not allowed to continue play with fewer than 5 players. According to NBA rules, teams are required to present their ‘starting-line-up,’ (that is, a list of the players that the team intends to use at some point during the game), to the scorers at least ten minutes before play begins.

If a player is facing removal from the game on account of his or her sixth consecutive personal foul and all potential substitutes have already been disqualified from play, the player is allowed to keep playing. The personal foul still stands. The player will also be charged with a team foul and the team will be charged with a technical foul.

The captain can be any member of the squad except for the coach. The captain is the only player who is legally permitted to question a game official about his interpretation of a rule during a time-out. This does not, however, extend to a right to question a decision made by an official. The designated captain retains his or her position for the duration of the game, even if they move from the court to the bench.

Coaches are permitted to watch the game and shout instructions to their team. Their behaviour must, however, remain sportsmanlike at all times. Coaches must remain between the mid-court line and the 28′ hash line and must not be abusive or aggressive. Game officials have the right to charge coaches with a technical foul if they fail to behave appropriately.