Feature | Basketball

Basketball rules: Get to know the regulations, the sport's history and rising popularity

Since its invention in 1891, basketball’s popularity has soared globally and is one of the most popular sports in the world. Here are the rules of basketball.

By Utathya Nag ·

One of the most popular sporting disciplines in the world, basketball made its first appearance at the Olympics as a demonstration sport at the 1904 St Louis Games.

At the 1936 Games, basketball was included as a medal event and has been a permanent fixture at the quadrennial sporting showpiece since. Women’s basketball made its Olympic debut in 1976.

For people unfamiliar with the sport, here are the modern-day basketball rules, the regulations, scoring system, positions, and the origin of the sport.

Basketball has been a regular fixture at the Olympics since 1936.

Who invented basketball?

The origin of basketball can be traced to Springfield, Massachusetts in the USA. Dr James Naismith, a Canadian physical instructor working at the YMCA International Training School in Springfield, introduced basketball in 1891.

Instructed to devise an indoor sport to keep the YMCA athletes in shape during the harsh winter months, Naismith came up with a sport involving two peach baskets and a soccer ball with a set of 13 rules.

The first game of basketball was a 9 vs 9 contest according to Naismith’s rule book but over the years, the laws have been changed and fine-tuned to make what we know as modern-day basketball.

Basketball court: Dimensions and markings

To understand basketball, it’s important to have an idea of the court’s layout.

According to FIBA (international basketball federation) guidelines, a basketball court is a rectangular playing area 28m in length and 15m in width. International competitions including the Olympics follow FIBA guidelines.

The border markings along the length of the court are called sidelines and the breadth of the court are called endlines or baselines.

The key in the basketball court is a rectangular painted area inside the three-point arc.

The outer edge of the key parallel to the endline is called the free-throw line. There’s a 3.6m diameter semi-circle drawn on the outer part of the free-throw line called the free-throw circle.

Basketball rules and sport's regulations

Basketball is a team sport and the game is played between two sides. The core objective in a basketball game is to score points by putting the ball inside the hoop (basket) and to prevent the opposing team from doing the same.

A basketball game starts at the centre of the court when the ball is thrown high up by the referee and one player from each team competing to gain possession. The team that catches the ball, or in possession, is called the offensive team while the team not on the ball is the defensive team.

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The offensive team plays with the intent of getting the ball through the opposition hoop or scoring a field goal after moving the ball around the court by passing or dribbling the ball, abiding by a fixed set of basketball rules.

Basketball points-scoring system

Three-point shot: Shooting and scoring a field goal from anywhere outside the three-point line arc wins the team three points. These are referred to as three-pointers.

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Two-point shot: A field goal which is scored from inside the area encircled by the three-point arc in the opposition half is worth two points. These are called two-pointers.

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One-point shot: Points can also be accumulated through free-throws, which are worth a point each. Free throws are awarded to a team when the opposition team fouls.

During free throw, the fouled player is allowed a fixed number of shots -- depending on the nature and referee’s interpretation of the foul committed -- at an open basket from anywhere inside the free-throw circle with both his feet behind the free-throw line.

Illegal physical contact or obstructions without the intention of winning the ball by a defender when an offensive player is aiming to shoot is regarded as a foul.

A FIBA sanctioned game typically consists of four quarters of 10 minutes each. After two quarters or half-time, the teams switch sides on the court. The team with more points at the end of the four quarters wins the match. If the score is tied at the end of regulation time, the game can go into an overtime period.

Basketball violations

An offensive player can keep the basketball moving around the court by dribbling or passing the ball to a teammate. In a basketball dribble, a player needs to bounce the ball against the floor continuously using one hand at a time.

Using both hands simultaneously to dribble or touching the ball twice before it bounces once constitutes a double dribble violation, which ends in ceding possession to the opponent team.

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Furthermore, if a player stops a dribble completely, they need to pass or shoot the ball. In case they start dribbling the ball again after stopping, it is also considered a double dribble violation.

While receiving a ball on the move, a player is allowed to take a maximum of two steps before passing, shooting or starting a dribble. Basically, a player is not allowed to run with the ball. Otherwise, they are called for traveling violation, which again results in turning over possession.

If in a stationary position while receiving a ball or after stopping a dribble, a player also needs to establish a pivot foot, on which they need to stay planted in the same spot while swerving or turning until a pass or shot is made.

Players receiving the ball can start a dribble but can’t lift or displace the pivot foot until the ball leaves his hands. Failure to comply results in a traveling violation.

When a team gains possession inside its own half, the players get 10 seconds to move into the opposition half. Once a team crosses into the midline, possession needs to be maintained in the defending team’s half and offensive players cannot go back to their own half. If the ball is passed back, it results in backcourt violation.

A defensive player is also not allowed to block or touch the ball when in a downward trajectory towards the basket. This is called goaltending violation.

During an attack, an offensive player isn’t allowed to stay in the opposition key for over three seconds without attempting a shot. It is called the three-second rule and results in lane violation.

Shot Clock

Once a team gains possession of the ball, they are put on a 24-second Shot Clock, which means they have to throw the ball at the hoop or attempt a valid field goal before time runs out.

Failure to do so again results in the possession being turned over to the opposition team.

A Shot Clock stopwatch is typically displayed behind the basket during a basketball game.

How many players in a basketball team

A traditional basketball team has 12 players, with five basketball players on the court at any given time. Unlimited substitutions are allowed.

The five players can be segregated into the following positions:

Point guard: Usually players with the best ball-handling skills and vision in the team play as point guards. A point guard’s primary role is to orchestrate both offensive and defensive plays and set up scoring opportunities for team-mates.

Shooting guard: Typically the best long-range and mid-range shooter in the team. Players patrolling the position constantly look for three-pointers or can help drag defenders out wide to create space near the basket for their team-mates.

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Small forward: Playing as a short forward needs a versatile skill set. It requires strength and height as well as speed and dribbling abilities. Mid-range and short-range shooting abilities are also important.

Power forward: A power forward is somewhat similar to a small forward but with a bigger focus on physicality. A power forward is usually a foil for the center and are the team’s most dependable scorers from inside the paint.

Center: Usually the tallest player in the team, a center is required to occupy the space nearest to the basket in both halves. In defence, they are tasked to pick rebounds and block opposition shooters while their offensive duties require them to finish off short-range moves or shield out defenders to allow their team-mates a clean drive at the basket.

NBA, the popular US-based basketball league, also follows similar rules with very minor alterations.