How to Play Basketball

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What You Need to Know

  1. Basketball is one of the most popular sports on the planet, with millions of amateur players in almost every country in the world
  2. The professional game, and in particular the American NBA, is also massively popular
  3. The objective is to score points by successfully shooting the ball through an elevated basket. The team with the most points at the end of the game wins
  4. Basketball can be played indoors or outdoors. For an informal game, you just need a hoop and a ball, but for a formal game, you need a proper court and 5 players on each side
  5. There are 3 main player positions, Centres, Forwards and Guards, each with their own specific roles in the team
  6. Players are required to follow the rules of the game. Fouls and violations are called by a referee and are usually punished by giving the other team a free throw at the basket
  7. As well as dangerous play and deliberate physical fouls, both players and coaches can be penalised for unsportsmanlike behaviour


Basketball is one of the most biggest team sports in the world. Created in 1890s America, it has grown to become a hugely popular sport in schools and universities in every corner of the planet. What's more, the professional game is a major business, with teams and players from the American NBA known globally.

Though it's a very simple game with a clear objective, basketball does have some clear rules, not all of which may be obvious if you've not played before. So here's what you need to know about the sport.

The Court

Basketball can be played either indoors or outdoors. While it is possible to play an informal game almost anywhere and even with just one hoop, a proper, formal match will be played on a specially-designed space known as a court.

The court is rectangular and, in terms of indoor courts, is usually made out of maple wood. Courts can come in a variety of shapes, sizes and colours. However, under International Basketball Federation (FIBA) rules, a professional court should be exactly 28 metres in length and 15 metres in width. NBA courts are slightly larger, while courts for amateur games and schools can be much smaller.

The court is divided into two by the Midcourt Line. Additionally, at each end of the court there are elevated baskets 18 inches in diameter attached to backboards. These must always be 3.05 metres above the ground, though for youth basketball they can be lower. Surrounding the baskets are three point arcs and within these are small lines known as free-throw lines.

Teams and Positions 

Basketball is a game played between two teams. Each team can have no more than five players on the court at any one time. Substitutions are allowed and there are no limits on how many times a team can make changes or how many different players they can bring on, so long as they never have more than five on the court at once and so long as substitutions are made when play is stopped.

There are three key player positions in basketball, with each type of player having a particular function and requiring a distinct set of skills. These are:

  • Centres: Generally speaking, these are the tallest players in the team. Quite simply, their job is to score points. They are required to find space for themselves on the court, receive a pass and shoot for the hoop. Due to their height, they will also be expected to compete for any balls that rebound back off the backboard or the hoop. Centres are also expected to help out defensively, too, again by collecting rebounds at the other end of the court and by trying to use their height to block opponents from shooting.
  • Forwards: Forwards are expected to play both defensive and offensive roles. They are usually the next tallest players on the court after the Centres and are responsible for trying to shoot for the basket from distance, setting up Centres with point-scoring opportunities, often from the wings or corners, and collecting offensive rebounds. At the other end of the court, they will be relied upon to prevent opponents driving towards the basket and for picking up rebounds.
  • Guards: The job of the Guard is to move the ball down the court, either by dribbling or by making smart forward passes, and setting up offensive plays. This means they are often the shortest players on the court and also usually the best dribblers. They also need to try and score points from range and to try and intercept opponents' passes.

The Objective and Scoring Points

Basketball is a very simple game. The objective is to get the ball through the hoop. Each team will have a hoop that they will be attacking and one that they will be defending, with ends switching each quarter. A team will get 2 points if they are closer to the basket than the 3-point line. If, however, a player scores from a shot made from behind the 3-point line, the team will get 3 points. The team with the most points at the end of the game wins, with extra time usually played if the scores are tied at the end of standard time.

Players can move the ball down the court by either bouncing it while running or walking or by passing it to a teammate. However, no player is allowed to move with the ball in both hands nor are they allowed to dribble, stop and hold the ball with both hands and then resume dribbling.

When a team scores a basket, they get the appropriate number of points added to their total and the opposition team then take possession of the ball. Players can also intercept passes and even knock the ball away from a dribbling opponent (so long as they don't have it in their hands) in order to turnover possession.

Games are divided up into 4 quarters, with each of these either 10 minutes long or, in the case of NBA matches, 12 minutes long. Half-time breaks are between 10 and 15 minutes long, and overtime periods are just 5 minutes long. Note that, unlike some other sports, the time allowed is the actual playing time. That is, the clock is stopped when the ball is not actually in play, meaning that a match will almost always take significantly longer than the allotted time.

Fouls and Violations

Aside from the ball being intercepted or fairly stolen away from the opposition, possession will also be handed over to the other team if a team commits a foul or a violation. As the NBA notes, "the first thing you must know is the general rules of the game". So, what are the rules? And what are the various fouls and violations that the referee can penalise a team for?

Personal Fouls and Penalties

Fouls are classified as either technical Fouls or Flagrant Fouls. Personal Fouls include any type of illegal physical contact between players. This can include everything from pushing and holding right through to slapping and hitting. Using the body to deliberately block an opponent from driving to the basket is also a Personal Foul.

Here are some things you need to know about how fouls are penalised:

  • If a player is shooting for a 3-point basket when they are fouled this way, causing them to miss, they are given 3 free throws. Even if their initial shot goes in, if they were fouled while making it, they are still given a free throw, meaning they can score 4 points in total.
  • If a player is fouled while he is not shooting, then his team are given possession of the ball from the sideline. They the have 5 seconds to pass the ball back into the court.
  • Should the player who commits a foul have already committed 7 or more fouls in a game, then the opponent they foul is awarded a free throw. If he scores from his first shot, then he is given another bonus free shot. If he misses the first, then the ball is live and play continues as normal.
  • Similarly, if the team committing the foul has already committed 10 or more fouls, in that half then they are considered to be 'over the limit' and the fouled player is given 2 free throws.
  • Individual players can also go 'over the limit'. This is known as 'fouling out'. In the NBA and other major competitions, if a player commits 6 personal fouls, he cannot continue in the game and must remain on the sidelines. In amateur competitions and university sports, the fouling out limit is just 5 personal fouls. 

Flagrant Fouls, meanwhile, are classed as deliberate and violent physical contact with an opponent. This can include hitting, kicking and punching another player. If  Flagrant foul is committed, the opposing team will be given up to 3 free throws and will also retain possession of the ball after these have been taken. Here, the umpire will use his or her discretion when deciding how many free throws to award a fouled player.


Alongside the above fouls, there are also a number of possible violations a player can commit in basketball. Much of these are simple mistakes players new to the game make, though some are made even by top professionals. The penalty for committing any of the below rule violations is surrendering possession to the opposite team.

  • Travelling: A key rule of basketball – and one that separates the sport from netball – is that you need to bounce (or 'dribble') the ball while you are walking or running. Once you have stopped and held the ball with both hands, you must stay still. One of your planted feet can be used to pivot your whole body, but you cannot move this or lift it off the ground. If you do so, you will be penalised for the violation of travelling.  
  • Double Dribble: Once you have stopped dribbling and come to a standstill, you either need to pass the ball to a teammate or shoot for the basket. You cannot start dribbling again. If you do, you will be penalised for double dribbling.  
  • Carrying/Palming: When you dribble, you are not allowed to put the palms of your hands under the ball or carry the ball in either hand for more than just a split-second. To do so is a violation called carrying or palming.  
  • Kicking: No player is allowed to kick the ball on purpose. If you do so, then possession will be given over to the other team.  
  • 3-Second Rule: if you're an offensive player, you are not allowed to be in the free throw lane, or key, for more than 3 seconds at a time. As soon as both feet leave this zone, you can go back in and the time will start again.  
  • 10-Second Rule: As soon as a team gets possession of the ball in their own half, they have 10 seconds to get it over the half-court line. If they spend anymore than 10 seconds with the ball in their own half, then they will lose possession.  
  • Over-and-Back: Once an offensive team has crossed the half-court line with the ball, they cannot go back into their own half with the ball. If they do, they will be called for a violation called over-and-back and lose possession.
  • Lane Violations: When a free throw shot is being attempted, no player is allowed in the free throw lane prior to the ball being fully released by the player taking the shot. If an offensive player enters the zone too early, a successful free throw shot will not count. If a defensive player enters this zone too soon, then a missed shot will not count and the shooter will be given another chance.  
  • Goaltending: A defensive player must not interfere with the ball when it is above the rim and on a downward path. Neither must a defender touch the basket or rim while a shot is being made. If a player does stop a ball as it above the rim and falling downwards towards the basket, the umpire will deem this goaltending and the shot will be classed as successful.   
  • Out of Bounds: The ball is classed as being out of bounds if it touches the ground outside the lines of the court. If this happens, the last team to touch the ball loses possession and the other team are given a throw-in from the sidelines. A ball will also be called out of bounds if a player touches it when any part of their body is touching the ground outside of the court.  

Getting Started

If you want to start playing basketball, all you need is a hoop, some other players and a ball. Informal games are a good way to start. You could just play one-on-one against another opponent, with both of you taking it in turns to attack the same basket. Alternatively, many local parks have basketball courts where you may be able to join in an informal game.

Should you wish to get properly involved, then you should join a team. If you are at school or university, either join an existing team or if there isn't one, set one up yourself. If you're not a student, then England Basketball can help you find a local team. Their website has a comprehensive list of teams across England and Wales. Search for a team close to you here:

Further Reading

England Basketball oversees the development of the sport in England and Wales. Its website ( tells you everything you need to know about the game

The American National Basketball Association (NBA) is the most famous basketball league in the world. Visit its website ( to share in the excitement

If playing is not your thing, learn how to make money from this exciting sport by reading our guide on How to Bet on Basketball





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