How Basketball Works

By: Kevin Bonsor  | 
Basketball player dunks the ball with two hands.
Basketball was invented in 1891. Noam Galai / / Getty Images

Basketball is more than the slam-dunks shown on television sports shows. It is a sport of agility and endurance that develops hand-eye coordination among its participants. At its essence, basketball requires only a basket, a ball, and at least two players. The simplicity of the sport is credited to Dr. James Naismith, who invented basketball in 1891 by nailing two peach baskets to the balconies on opposite ends of a YMCA gym in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Since then, basketball has overtaken baseball as the unofficial American pastime. In 2001, more than 28 million Americans participated in basketball, which is more than any other team sport, according to the National Sporting Goods Association (NSGA). Internationally, more than 300 million people participate in basketball worldwide, according to the International Federation of Basketball (FIBA).


In this article, you'll learn about the equipment used to play a basketball game, how players score points, and the rules that players must follow. You will also learn how to identify players by the position they play and the numbers they wear.

Court and Equipment

Basketball can be played anywhere as long as there is a hoop mounted to a pole or wall and a ball to shoot through it. The basic idea could hardly be simpler. The two teams want to do two things:

  • Get the ball through the opposing team's basket as much as possible (offense)
  • Stop the opposing team from doing the same thing (defense)

As soon as one team has the ball, that team is the offense and the other team is the defense. The offense tries to position players to take a shot (throw the ball through the hoop). The defense players position themselves to block these shots. Offense players move around the basket and cut past defense players (abruptly changing direction to get past the defense) until they can set up a reasonably clear shot.


The way all this plays out largely depends on the court. Dimensions of the court and other equipment vary depending on the level of play. For our purposes, we will look at the National Basketball Association's (NBA) regulation equipment.

In its original form, when peach baskets were used, contestants climbed up a ladder to retrieve the ball after making a basket. Baskets are still used in basketball, but have evolved to eliminate the manual retrieval of the ball. Today's basket is an 18-inch-diameter (46 cm) metal rim, with a 15- or 18-inch-long (38 or 46 cm), open-ended nylon net extending below it.

The rim is actually about twice the diameter of a regulation basketball. In the NBA, the official ball is made of leather and has a circumference of 30 inches (76 cm) and a diameter of 9 inches (23 cm). Prior to play, the ball must be inflated to 7.5 to 8.5 pounds of pressure (0.51 to 0.57 atm).

An official basketball court, where competitive games are played, is a rectangle divided into two halves by the midcourt line. On each end of the court, baskets are mounted to a backboard and raised to a height of 10 feet (3 m). The backboard is a rectangle that is 6 feet (1.8 m) wide and 3.5 feet (1 m) tall. Players often shoot the ball at an angle so that it ricochets off the backboard and into the basket.

The court, in this case an NBA court, is 94 feet long and 50 feet wide (29 x 15 m). As possession alternates between teams, the teams run to opposite ends of the court. When a team's players are on offense, they are said to be in their frontcourt. If the team's players are on defense, they are in their backcourt.

Along the midcourt line is the center circle, which is 12 feet (3.7 m) in diameter. This circle is used for the tip-off, which starts the game. In a tip-off, a referee throws a ball into the air and one player from each team jumps to tip the ball to his/her respective teammates. The players jumping for the ball can tip, but not grab, the ball.

On each half of the court, there is a three-point line, which is an arced line painted on the floor. Within the three-point line, you find the key, which consists of the free-throw line and free-throw lane. The lane is sometimes called "the paint."

Behind the free-throw line there is a semicircle. The top of this semicircle is referred to as the top of the key. Along each side of the lane, there are four hash marks. These are called blocks, and designate spots where players must stand during foul shots.

Who's Who

Basketball can be played by as few as two players. However, organized basketball games include two teams comprised of five players per team. Each team can have more than five players, but only five players per team are allowed on the court at one time.

The team's head coach determines when players go in and come out of the game. Reserve players enter the game through a process called substitution. Substitutions can only occur when play stops, such as during a timeout or when the referee calls a violation.


Each player on a team is categorized by position. There are five positions on a traditional basketball team:

  • Point guard - This player is typically the best dribbler and passer on the team. The point guard is sometimes called the floor general, which indicates the key role that the point guard plays.
  • Shooting guard - The shooting guard, also called the two guard, is typically a team's best outside shooter on the team. This player flanks the point guard and moves around the court to try to create some space to take a shot that is uncontested by the opposition.
  • Power forward - The power forward is usually near the basket and moves from one side of the basket to the other to try to get free from the opposition player that is guarding him. Power forwards also are skilled rebounders.
  • Small forward - The small forward is typically a better outside shooter than a power forward and is usually smaller than a power forward.
  • Center - Traditionally, the center is the tallest player on the team. The center's role is to establish a position near the basket to allow him/herself an easy jump shot. On defense, the center attempts to block shots and grab rebounds.

The Clothes Make the Player

L.A. Lakers home-game jersey (Thirty-two is the retired number of Earvin "Magic" Johnson.)
Photo courtesy Jersey-Joe

The uniforms and other gear worn by athletes are defined by the sport they play. In organized basketball, players on the same team wear matching jerseys and shorts, which make up a uniform. Traditionally, home teams wear light-colored jerseys that display their mascot name, while visiting teams wear dark-colored jerseys displaying the name of the city (NBA) or college.

Each uniform must display one or two digits on the front and back of the jersey. The numbers on a jersey are used to identify a player when calling violations. In most cases, the digits can only be 0, 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5. While the NBA has allowed players to use numerals higher than 5, it is a rare allowance. This limitation on numerals allows referees to use their hands to signal player numbers to the game's official scorekeeper. Otherwise, a player wearing number 9 could be confused with a player wearing number 54.


Uniforms have evolved greatly since the first game was played in 1891. In those early years, players wore long-sleeved, wool jerseys and long pants. It didn't take long for players and coaches to realize that long sleeves hindered arm motion when shooting the ball and that heavy uniforms caused fatigue among the players.

Shorts and sleeveless jerseys are now the accepted uniform worn by basketball players. For decades, players wore tight-fitting shirts and shorts. In the 1990s, players began to wear baggier uniforms, a style popularized by NBA icon Michael Jordan. NBA rules state that shorts cannot be longer than 1 inch (2.54 cm) above the knee. If you've seen a game recently, you know that many players do not observe this rule.

The other key piece of gear worn by basketball players is their shoes. In basketball, most players wear high-top athletic shoes. The high-tops give better support to players' ankles, which tend to get injured due to jumping and quick lateral moves.


The ultimate objective of basketball, like most team sports, is to outscore your opponent. In basketball, players score points by throwing the ball through the basket, an act known as shooting. Different points are awarded to players based on where they are when they shoot the ball. Here is a breakdown of scoring:

  • 3 points - Awarded to players who successfully shoot the ball through the hoop from behind the three-point line.
  • 2 points - Awarded to players who successfully shoot the ball through the hoop from anywhere inside the three-point line. This can be done by shooting a jump shot, laying the ball into the rim, or slamming the ball through the hoop.
  • 1 point - When players are fouled, they get free attempts to shoot the ball, which are called foul shots. A player is given one point for every successful foul shot.

When a player is shooting a foul shot, the remaining nine players on the court must stand in designated locations. They can stand in the blocks along the sides of the free-throw lane or back behind the free-throw shooter. The team whose player is not shooting free throws must be allowed to stand closest to the rim during the shot.


Rules of the Court

It may seem like there is no more to basketball than putting a ball in a basket. However, there are certain rules that teams must play by in order to create a fair game. Referees police the action of the game and blow a whistle to indicate violations. Referees also use hand signals to indicate the type of violation that has occurred.

An official game is played for a set amount of time, and the team that scores the most points at the end of that time is declared the winner. If the two teams are tied at the end of the game, the teams play overtime periods until a winner is determined. Each overtime period last five minutes, and when one team is ahead at the end of an overtime period, the game is over.


Within the game, there are certain rules that players have to follow. Here are some of basketball's most commonly noted ones:

  • If an offensive team allows the ball to go behind the midcourt line and touches it before the opposing team touches it, it is called for a backcourt violation and the opposing team is awarded the ball.
  • A player must bounce the ball on the court, also called dribbling, in order to move around the court. A player can move only two steps after he stops dribbling. If a player dribbles, stops, and then dribbles again, the referee calls a double-dribble violation, and the opposing team gains possession of the ball.
  • Basketball, by rule, is a non-contact sport. Of course, if you've seen a basketball game, you know that there is actually a great deal of contact involved. Personal fouls are called when too much contact is made. A foul is called when a player gains an unfair advantage by making contact with the opposing player. In the NBA, players are eliminated after committing six fouls. In college, five fouls eliminates a player.
  • If a player is not dribbling, that player can move one foot, as long as he keeps the other foot, called his pivot foot, in contact with the floor. The pivot foot must remain constant. If a player moves both feet without dribbling, the referee will call a traveling (or walking) violation.
  • If a player or coach displays poor behavior, such as using profanity, referees can call technical fouls at their discretion. In the NBA, players and coaches are ejected after being called for two technical fouls.


  • 24-second clock - In the NBA, teams must shoot the ball and make contact with the rim within 24 seconds of taking possession of the ball. If they don't, then the other team is awarded the ball. The 24-second clock restarts each time a shot is made or the ball hits the rim. It also starts over if the opposing team kicks the ball. In college, teams are given 35 seconds.
  • 10-second violation - This refers to the rule that a team must advance the ball beyond the midcourt line within 10 seconds of taking possession of the ball. If it does not, the opposing team is awarded possession of the ball.
  • 5-second possession violation - If a player is guarded and doesn't advance the ball within five seconds, the opposing team is awarded the ball.
  • 5-second in-bound violation - If a player cannot pass the ball to an in-bounds player within 5 seconds of taking possession of the ball out of bounds, the opposing team is awarded the ball.
  • 3-second rule - If an offensive player remains in the lane for three seconds, the opposing team is awarded the ball. The three seconds resets after every attempted shot.

For comprehensive information on rules and violations, see Official Rules of the National Basketball Association, Official Rules of the Woman's National Basketball Association and NCAA Playing Rules and Officiating Books.

These rules allow for a fair game and enjoyable experience for fans, so that teams continue to play even when leading by large margins. Rules also allow players to concentrate on the fundamentals of the game: passing, dribbling and shooting.

For more information on basketball and related topics, check out the links on the next page.