How Basketball Works

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.

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