How To Play: Basketball

With a club, just for fun, with friends or with the family, increase your enjoyment of basketball with our guide, deepen and develop your knowledge of the game, and learn the rules of play.


Basketball is played by two teams, with five players on the court and a maximum of 5 to 7 substitutes depending on the country or championship rules. Each team aims to score more points than the opponent by scoring baskets (putting the ball through the basket) and by preventing the opposing team from doing the same.

The match is divided into four quarters of ten minutes each under FIBA rules, and four quarters of twelve minutes under NBA rules. The clock is stopped each time the referee blows the whistle (if there is a foul, the ball goes out of bounds, etc.). Each team can substitute one or two players when play is stopped or during time-outs.

At the beginning of the match, the referee starts play with a jump ball. For this, one player from each team (generally the one who jumps the highest) stands opposite his/her opponent, behind the centre line, facing the basket that s/he is attacking. The referee then throws the ball above the two players, who must hit it with their hand for one of their team-mates to catch. At this moment, play begins.

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The players must manipulate the ball with their hands. Touching the ball deliberately with any part of the leg is forbidden and a violation of the rules.

The ball is out of bounds whenever it bounces onto or over the boundary line, or when it is touched by a player who touches or crosses the boundary line. Unlike in football, it is not the absolute position of the player or the ball that counts, but the place where the ball bounces or is supported from (so a player can dive out of the court and save the ball, as long as they releases it before taking a step over the boundary line).

Because play takes place in real time, there is no stoppage time like in football. A buzzer sounds as soon as the final second of each period has passed, but a successful shot after the buzzer can be counted if the player has released the ball before the buzzer was sounded.

At the end of the match, the team with the highest number of points wins. In the event of a tie, a further five minutes’ extra time is played to decide the match, regardless of what stage of competition is at stake. If at the end of extra time the scores are still even, another round of extra time is played. There are therefore never any tied matches in basketball (apart from where a final phase is to be decided by two matches: here, there can be a tied match in either of the two matches, as the winner will be decided by adding the points from the two matches together.)

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Different players are going to be suited to different positions.  Here’s a list of positions and the expected role they would fill.

  • Centre: generally the tallest and strongest player. In defence, positioned close to the basket to protect the interior sector, with strong rebound and blocking skills.
  • Power forward: plays a similar role to the centre, forming the interior sector. Generally, shorter than the centre and able to manoeuvre further away from the basket.
  • Small forward: an exterior player, agile and fast, may occasionally come to assist the interior sector for a rebound.
  • Shooting guard: a player whose play is aimed mainly to the exterior, varies his/her game by penetrating into the key and by shooting three-point baskets.
  • Point guard: charged with distributing the ball and organising offensive play. Controls the ball for his own side and announces the tactics to be put in place. As well has having strong dribbling skills, they must have excellent at reading play in order to distribute the ball to their team-mates.

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There are plenty of terms used in basketball that aren’t used similarly or at all in different sports. To catch you up on all the lingo here’s a collection of words that will help you understand what everyone’s talking about.

  • Air ball: a missed shot that touches neither the hoop nor the board.
  • Alley-oop: a variant of the slam dunk, where a player takes a pass from his/her team-mate, catches the ball mid-air, and immediately scores a basket.
  • Buzzer beater: a shot made just before the buzzer sounds to signal the end of a quarter or match.
  • Cross-over: a variation of the dribble, accompanied by a switch of hands, with the aim of evading a direct challenge from an opponent.
  • Fadeaway: a shot at the basket made while jumping backwards.
  • Free throw or foul shot: a penalty awarded to a player who is fouled while making a shot.
  • Hook shot: a shooting technique that is hard to block: the player faces the basket and shoots, with his/her hand far away from the target. This shooting technique is, however, less precise.
  • Interception: defines the act of taking the ball from an opponent, either by taking it from his/her hands (without committing a foul) or by catching the ball from a badly-judged pass.
  • Key: the area on the court beneath each basket. This area is a different shape depending on which association is organising the match, and depending on the championship.
  • Lay-up: A one-handed shot at close range, made by bouncing the ball off the backboard.
  • Rebound: the act of catching the ball after a missed shot, before it touches the floor.
  • Screen: a player attempting to protect his/her team-mate from being guarded during an offense phase.
  • Slam dunk: also known simply as dunk, this is when a player scores a basket and grabs the hoop, with one or two hands. The dunk is one of the most spectacular ways to score a basket. In other sports (tennis, volleyball, etc.), moves similar to a dunk are often called a smash. Do not attempt this. People can be injured, it is referred to as a “degloving” and is exactly what it sounds like.
  • Swish, swish shot or swisher: a shot made when the ball goes into the basket, touching neither the hoop nor the backboard.
  • Travelling: a violation that occurs when a player holds the ball in his/her hands and takes more than two steps without dribbling.


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