Basic basketball rules for novice parents and players

By the time kids reach nine years old, basketball becomes their favorite sport (in terms of overall participation numbers across the U.S.), according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association. This is in part because of the fact that it’s such a big sport for both girls and boys. If your child ends up playing basketball, it’s a good idea to know the basics of the game so you can better support your youngster. A review of the most common rules will help you better follow and cheer on your young cager.

girls basketball

Basics of the game

Two teams of five players each try to throw the ball into the basket designated as their basket or “goal.” Players can move the ball by throwing (passing) it to each other, or walking or running while bouncing the ball (dribbling). Players can have limited physical contact with each other, but if they interfere too much, a referee will stop play and sometimes award a free shot at that basket to the player who was interfered with. The team who finishes with the most points at the end of a timed game (usually four periods), wins.

What is a tipoff?

Basketball games start with a tipoff. One player from each team (either the tallest or the players who can jump the highest) stands inside a circle located at the center of the court and waits for the referee to throw a ball in the air above them. Both players jump for the ball and try to tip it to a teammate. Once a player has control of the ball, that team heads toward the other team’s basket to try and score.

Dribbling and traveling

Players must pass or bounce the ball on the ground (also called “dribbling”) to move from end to end of the court or to get close to the basket. If a player moves her feet illegally, she “travels” and her team loses possession of the ball. The referee blows a whistle, play stops, and the other team gets the ball out of bounds. That team then passes the ball in to the court and moves toward the other team’s basket.

There are two types of traveling calls:

•A player takes three or more steps without dribbling

•A player stops moving and dribbling and then moves her feet again.

Players can stop moving their feet, stand still and then start moving again as long as they keep dribbling. Once they stop moving and dribbling they must keep at least one foot (the pivot foot) in contact with the floor.

Types of basketball fouls

boys basketball

A foul occurs when a player does something illegal that causes a referee to stop play. Most fouls have to do with illegal contact. For example, when a player is shooting, an opponent cannot touch the player’s arm or hand during the shot. Players cannot use their hands to shove a player, even slightly. Using elbows to block players can result in a foul, as can tripping.

•Shooting Foul

When a defender interferes with a player who is in the act of shooting and prevents the shooter from making the basket, the shooter gets two or three attempts to score one point per basket, depending on whether the shooter was attempting a two-point or three-point shot. If the foul occurs and the shooter makes the basket, he gets one free foul shot, creating a “three-point play.”

•Charging Foul

Sometimes, the defending player (the player without the ball) commits a foul when he impedes the movement of a player with a ball. If a defensive player sees an offensive player making a move toward a basket, the defensive player can move in front of the player with the ball and get the offensive player to commit a charging foul. This occurs when a player with a ball runs into a defender who has had his feet stationary (not moving) before the contact. If a shooting player uses his shoulder to move a defender, even if the defender is not set with his feet, the offensive player commits a charge.

•Inbounding or Throw-In Foul

When a team is awarded the ball and must re-start play by passing the ball from outside the court into the court, the defending team must give the inbounding team space to make the pass. If a defensive player doesn’t do so, he’s called for a foul.

•Technical Foul

If a player or coach misbehaves, the team receives a technical foul. The opposing team receives a free throw and possession of the ball after the shot. Depending on the league, a player or coach who receives two technical fouls is ejected from the game. A player who commits a blatantly violent foul during play can be called for a “flagrant foul” and ejected from the game.

Free throws

After some fouls, a player is awarded one, two or three free shots at the basket to try and score points. One player stands behind a line and attempts to shoot at the basket while the other players must stand outside the lines that designate the diagonal free-throw area, or lane. Players cannot enter the diagonal free-throw lane until the ball has been shot and hits the rim or backboard.

Bonus foul period

After a team commits a specific number of fouls (depending on the league rules) the other team may be awarded a free throw attempt each time the team with too many fouls commits another foul (depending on the type of foul committed). This rule attempts to stop teams from trying to slow the game down or prevent the other team from scoring by continually committing fouls. With the free-throw award, it becomes too costly for a team to keep fouling.

When one team reaches its foul limit, the other team is considered to be “in the bonus.” With bonus fouls, players get to shoot two free throws, but only get to try a second shot if they make the first one. This is called a one-and-one foul. After the first half, both teams start with zero bonus fouls and the count starts again.

Fouling out of a game

To prevent players from continuing to commit fouls, leagues limit the number of fouls a player can commit before he or she has to leave the game. If the league’s rules state that a player can only commit four fouls per game, that player “fouls out” after his fourth foul and cannot play the rest of the game, even if the game goes to overtime. It is not considered bad sportsmanship to foul out. In some cases, a player who fouls out is commended for being aggressive, and many players use all of their allowed fouls to try and stop a dominant opposing player or to try to prevent the other team from making a basket at the very end of the game.

Three-point shots

The farther you are from the basket, the more difficult it is to score. To reward players who take difficult, exciting shots, leagues award three points per basket if the shot occurs outside of the three-point line painted in an arc around the basket. If the player is fouled when attempting a three-pointer, he gets three free throw attempts, as long as he makes the first and second attempts.

Three-second violation

To keep players from standing inside the free-throw area (the diagonal area painted under and in front of the basket) to gain an advantage by being close to the basket, a referee will call a three-second violation foul. Players are called for a foul if they are in that area for more than three seconds in certain situations (usually if their team is on offense in their court with control of the ball). This keeps the ball moving and prevents one team from having an advantage.

This helpful video with referee Bill Sacco helps parents and players understand the three-second rule.


Once a team advances the ball from its own half of the court into the opponent’s half, the advancing team cannot move the ball (either by dribbling, passing or losing control of the ball) back into its own side of the court. If it does, it loses possession. If the opposing team causes the ball to go back into the advancing team’s court by touching the ball, the advancing team remains in possession of the ball.

After one team makes a basket, the other team gets possession and must get the ball across the center line within the league’s time limit, often less than 10 seconds. This prevents stalling.

Shot clock violation

At higher levels of play, teams must shoot the ball at the basket and hit the rim or backboard within a specified time (about 30 seconds) or lose possession. This prevents one team from stalling. Because kids aren’t able to control the ball as well as college and pro players, most youth leagues don’t have a shot clock.

Additional resources

Youth Basketball Rules For Players, Parents & Coaches