Basketball Vocabulary

This page covers the vocabulary and language of basketball by looking at its background, equipment and people.

basketballBasketball is played by millions of people, both men and women, in all parts of the world. Professional basketball is watched by millions more on TV. The game is played between two teams, with five players per team allowed on the court at any one time. Points are scored by getting the ball through a hoop called 'the goal' or 'the basket', and the team scoring the most points wins.


In 1891, Dr. James Naismith, a Canadian physical education instructor at YMCA Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts, USA, decided to create a new indoor game to keep his students fit during the cold winter months. He experimented with a team game in which players threw a soccer ball to each other and scored by throwing it into a peach basket nailed high on a wall. Later that year he wrote the first version of the rules of what he now called 'Basket Ball'. In 1906, the baskets were replaced by metal hoops in front of backboards. The ball still had to pass through the hoop from above to score a goal, however, as it did when baskets were used.

The game soon spread to other U.S. schools and universities. In the early twentieth century, basketball competitions and leagues were set up all over North America, but most didn't last long. Then, in 1946, the Basketball Association of America (BAA) was formed to organize the top professional teams in the U.S.A. and Canada into one professional league. The BAA became the National Basketball Association (NBA) in 1949, and today the NBA is the world's top professional basketball league. Most of the world's best players are with NBA teams, attracted by the competition's popularity, its high standard of play, and the high salaries.

How the Game Works

basketball courtBasketball is played on a rectangular court 28 metres long and 15 metres wide (approx. 92 ft by 49 ft) with a basket at a height of 3.05 metres (10 ft) at each end. Most indoor courts have a floor made of wood. Points are scored by throwing the ball through the opponents' basket. A goal scored from inside the three-point line earns two points (see diagram at right), and a goal scored from outside the three-point line earns three points, and goals from free throws earn one point.

NBA games are played over four quarters of twelve minutes. Teams include twelve players, but only five can be on court at one time. Players can be substituted as often as the coach likes. Each coach has a limited number of time-outs they can call during a game, and the game clock is stopped whenever play stops. Several officials oversee each game, including three on-court referees who call fouls, and table officials who keep score, run the game and shot clocks, and keep track of fouls and substitutions.

Violations and Fouls

The ball can be moved by throwing it to another player (called passing) or by bouncing it with one hand while running or walking (called dribbling). If a player moves both feet without bouncing the ball, he commits a violation called travelling. If he uses two hands while dribbling, he commits a violation called double-dribbling. If a player's hand moves under the ball while dribbling, he commits a violation called carrying the ball. Violations are also committed when time-limits are exceeded, and usually result in a free inbound pass for the opposition team.

A personal foul is committed when a player challenges another player unfairly, such as by blocking their run or hitting their arms. A player or coach who argues with a referee commits a technical foul. Fouls can be punished with a free inbound pass, free throws at goal, or with sending off. A player who commits five fouls, or six in the NBA, can no longer take part in the game and is said to have been 'fouled out'.

Shots and Passing

Players shoot for goal with a set shot if both feet are on the ground, or with a jump shot if the player is in mid-air. Other shots are the lay up (shooting, often off the backboard, while moving towards the basket) and the slam dunk (shooting straight down from above the basket). Passing can be done with a chest pass, a bounce pass or an overhead pass. More difficult passes are the no-look pass and the behind-the-back pass, though some coaches don't like these techniques because they can easily go wrong.

Famous Players

Michael Jordan

Michael Jordan is a former US player named "the greatest player of all time" by the NBA. He joined the NBA's Chicago Bulls in 1984 after an outstanding career at the University of North Carolina. He won the NBA championship with the Bulls in 1991, 1992, 1993, 1996, 1997 and 1998. He also won two Olympic gold medals with U.S. basketball teams in 1984 and 1992.

Yao Ming

Yao Ming is a Chinese player who went to the U.S.A. and joined the NBA's Houston Rockets. Standing 7'6" tall (2.29 m), he is one of the tallest players in the history of the NBA. After joining the NBA draft in 2002, he was picked by the Houston Rockets and became the first player without any American basketball experience to be selected first overall in the draft. Yao Ming has a huge following in China, and he has increased interest in basketball in China and throughout Asia.

Basketball Vocabulary List

word example sentence meaning

assist James won the MVP award with 28 points, nine assists and eight rebounds. a pass to a teammate that leads directly to a goal

backboard My shot came off the backboard and down through the hoop for a 3-point goal. a board behind the basket, off which the ball may rebound

basket In the early days, peach baskets were nailed to the walls and used as goals. 1. a container used to hold or carry things

2. a net fixed on a hoop used as the goal

block He stepped in front of our player to block his run, and the referee ruled it a foul. to stop the movement of an opponent, or stop an opponent's pass or shot

bounce Players must bounce the ball on the floor as they run. to rebound after hitting a surface

bounce pass The crowd cheered when Mario threw a perfect no-look bounce pass. a pass that bounces off the floor before it reaches the receiver

chest pass Michael threw a quick chest pass, ran forward, and received a bounce pass back. a two-handed pass thrown from chest height

double-dribbling Young players still learning the game often get fouled for double-dribbling. violation of dribbling the ball with two hands, or stopping and restarting the dribble

draft Every team studies the players in the draft and decides which ones they'll try to recruit. the annual process by which NBA teams select local or foreign players for their teams

dribble He dribbled past two defenders and then shot for goal. To bounce the ball repeatedly with one hand while running or walking

drive Yao Ming is very difficult to stop when he drives to the basket. A fast, strong dribble directly to the basket in an effort to score

exceed A team that exceeds the time-limit on the shot clock loses possession of the ball. to go beyond what is allowed

foul Larry's already had four fouls, so if he commits another one he'll be out of the game. a violation resulting from illegal contact with an opposing player

free throw Rodney practises his free throws for an hour every day. a free shot taken from the free throw line as the result of a foul

game clock The coach called a time-out, and the game clock stopped while he talked to his players. a scoreboard clock that shows the time remaining in each period of a game

guarding Guarding is a man-on-man defensive tactic used to counter dangerous players. following an opponent to stop him from driving, shooting or passing easily

hoop The ball has to go through the hoop from above to score a goal. the round metal rim from which a basketball net is suspended

jump shot A jump shot is much harder to block than a set shot. a shot taken while a player is jumping through the air

lay upThe best players spend a lot of time working on skills to improve their lay ups. a shot taken close to the basket that is usually banked off the backboard and into the basket

MVP Michael was awarded MVP many times during his career. 'most valuable player' award, given to the best player in a game

no-look pass Crowds love the no-look pass, but coaches warn players not to use it just to show off. a pass thrown without looking towards the receiver

overhead pass An overhead pass can get the ball to a teammate who's behind some opponents. a pass thrown from over the head, to clear a defender or for added power

overtime We won the game by outscoring our opponents in overtime. a five-minute extra period that is played when the game is tied after four quarters

personal foul Younger players often get over-excited and too aggressive and commit many personal fouls. a foul that involves illegal physical contact such as blocking, charging, elbowing or holding

possession The team whose player commits a violation loses possession of the ball. to be holding, or be in control of, the ball

rebound A lot of goals are scored from rebounds after an opponent's shot misses. get control of a ball that has come off the rim or backboard after a failed shot attempt

referees How many referees are usually on court during a game of basketball? officials who call violations and fouls, give penalties, signal field goals, and stop and start play

set shot Practising set shots is important because they are used to score from free throws. a shot taken with both feet on the floor in a set position

shoot Players earn more points if they shoot from outside the three-point line. to throw the ball in an attempt to score a goal

shot clock Players have to keep an eye on the shot clock while they are playing. a clock that shows the amount of time a team has left to take a shot

slam dunk Matt drove towards the basket, jumped high into the air and scored with a huge slam dunk. a high jump shot in which the ball is thrust down through the hoop

substitute The substitutes sat on the bench and watched as their teammates on the court kept playing. a player who comes into the game to replace a player on the court

technical foul Their coach got a technical foul for arguing with a referee. a foul called against a player or coach for unsportsmanlike conduct such as arguing with a referee

three-point line In the NBA, the three-point line is 23 feet 9 inches from the basket. a semi-circle painted on the court, from outside of which a successful shot earns three points

time-out Their coach indicated that he wanted a time-out, and the referee stopped the game. clock stoppage requested by a coach for a short meeting with the players

travelling Even professional players sometimes get penalized for travelling. the violation of moving with the ball without dribbling correctly

turnover Good players protect the ball to stop opposition players from making a turnover. a player loses the ball to a member of the other team without taking a shot

violation Two of the most common violations in junior basketball are double-dribbling and travelling. an infraction of the rules