The Rules of Basketball
What's a Foul?

The rules of basketball concerning contact on the floor - i.e., fouls - are fairly straight-forward: if you initiate the contact, it's your foul. But there is plenty of contact in basketball, and most of it is incidental - i.e., no foul. So what contact is considered a foul?

In short, everyone on the court has the right to the space he occupies, including the space directly above his head. When another player moves into that space and creates contact, the foul should be assigned to the player creating the contact, whether that player is playing offense or defense.

There are quite a few ways to commit a foul, and this is a relatively short page. I'll outline some of the most common types of fouls, and suggest you should download or buy a copy of the rules that govern your league for a more exhaustive description of fouls.Your league website may have it, or you can check out these books:

The Rules of Basketball
Illegal Screens

  • Also called moving picks. When a screen is set on a defensive player, the player setting the screen must be stationary, with both feet on the ground. As well, if the screen is being set outside the line of vision of the defensive player, the screen must be set at least one step away from the defensive player.

  • If the screener is moving, or if he sets the screen too close and out of sight of the defensive player, then the contact made will be considered a foul on the part of the screener.
  • Contact made on a legal screen is considered to be the responsibility of the defensive player.

The Rules of Basketball
Charging and Blocking

Rules of Basketball - Charges

Pushing or moving into an opponent's body is illegal.

  • If a defensive player initiates the contact (e.g., deliberately steps into an offensive player as he is running past), it is the defensive player's foul and called blocking.

  • If the offensive player initiates the contact (the most common example of this is the offensive player driving to the hoop and running into a defensive player that is stationary and set in position), then it is the offensive player's foul and termed charging.

The Rules of Basketball

  • Touching the opponent is not necessarily a foul - it depends on whether that contact gives one of the players an advantage, which is something the referee must decide at the time.

  • Neither an offensive player nor a defensive player is allowed to hold their opponent, hook their arm/elbow around the opponent's arm/body in order to move/hold them, or to push the opponent away.

The Rules of Basketball
Personal Fouls

  • These are contact fouls - when a player holds, pushes, or trips his opponent.
  • If the personal foul is committed on a player not in the act of shooting, then the offender will be assigned a personal foul and the opponent will be given possession of the ball to inbound it.

  • If the personal foul is committed on a player that is in the act of shooting, then the offender is assigned a personal foul and the shooter is given foul shots.
    If the shot attempt during the foul is successful, then the shooter receives one additional shot from the foul line.

    If the shot attempt during the foul is unsuccessful, then the shooter receives either two or three foul shots, depending on where the shot attempt was taken - two foul shots if it had been a two-point attempt; three foul shots if it had been a three-point attempt.
  • Once the foul shots are taken, the ball is considered "live" if the last shot misses and everyone rebounds; if the last shot is successful, then the other team inbounds the ball

The Rules of Basketball:
Unsportsmanlike Foul

  • Different from a technical foul (see below), an unsportsmanlike foul is any contact foul that the referees deem to be a deliberate foul - i.e., the offender did not demonstrate a legitimate attempt to play the ball, or the offender caused excessive contact (i.e., a hard foul) in an attempt to play the ball.

  • If an unsportsmanlike foul is called:

    The offending player is charged with the unsportsmanlike foul.

    The player that was fouled receives free throws - 2 free throws if he was not in the act of shooting; one free throw if he was in the act of shooting and the field goal attempt was successful; either two or three free throws if he was in the act of shooting and missed.

    The foul shooter's team receives possession of the ball.

  • A player that is called for two unsportsmanlike fouls in a game will be disqualified from play and ejected from the game.

The Rules of Basketball
Technical Fouls

Technical fouls are considered more serious than unsportsmanlike fouls. Technicals are behavioral fouls - actions that could potentially escalate tensions, increase possibility of injuries, or undermine the authority of the game officials.

Here are some examples of technical fouls:

  • Disrespectfully touching or communicating with referees.

  • Using offensive language or gestures, or baiting an opponent ("trash-talking").

  • Excessive swinging of the elbows.

  • Delaying the game by deliberately touching the ball once it has gone through the net.

  • Goal tending during free throws.

In most cases, referees will issue a warning the first time they notice the action, and on the second offense they will call the technical foul.

  • A technical foul will award the opponent two free throws and possession of the ball.

  • A player or coach called for two technical fouls in one game will be disqualified from play and ejected from the game.

Also realize that fouls are collected both individually and as a team. Every time a foul is called, it is one personal foul charged to the offending player, and one more team foul charged to that player's team.

After a set number of team fouls (the exact number depends on the rules your league uses), the other team receives foul shots with each consecutive foul, whether committed during an act of shooting or not. And after a set number of personal fouls (5, in most leagues) a player is disqualified from the game.

There is plenty more about fouls to know - more than I have room to discuss here. Check out the rules of basketball that your league uses. And don't forget to check out the other two pages on the site for other types of rules - Game Time, and Violations.

Again, for a more detailed, official version of the rules, check out:

A good basic understanding of the rules of basketball will help you coach better and help you improve your player's knowledge of the game.

"I try to do the right thing at the right time. They may just be little things, but usually they make the difference between winning and losing."

- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar