Basketball for Dummies: Free throws, traveling and penalties?

Are you confused by the enthusiasm everyone seems to have for basketball around this time of year? Did you miss out on those elementary school lessons that your friends recall with such fond nostalgia? Were you focused on finding ways to sit out in PE instead of paying attention as the teacher explained the rules of the game? None of the above, but still not quite sure how to dip your toe into the waters of basketball? Whatever the case, the Anchor has you covered. As spring approaches, we’re going to walk you through the history and rules of basketball until you’re a real expert. “I think basketball is one of the easier sports to understand,” says basketball fan Erynn Dickerson (’23), “It’s not too aggressive, since it’s technically a no-contact sport. There is the occasional fight, so…just enough aggression to make things interesting.” When asked about fan culture, Dickerson added, “Football or hockey fans tend to be really intense, basketball people tend to be a little more chill.”

Basketball was invented in 1891 by Dr. James Naismith, who was a PE instructor at Springfield College in Massachusetts. Naismith was looking for a way to keep athletes in shape during the winter months when exercising outside was difficult and sports that could be played indoors were limited. He wrote out a set of basic rules, had a fruit basket nailed to the wall on each end of a gymnasium and formed two teams of nine students each. Then he gave them a soccer ball and told them his guidelines: their goal was to get the ball into one of the fruit baskets while preventing the other team from getting it into the other basket. They could only use their hands to pass and hold the ball, and could only move it by throwing or batting it around for other players to catch. Players could not make aggressive contact with each other—no shouldering, shoving, tripping or restraining was allowed. Each time someone scored a point, the game stopped so a janitor could take a ladder and retrieve the ball from the basket.

Nowadays, basketball courts look pretty different—some are outdoors, and almost all of them have holes in the bottom of the basket so the janitor doesn’t have to worry about getting the ball. Teams most commonly have five players each, instead of nine. The court is also divided into different sections, with one line splitting it in half, another creating a semicircle around each basket and a different line forming a rectangle around the basket. Overall, the goal of the game is the same: score more points than the other team by defending your own basket and throwing the ball into theirs. The game lasts for four “quarters,” which are ten minutes long each. After two quarters pass, the teams switch which hoops they’re defending, which can be confusing if you’re not expecting it.

In the modern version of the game, points are awarded based on how close to the hoop the player is when they make their shot. A maximum of three points can be awarded for any shot. The semicircle surrounding the basket is the three-point arc, meaning that any successful shot made outside of the line is worth three points. A basket made inside of the three-point arc is worth two points. If a player is fouled, they can make a one-point shot from the foul line (or free-throw line) close to the hoop.

Hope College’s Dutchmen face off against Albion College

The five players are a center, two guards and two forwards. The center is usually the tallest player and is often expected to make and block important shots, though they also help support their team members with their own shots. Guards are usually the most dexterous and skilled players and are expected to coordinate offensive plays. Forwards are versatile support players who can fill a variety of roles. These players move the ball by dribbling it (moving it while bouncing it on the floor with one hand) or throwing it to each other.

Basketball has a variety of fouls, and these are some of the most well-known:

  • Personal fouls are unlawful physical contact between players. Most of these are no-brainers, like kicking or shoving, while others are less intuitive: an “intentional foul” happens when a player makes contact without intent to steal the ball, and a “technical foul” is just a violation of good manners.
  • Traveling is when a player takes more than a step and a half while holding the ball in their hands. Players may pivot on one foot or move while dribbling, but not while simply holding the ball.
  • Double dribble occurs when a player dribbles the ball with both hands, or when they stop dribbling only to start again without passing the ball to another player. Once a player starts dribbling, they can’t stop without stopping their movement, taking a shot or passing the ball to another player.

For those who are interested in learning more about basketball, Hope basketball games are an excellent place to start! Check the Hope College schedule at for upcoming games, or visit the Hope Athletics website at They have information on everything you might need to know about sports on Hope’s campus, from the school’s athletic history to a variety of merchandise to the most recent scores and standings. You can also search YouTube for older games or ask a friend with a TV subscription to watch live games with you. If you’re feeling especially adventurous, try starting a game at the park or the gym—not only is this a way to exercise and socialize with your friends, it can also be a way to meet new people. With the help of this guide and those resources, you’re well on your way to becoming a basketball superfan!

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