Personal foul

In basketball, a personal foul is a breach of the rules that concerns illegal personal contact with an opponent. It is the most common type of foul in basketball. Due to the nature of the game, personal fouls occur on occasions and are not always regarded as unsportsmanlike. However, a contact foul involving excessive or unjustified contact is classed as an "unsportsmanlike" foul (or in the NBA, "flagrant foul").


The concept of a foul goes back to the very beginning of basketball in 1891, when in his original 13 rules, James Naismith defined a foul as:
*running with the ball,
*holding the ball with the arms or body,
*striking the ball with the fist,
*shouldering, holding, pushing, striking or tripping in any way of an opponent.Only the fourth definition remains. Running with the ball and striking it with the fist have since become violations; and holding the ball with the arms or body is no longer prohibited, though players rarely do so anyway.

The original penalty was, on a player's second foul, he would be disqualified until the next successful goal without substitution. Before long, free throws were introduced, originally worth three points each, then becoming one. Originally any team member was allowed to shoot free throws. In 1924, the rules were changed so that the fouled player was made to shoot his own free throws.

Changes from the 1950s and 1960s

Enforcement -- Contact fouls were defined in the 1950s and 1960s as "contact that affected play". In modern basketball, an important part of play is to contact the opponent so as to purposely affect the play, but not be detected and charged with an infraction. The prevalence of contact in modern basketball is most easily validated by press photos showing the extensive muscular contact. In any ten second period, it is possible to see contact affecting play. Contact that is ruled permissible and contact which is not has become subjective and varies from official to official and game to game.

Penalties -- Another major change from the 1950s and 1960s comes in the area of penalties for infractions. The victim of a contact foul used to be given three attempts at a free throw, and retained possession of the basketball. In today's game the fouled player typically receives two free throw attempts if he was fouled in the act of shooting. Unless - A: The player makes the shot. In this case, the shot would count and he would shoot one free throw. Or B: If the player is behind the three point line when the shooting foul occurred, he will shoot three free throws. The opposing team takes possession if the last of these free throws is made. This has resulted in more frequent fouls, particularly at the end of the game. Teams that are losing may purposefully foul offensive players in order to stop the clock and get possession of the ball back, trusting that the player may miss his free throws. This is especially true at the college level and even more so in the NCAA Tournament. One also frequently can hear announcers calling an infraction a "good foul." Such a foul is one committed on an offensive player who is about to make a sure basket. By fouling the player and preventing an easy two points, the defender forces the offensive player to "earn" the two points from the free throw line.

The definition of a foul has since developed into what is outlined in the principles section below.


Personal contact in a game does not necessarily constitute a personal foul. The player who fouls must put himself at an advantage or his opponent at a disadvantage. The official makes this decision, though sometimes calls can be controversial or even incorrect.

Unless otherwise stated, the principles outlined in this section apply to both the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) and the NBA. In the NBA, the term "assessed with a foul" instead of "charged with a foul" is used.

Cylinder principle

FIBA uses the cylinder principle to determine if contact was illegal. The concept is that a player may not extend his limbs or bend his body in a way that is not normal. In this system there is an imaginary cylinder occupied by each player. The cylinder is limited to
*The front by the palms of the hands,
*The rear by the buttocks, and
*The sides by the outside edge of the arms and legs.The arms are not allowed to be farther in front than the feet, and should be bent at the elbows so that the forearms and hands are raised. The cylinder extends from the floor to the ceiling (so the player can jump and remain in his cylinder).

A player can occupy any cylinder not already occupied by the opponent. The cylinder he occupies is protected, that is, no-one else is allowed to step or reach into it. If there is a breach of this principle, then there is a possible foul, which the official may or may not penalise after deciding if it placed the opponent at a disadvantage.

The NBA does not use the cylinder principle to judge contact; it only says that a player may not bend or reach in a position that is not normal (and that a player may not push, hold, and so on.)

Elements of time and distance

The elements of time and distance are the principles regarding the reaction time and distance of another person; for example, a player can not suddenly step in front of a sprinting player even if the cylinder was not occupied at the time. They apply only on players who do not have the ball; they do not apply on the ball carrier. Another example of the elements of time and distance is when a player sets a screen directly behind a player: the player would not physically be able to react to the screen in enough time to avoid it.

Charging and blocking

Charging and blocking are some of the most controversial foul calls in basketball. Charging is defined as illegal contact by pushing or moving into another player's torso. Blocking is illegal contact which impedes the progress of an opponent. Sometimes, however, it can be difficult to see which player in a charging/blocking situation is at fault. In "charging/blocking situations" the offensive player is charging and the defensive player is blocking (but that is not to say charging is only committed by offensive players and so on.) It is generally accepted that the offensive player should be charged with a charging foul if the defense:
*was still, or moving sideways or backwards but not forwards, when contact occurred
*took a legal guarding position before the contact, that is, one with both feet on the floor
*was hit on the torso (as opposed to the arm or leg)
*respected the elements of time and distance

The elements of time and distance have been respected if the offensive player could have stopped or otherwise avoided contacting the defensive player, including if the defensive player was back-pedaling and gradually slowed down, and including when an offensive player turns a “blind” corner and contacts a defensive player having an established position.

Charging/blocking situations almost always occur with a player who is dribbling the ball (and the player who is guarding him).

In the NBA, a charging foul cannot be called if the play occurs within a 4' (1.22m) radius around the center of the basket (known as the restricted area) except for in certain situations.

A related call is the player control foul.


A screen is an attempt by an offensive player to stop a defensive player from guarding an offensive player. It can be worked very effectively; John Stockton and Karl Malone were well known for their screen and roll play, also known as "pick and roll" play. The screener stands in the path of the defensive player in the hope that he will inadvertently crash into him, thus leaving the screener's team-mate free to run. However if the screener is moving when contact occurs, or he did not respect the elements of time and distance, or he initiated contact, he is charged with illegal screening, which is a blocking foul.

Dribbling player

In the NBA, a player who is dribbling the ball is not permitted to attempt to dribble past a defensive player where there is not enough space. Examples of this are when he tries to dribble between a defensive player and either a boundary or another defensive player. If there is space to put his head and shoulders past the defender then the defensive player is responsible.

While this rule is not in FIBA's rules, any contact caused by the dribbler will still be penalized accordingly.

Personal fouls other than charging and blocking

; Pushing : contact which attempts to displace an opponent (ie. pushing a player away from the basket); Holding : contact which attempts to interfere with a player's freedom of movement by physically grabbing the opponent (ex. grabbing a player driving to the basket); Illegal Use Of Hands : contact which is the result of a player going outside of his cylinder with his hands and causing illegal contact.(ex. going for a steal but hitting the player's hand/arm or hitting the arm of a shooter); Hand Checking: contact by the defense on a ballhandler that impedes a player's speed, quickness, rhythm, and/or balance.; Illegal Use of Elbow : contact in which the player moves his elbow outside his cylinder, causing an opposing player to be disadvantaged. This mostly occurs during a post-up play situation, where either offense or defence attempt to gain a better position


The general penalty for a foul is a foul entered on the scoresheet against the offender, and possession of the ball for the other team to pass inbounds from the out-of-bounds point nearest to the foul. Depending on when and where the foul occurs, however, other penalties may apply.

In some cases free throws may be awarded to the other team. This happens when either the foul was on a player who was in the act of shooting, or when the fouling team is in the team foul penalty situation for committing too many fouls. The article on free throws provides a more detailed analysis.

If a player commits five personal fouls (or six in the NBA and WNBA, and in any federation which uses 48-minute games) over the course of a game, they "foul out" and are thus disqualified from participation for the remainder of the game. A player within one or two fouls of fouling out is often said to be in "foul trouble." Players who foul out are "not" ejected and may remain in the bench area for the remainder of the game. Fouling out of a game is not considered to be grounds for further disciplinary action.

In the NBA and WNBA, if a team is reduced to five players and one commits a sixth foul, that player must stay in the game; one additional free throw is awarded to the opposing team. Even if there are no free throws to be awarded because of an offensive foul, the one free throw will be added irrespective of offensive or defensive foul. A one-free throw penalty will also be awarded if said team has a player who must leave the game after being injured, and has no legal substitutes; the last player to foul out rejoins the game with the one free throw penalty. Thus, no team can be reduced to four players in those leagues. This rule is how Don Otten managed to set the NBA record for personal fouls in a regular season game. He had eight fouls while playing for the Tri-Cities Blackhawks against the Sheboygan Redskins on November 24, 1949.cite web | title=Regular Season Records: Personal Fouls | url=| accessdate=2007-09-14]


External Links

* [ 2008 NCAA Men's and Women's Basketball Rules]
*International Basketball Federation (June 2004). [ "Official Basketball Rules 2004"] .
* [ NBA Rule Number 12: Fouls and Penalties]

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