Basketball is one of the most popular sports in the world. Since it's so action-packed and fast, there's very little wonder why. The booming popularity of the National Basketball Association (NBA) in the past two decades, thanks to famous stars like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird, has made basketball what it is today.

The History

The first version of basketball appeared in 1891. James Naismith, a PE instructor for the YMCA, was instructed to invent an athletic activity for the winter. He constructed the first basketball court and wrote the original rules. The original rules did not allow dribbling, and players had to throw the ball from where they caught it. Players that committed multiple fouls would have to sit out until the next score.

As basketball grew, more rules and a backboard came into existence. Basketball was introduced as an Olympic sport in 1936. Before the NBA, there were a few other professional basketball leagues. The National Basketball League started up first. The Basketball Association of America was formed in 1946. After this, the American Basketball Association and the NBA co-existed for a while. Eventually, the NBA won out, and many teams from the ABA became NBA teams.

The NBA has had its legendary stars and teams, which have delighted and amazed audiences around the world. The Boston Celtics, coached by Red Auerbach, won a string of championships in the NBA's early years. Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in a single game, a feat which has yet to be duplicated. Kareem Adbul-Jabbar (formerly Lew Alcindor) and Julius "Dr. J" Erving dominated the game in the 1970's. Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and Isiah Thomas provided spectacular rivalries throughout the eighties. Michael Jordan is probably the most talented basketball player the world has ever seen. He retired after leading his Chicago Bulls to three straight world championships. After a few years, he returned to the NBA to lead the Bulls to three more championships. Jordan retired again but will return for the 2001-2002 season. Today, the NBA is as popular as ever.

NCAA basketball is also extremely popular, especially during "March Madness" -- the final playoff tournament. In the Olympics, basketball is also one of the main events. In 1992, the ban on professional basketball players was lifted, and the United States constructed an unstoppable "Dream Team" of the NBA's best players. The Dream Team crushed all of their opponents with ease. Some argue that this has taken all of the fun and excitement out of Olympic basketball.

The Rules

An NBA regulation court for basketball is 94 feet long and 50 feet wide. At each end, a 10-foot basket with a backboard is placed. The free throw line is 15 feet away from the baskets on either end of the court. This line also marks the top of the key, the painted area underneath the basket. The key is a rectangular area that is 12 feet across as well as 15 feet long. The free throw line also serves as a diameter for the circle on the court where jump balls are performed. There are three such circles on the court, one at each end near the free throw line and one on the half-court line, where the game begins. The three point line is an arc around the basket, 23 feet and 9 inches away (that's the official NBA distance). NBA games consist of four 12-minute quarters, with indefinite overtimes in the event of a tie. In the NBA, if a player collects 6 personal fouls, he is ejected from the game. NCAA rules differ slightly, with the three-point line closer to the basket, only five personal fouls allowed, and halves rather than quarters.

In order to move with the ball, a player must dribble it. When a player receives the ball, he can hold it or start dribbling. Once a player begins dribbling and then stops, he can move only one foot. The other must stay on the ground, and which foot is his "pivot foot" cannot change. If a player takes steps with the ball in hand, he is guilty of traveling and the other team is given the ball.

Normal shots, or field goals, during the course of play count for 2 points. A field goal from beyond the three point arc counts for three points, while free throws count for one point apiece. On offense, a team has a shot clock limit: they have a certain amount of time to attempt a shot. In the NBA, the shot clock limit is 24 seconds. NCAA regulations allow a 45-second shot clock. The shot clock is reset whenever the ball hits the rim or the other team gains possession. An air ball, or shot that doesn't even hit the rim, will not reset the shot clock.

Players are not allowed to make contact with each other to impede their scoring. Generally, contact is bad and is considered a foul. If a foul occurs while a player is shooting, he is entitled to two free throws from the foul line, or three if he was fouled from beyond the three point arc. Thus if the player makes all of his free throws, it is as if he had made the shot in the first place. The player who committed the foul gets a personal foul added to their tally. Other contact fouls are made when the player is not in a shooting action, and the guilty player is simply charged with a personal foul and the offensive team gets the ball again. There is a foul limit, however. When a team reaches this penalty situation and fouls the other team, the other team gets to take free throws, regardless of whether it was in the act of shooting or not.

The Players

A team is allowed the field five players at once, with substitutions allowed on certain dead ball plays. A typical lineup includes a center, power forward, small forward, shooting guard, and point guard. The descriptions below are very general, and many successful teams have lineups with roles very different from these descriptions.

The center is the big man in the middle. World class centers are typically seven feet tall or even bigger. Their job is to get good position in the key and take close shots. They are also responsible for rebounding and blocking shots. Centers are not typically known for their shooting ability. Instead, they work inside, taking hook shots and dunking.

The power forward typically plays upcourt as well. Though they're usually not as big as centers, they are quite large and make big plays close to the basket. They are more versatile then centers, but are far from the quickest players on the court.

The small forward has to be a very versatile player. Small forwards do a little of everything. They must be able to rebound, shoot, and even drive to the basket sometimes.

Shooting guards are well described by their name. Elite shooting guards have deadly accuracy from beyond the three-point arc. As a result, shooting guards must also be good defenders and prevent the opposing team's shooting guard from taking open shots. Many shooting guards present a dual threat: as well as having a good jump shot, many are quick enough to be good penetrators, driving to the hoop.

Point guards run the show on the floor. They bring the ball up and call plays. They need to have a good head on their shoulders and stay cool. It is not as important for the point guard to be a good shooter, but it's imperative that the point guard be an excellent playmaker.