What is a Loose Ball Foul?

Basketball is a high-intensity sport, where having possession of the ball can make or break a team’s chance of winning. Possession of the ball changes often in basketball for many different reasons. It could be from a steal of the ball from the defense or as simple as the change of a new quarter. Fouling is another reason for the change of possession of the ball. What happens though when a ball is on the court, but neither team possesses it and how can this result in a foul? Let’s take a look into Loose Ball Fouls.

Possession of the Ball

To understand the full concept of Loose Ball Fouls, it’s important to understand the basics of possession of the ball in basketball. First, possession of the ball refers to a team as a whole, even though physically, obviously, a single player has the ball. Teams have possession of the ball “when a player is holding, dribbling or passing the ball.” Possession is a simple concept to understand, but it’s one of the most constant changing variables in the game of basketball.

What is a Loose Ball Foul in Basketball?

A loose ball foul happens when neither team possesses the ball and both teams have the chance to recover it for possession. No team possesses the ball when it is airborne or rolling on the court floor. Just think of the ball being essentially “free”.

Foul Category

A loose ball foul is a type of personal foul and it does not go towards a player’s personal foul total who committed the foul. Personal fouls are when a player commits a rule violation against an opposing player that obstructs them from freely moving on the court through physical contact. Personal fouls are often committed in basketball because physical contact is inevitable while playing. So, neither team possessing the ball + physical contact that is enough to be considered a personal foul = a loose ball foul.

NBA Rules

Let’s check out the NBA official rule:

Section VIII—Loose Ball Fouls

  1. A personal foul, which is neither a punching or flagrant, committed while there is no team control shall be administered in the following manner:
    1. Offending team is charged with a team foul
    2. Offending player is charged with a personal foul
    3. Offended team will be awarded possession on the sideline, nearest the spot where play was interrupted but no nearer the baseline than the foul line extended, if no penalty exists
    4. Offended player is awarded one free throw attempt plus a penalty free throw attempt if the offending team is in a penalty situation
  2. If a “loose ball” foul called against the defensive team is then followed by a successful field goal, one free throw attempt will be awarded to the offended player, allowing for the three point or four point play. This interpretation applies:
    1. Regardless of which offensive player is fouled
    2. Whether or not the penalty situation The ball can never be awarded to the scoring team out-of-bounds following a personal foul which occurs on the same play
  3. If a “loose ball” foul called against the defensive team is followed by a successful free throw, one free throw will be awarded to the offended player whether or not the penalty is in effect.
  4. If a “loose ball” foul called against the offensive team is then followed by a successful field goal attempt by the same offensive player, no points may be scored.

Situations Where A Loose Ball Foul Will Be Called

There are quite a few situations where a loose ball foul can be called. This is largely due to a loose ball being where the ball is in the air or rolling on the court floor, as said earlier.

Passing the Ball

When a player attempts to pass the ball to their teammate and an opposing player keeps the teammate who will receive the pass from catching the ball while it is in the air by grabbing their arm/arms. In this situation can it be hard to tell if an arm was grabbed or simply just touched? Yes, which can make watching a game from home, the stands, or the bench frustrating if it doesn’t look like an official grab but is called one by refs.


There are two common ways a loose ball foul can be called during rebound attempts. The first is when a ball hits the rim after an attempted shot and one player grabs the arm of the other player making it so they can’t jump to retrieve the rebound. The second is when the ball hits the rim of an attempted shot and the ball exits the key area when players are trying to grab the rebound, which creates the loose ball. When players scramble to recover the ball, the loose ball foul can be called depending on the contact determined by refs.

Offensive Player Loses Control of the Ball

An offensive player can lose control of the ball by it simply slipping from their hands or it being poked loose by a defending player, both causing the ball to be on the court but in the hands of none. When the ball is rolling free, a loose ball foul can be called depending on the severity of physical contact determined by the refs.

An example of this will be when a player pushes another in order to grab the ball. Other rough physical contacts may happen because players are simultaneously diving for the ball in order to gain team possession. A trial violation can be a result of diving for a loose ball due to the sliding and rolling around on the ground.

50/50 Balls

50/50 balls are simply when the ball could go for either team. A loose ball foul will be called in this situation when s 50/50 ball is thrown and two players from opposing teams jump for the ball and make any contact at all.

In 2013 Game 3 Heat vs Bulls, a loose ball foul was called on Joakim Noah, when he and Chris Bosh both went for the rebound in the last minutes of the 4th quarter. Many consider this a bad call because it was made due to Bosh falling after the jump rather than when Noah held his arm prior. This call considerably changed the trajectory of the game that was a close Heat 88 – Bulls 83 when the foul was called.

What Happens When a Loose Ball Foul is Called?

As said earlier in the article, a loose ball foul does not count towards a player’s personal foul total. The fact there’s no negative count towards a foul total for loose ball fouls may make the foul seem less threatening than other personal fouls. A player doesn’t have to worry about fouling out of a game (which takes 6 total fouls in one game) if a loose ball foul is called out against them. A loose ball foul still has its cost though because it can result in free throws and change of possession of the ball.

Shot Clock Reset

When a loose ball foul is called the shot clock does not reset for the team who previously has possession of the ball before it was considered a loose ball. The clock instead will reset to the team who gains the new possession of the ball.

Considered a Steal?

Depending on the way the ball became loose, a loose ball can be considered a steal. If a defending player is able to poke the ball out of an offensive player’s hand while they’re dribbling it and the defending player recovers the ball it’s a steal. Also in this same scenario, if the defending player is not able to recover the ball, but their teammate recovers the ball, it is considered a steal.

Free Throw Attempts

There are certain situations where a loose ball foul will result in a chance of free-throw shots and when it won’t. This all depends on the status of the team against who the foul was called. If the team who the foul was called against isn’t in the penalty, the offended team will be awarded possession of the ball but no free throw attempts. The possession will be placed  on the sideline “nearest the spot where play was interrupted but no nearer the baseline than the foul line extended.” If the team the loose ball foul was called against is in the penalty, the offended player will get one free throw attempt and a free throw attempt that is penalty-free.

In the 2011 NBA Finals Game 3 of the Miami Heat vs Dallas Mavericks, Dwayne Wade was able to draw a loose ball foul against Jason Kidd. Here you can see Kidd is on Wade’s backside and when Wade jumps for the rebound he strategically contorts his body to get the referee to see the actions as foul worthy. This foul alone didn’t cost the Mavs the game, but every point counts and Wade successfully made his free throw in a game that ended Heat 88 – Mavericks 86.

Final Words

The loose ball foul is automatically against the defense. Is this a fair way to award a foul against a team? That’s based on opinion, but it isn’t shocking that some feel it isn’t as the offensive player could very well be making the greatest contact as opposed to the defensive player.

Loose ball fouls are common personal fouls that happen when neither team has possession of the ball and one player stops another from retrieving the ball through physical contact. As simple as that sounds, loose ball fouls can be quite controversial as players can strategically contort their bodies to draw them. Although they do not go on a player’s complete total, the result of a loose ball foul being the change of possession or free throw attempts can change the trajectory of a game.

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