Goaltending is one of the most deflating plays in basketball. As a defender, what might have been a game-changing block turns into points for the other team.
Goaltending on offense may also negate momentum-changing putback dunks. Either way, goaltending occurs as the result of a mistimed jump – leaping too early for an offensive rebound or too late for a block.
So, what is goaltending in basketball?
Goaltending is a violation that occurs when a player illegally obstructs the ball or the goal while a shot has a reasonable chance of going in. Goaltending often happens if a defender blocks the ball while it’s in a downward flight or when somebody touches the ball while it’s on or directly above the rim.
Goaltending is a difficult call to make for officials at all levels, which frequently leads to controversy in big games. If you want to learn more about the rule, you’ve come to the right place.
Why Is Goaltending Illegal?
Just like other basketball rules, the goaltending is necessary for making games more competitive for players and more aesthetically pleasing for spectators. Consider other rules in basketball:
- Dribbling is necessary because it slows down the fastest players when they have possession. In turn, offensive strategies and ball movement are required.
- Fouls are necessary for enabling free movement of players and to allow better scoring opportunities.
- The shot clock enforces a faster pace of play, requiring teams to have offensive and defensive strategies for the entirety of the game.
The same reasoning goes into the goaltending rule. In its early years, as basketball grew in popularity, taller and more athletic competitors began playing.
The possibilities grew for defensive players to alter shots that would otherwise score, and for offensive players to guide missed shots into the basket.
Like the three-second rule, the goaltending violation deters the tallest and most athletic players from affecting the sport disproportionately.
George Mikan and Bob Kurland are best known for influencing the ban of defensive goaltending in basketball. With each standing at 6’10”, Mikan and Kurland played defense by standing under the basket and grabbing opponents’ shots as they approached the rim. This made it nearly impossible for opposing teams to score.
Bill Russell is credited for causing the ban of offensive goaltending in basketball due to his dominance in college. With his length and leaping ability, Russell could anticipate teammates’ missed shots and steer them into the basket.
Had offensive goaltending been legal throughout Russell’s NBA tenure, he’d likely have much more than his career 21,620 rebounds – an absurd stat in its own right.
Without goaltending, imagine what some of the great modern big men would do! Would any team have scored on Shaquille O’Neal? Or Anthony Davis?
What Is the Penalty for Goaltending?
Both offensive and defensive players commit goaltending, so the punishment depends on who commits the penalty. With that said, defensive goaltending is much more prevalent than offensive goaltending.
When a defensive player goaltends, the opposing team is awarded points. This is based on the location from where the ball was shot. Goaltending a shot inside the three-point line results in two points for the offense; goaltending a shot behind the line results in three points.
In the box score, the shooter receives credit for the points and a made field goal.
Defensive goaltending penalties also apply if the shooter was fouled. If your teammate fouls the shooter and you block the shot while the ball is on a downward trajectory, that is a goaltending violation.
The opposing team is awarded points for the field goal attempt and is given a free throw. The timing of the whistle does not matter, either. Goaltending can still be assessed after the whistle is blown for a foul call.
If a defensive player commits goaltending on his opponent’s free throw attempt, a technical foul is assessed to the offending team.
Goaltending may be called after the horn has sounded. For example: if the shooter attempts a buzzer-beater before time expires, but a defensive player illegally blocks the shot after time expires, it is a goaltend.
This occurred in a 2019 NBA game, where the Knicks lost to the Wizards on a last-second goaltending violation.
When an offensive player goaltends, his team loses possession of the ball. When a field goal is made during or as a result of goaltending, the score does not count.
In the rare case that both teams commit goaltending on the same play, neither team is awarded any points, and possession is decided by a jump ball.
NBA Goaltending Rule
At a high level, goaltending is a basketball violation that occurs when a player illegally touches the ball or goal during a field goal attempt. Goaltending occurs in a variety of ways. The NBA defines each of the following actions as goaltending:
- Touching the ball or rim (basket ring) while the ball is sitting or rolling on the rim
- Hanging on the ring or net as the ball is passing through
- Touching the ball when it is above the rim and within the imaginary cylinder made by the rim
- Touching the ball when it has a chance to score, including when the ball is on an upward or downward flight on a field goal attempt or after the ball has touched the backboard
- Touching the net, backboard, or rim in a manner that causes the goal to move, thus causing the ball to bounce unnaturally
- Touching the ball while your hand is through the rim
These rules do not apply for a player who is dunking or attempting a layup, who has not yet released the ball from their hand(s).
Goaltending is not called if the ball does not have a reasonable chance of scoring. Officials may have discretion on what is considered a “reasonable chance.”
That said, it would likely be legal to snag an errant three-point attempt from the air if it misses the goal by six feet. In the NBA rulebook, the term “basket interference” is used interchangeably with goaltending.
When Was Goaltending Made a Rule in the NBA?
Before goaltending was made a rule in the NBA, it was adopted by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). The rule, however, did not come about overnight. The NCAA took decades to add rules that leveled the playing field for competitors of average height and athleticism.
The sport existed for 40 years before the offensive three-seconds rule was created, then another 10 years before goaltending was banned. Defensive goaltending was officially prohibited by the NCAA in 1944.
Mikan’s sophomore campaign was likely the final straw that led to goaltending becoming an NCAA rule. The big man anchored a DePaul defense that held opponents under 40 points per game. Mikan also scored over 30% of DePaul’s points.
Upon NCAA inclusion, goaltending was adopted by the National Basketball League (NBL). When the NBL’s successor, the National Basketball Association, was formed in 1947, defensive goaltending was included in the first set of rules.
Offensive goaltending was prohibited in 1958, which gave Mikan a full decade to own the offensive glass with no inhibitors.
While the goaltending ban helped limit the powers of basketball’s early greats, it didn’t stop them. Kurland won two NCAA Championships and two Olympic Gold Medals. Mikan was a three-time NBA scoring leader and five-time NBA champion.
Russell is second all-time in rebounds and won 11 NBA Championships. For decades to come, basketball would be dominated by centers, but the goaltending rule helped keep their advantages in check.
Goaltending vs Block
While they may look the same from afar, goaltends and blocks are different actions and lead to very different results. Most often, the difference between a block and goaltend lies in how well a defender times his jump.
For a block to be legal, it must occur:
- While the ball is headed in an upward trajectory and
- Before the ball hits the rim or touched the backboard. If either of these criteria does not hold, the defensive player has likely committed goaltending.
A legal block may also occur if the defender “pins” his opponent’s shot against the backboard. This block must take place before the ball makes contact with the backboard.
There is such a fine line between blocks and goaltends that even the world’s best players struggle in timing their blocks correctly. The following link, while old, shows NBA players who were the best (and worst) at goaltending during the 2004-05 season.
Philadelphia’s Samuel Dalembert goaltended on 17% percent of his block opportunities! For the season, Dalembert goaltended 24 times despite recording 120 blocks.
If timing a block is difficult, then trying to officiate one is just as tough. Goaltending is often a judgment call for referees. To make the right call, an official must have the right floor position to see the play.
The official must also determine if a goaltended shot had a reasonable chance of going in. If you do a Google search for discussion forums for referees, rulings on goaltending are always among the hot topics.
Offensive and Defensive Goaltending
Offensive goaltending usually occurs when players attempt to get an offensive rebound.
If an offensive player snags the ball off the rim or dunks it through – either while the ball is still touching the rim or is above the imaginary cylinder created by the rim – he has committed offensive goaltending and his team loses possession.
Defensive goaltending often occurs when the defender is attempting to block a shot, but he makes contact with the ball after it’s at or above the rim and in a downward flight.
Goaltending can also be called on the defense if the ball is touched after it makes contact with the backboard above the ring, regardless if the ball is in an upward or downward flight.
NCAA Basketball Goaltending Rule
The NCAA goaltending rule is nearly identical to the NBA rule. As described by the International Basketball Federation (FIBA), NCAA goaltending (and NBA goaltending) is characterized by:
- Blocking a ball in a downward flight towards the rim.
- Touching the ball while any part of it is in the imaginary cylinder above the rim.
In NCAA Women’s college basketball, there is a minor difference with goaltending. For the women’s game, goaltending is called if a player interferes with a ball that is entirely above the basket ring level.
In men’s basketball, a goaltend occurs if just part of the ball is above the basket ring level of the rim.
This means that in an NCAA Women’s basketball game, on a standard 10-foot goal, goaltending only applies if the bottom of the ball is at least 10 feet off the ground.
For men’s basketball, the top of the ball must be at least 10 feet off the ground.
High School Basketball Goaltending Rule
Goaltending in high school games is uncommon compared to higher levels of play. This is due to large variations in player size, age, athleticism, and skill level.
In rare instances where goaltending may apply, officials generally use the same guidelines as described in the men’s NCAA rulebook.
Per NFHS, there is one difference between goaltending in high school and in the NCAA. In the NCAA, goaltending is called when a player decides to touch the ball after it contacts the backboard, while any part of the ball is above the basket ring level.
Doing so in a high school game does not count as goaltending if the ball remains in upward flight.
International Goaltending Rule
Basketball games played under FIBA jurisdiction have a set of rules that is slightly different from that of American basketball. The best-known competitions that use FIBA rules include international basketball leagues, the Summer Olympics, and the Basketball World Cup.
Goaltending is among the rules that differentiate American basketball from international basketball. In both versions, it is illegal to block a shot while the ball is in a downward flight.
Unlike American basketball, however, FIBA allows some actions that other versions of basketball rulebooks don’t allow:
- Even if the ball has a chance of going in, a player may touch the ball after it hits the rim – it does not matter if the ball is on, above, or below the rim.
- If the ball is over the imaginary cylinder and above the rim but is still on an upward trajectory, a player may interfere.
- The above rules also apply on free throws, but only if it’s the last free throw (i.e. the second of two free throws following a shooting foul).
These exceptions allow more freedom with offensive and defensive rebounds. Naturally, they create advantages for basketball’s biggest and best athletes.
While goaltending is frustrating when your team does it, remember that the rule is there for a good reason: it helps keep basketball competitive!