Can You Catch Your Own Air Ball in Basketball?

Whether you are playing a pick-up basketball game in the local park or gym, part of your high school or college team, or simply watching the NBA, basketball rules can be confusing. The rules depend on whether you are playing at your local YMCA or with LeBron James, yet many everyday basketball players do not realize the difference.

An airball occurs when you shoot the basketball and miss the rim and the backboard. As long as you are not in the NBA, you can catch or rebound your own airball as long as it is an intentional shot. In pickup basketball, high school, college, and international play, this is legal. 

This rule alone has caused fights, arguments, and harsh disagreements in everyday basketball games in which the players do not understand the rules. Read on to get your own understanding of when you can legally catch an airball in basketball. It will help defend your actions when you play your next pickup game at the local park.

Is Catching an Airball Considered Traveling? Only in the NBA

Rules regarding traveling differ depending on the level and league of play, which makes it a fundamentally misunderstood rule for both players and viewers. In most cases, traveling means that you took too many steps while holding the basketball, usually more than two, without dribbling. However, it also depends on how your foot pivots.

A player can pivot his or her foot in order to turn while holding the ball. Traveling occurs when the player lifts the pivoted foot from the floor and returns it without passing the ball. If a player shoots a ball and misses, constituting an airball, the player is no longer in control of the ball. Once it is caught it is a new play, so it is legal in most cases.

To sum it up clearly, whether or not you can catch your own airball can be answered as a yes or no here:

  • Pickup basketball – yes
  • High school basketball – yes
  • College basketball – yes
  • International basketball – yes
  • The NBA – no

Although the above list seems simple enough, there are rules for each type of level and league of play. High school, college, and international basketball all have documented rules and regulations that determine why catching your own airball is legal. On the other hand, the NBA also has documentation explaining why this is a violation of their rules.

What is the Confusion about Catching an Airball?

Consider this situation – you are playing a pickup game of basketball with friends, and a player shoots an airball over the net, recovers his or her own shot, and then shoots again and this time scores two points. The team in which the player is on will more than likely cheer for the two points. The other team, however, may call foul or travel.

The rule that players disagree on more than any other is catching an airball, and it is not just players who oppose the dreaded airball. Have you ever heard the chat “airball…airball” when a college or professional player embarrassingly misses both the rim and the backboard after making a shot? Even fans make fun of airballs.

In fact, this tradition of chanting “airball” angered a Syracuse fan when he heard Georgia Tech fans chanting “airball” against his favorite player, John Gillon. Gillion hurled an airball and the opposition’s fans immediately started chanting. The fan actually called the Syracuse coach to complain about the fans unsavory behavior.

Yes, this Syracuse fan actually called the college-level coach because of the opposition chanting “airball.” One could only imagine what would have happened if Gillion caught his own airball and continued playing or shot again to score. If Georgia Tech would have complained about that it would not matter, because it would have been legal.

You Can Catch Your Airball in Pickup Basketball Games

Have you been in the middle of a pickup basketball game and, after you caught your own airball, you had another player call foul or traveling? This more than likely happens in nearly every basketball game, and now you have the ammunition to counter this common misconception in basketball rules. This is not a foul or traveling in casual play.

You have probably seen it before in high school and college where a player catches an airball, and the other coach immediately calls foul or traveling against him or her. Then, the coach is even that much angrier when the referee does nothing and allows play to continue. Why is this the case when in the NBA it is called right away?

As long as it is an intentional shot, catching your own airball is 100 percent legal, and you can feel free to be the first person to touch the airball, catch the airball, or even rebound it for a chance to score. This could be confusing in a simple pickup game because a lot of times, the players are not experienced or knowledgeable with the rules.

Now, this misconception is not uncommon on the pickup-game level. Usually, these are older players who may have played basketball in high school or individuals who never played on a team and simply enjoy the game. They are also usually NBA watchers, which means they have seen this called by the referees and think that rule is universal.

Some Unwritten Rules for Pickup Basketball

The best way to avoid fights and conflict in a friendly game of pickup basketball is to come prepared with the written and unwritten rules for the game. As you have seen with the misconception of catching your own airball, the rules for pickup basketball are not obvious or written in stone. The proper etiquette is learned usually on the court.

You have probably noticed that pickup basketball games usually do not have referees officiating the game. Why would a ref want to work for free? Players are expected to officially the game themselves fairly and accurately. Therefore, it does not matter if you are playing in a local park or a community gym; knowledge is key:

  • Pickup etiquette states you need to wait your turn on the sidelines before getting in a game.
  • If teams are not already determined, players can make up a new team by taking free throws. The first five players to successfully make their free throws make up the pickup team.
  • The winning score should be determined before the game even begins, and a team must win by at least two points.
  • Shots are usually one point unless they are a three-point throw from behind the three-point line.
  • Players should call out their own fouls and not deny them, but the play should not get so intense that fouls are hard or painful.
  • The winning team is allowed to stay on the court; the losing team must allow another team to play if there are players waiting to get into the game.
  • Players can catch their airballs as long as it was an intentional shot.

What about High School Basketball?

As long as you made an intentional shot attempt, you can catch and rebound your own airball during high school play. Now, this can get a little confusing when determining whether the shot was indeed intentional or not. Unlike pickup basketball, which does not have any official rules, this rule is formally documented for high school players.

The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) has a Basketball Case Book that documents the official rules that must be abided by on the high school level. This book is not easy to get through, as it consists of nearly 300 pages of rules and situations for high school basketball, which is why the rules are so confusing.

This case book is divided into ten rules, from the court and equipment to free throws, fouls, and penalties. So that you do not have to sift through this entire book to find the information on airballs, it is located under Rule 4 – Definitions, subhead “Traveling – Or Not,” 4.44.2 Situation B. This section, in technical terms, determines this act as legal.

So, you can use this case book (easily found online) to your advantage when determining whether or not a player can catch his or her own airball. The rule details how the airborne ball is caught, where the feet are aligned, and even when the feet move while wrestling with the ball. The ruling determined here: LEGAL.

The NCAA Also Determines Catching Your Own Airball as Legal

Similar to the HFHS, the NCAA also has documented rules for basketball. This book is a little shorter than the high school version – the 2020-2021 rules for men’s college basketball encompasses 146 pages. It is broken into 11 rules that have multiple sections and nine additional appendices with additional rulings and information.

Their rules for catching your airball are also in the traveling section, which is Section 5 of Rule 9 – Violations and Penalties – in the most up-to-date version of the document. Just like the high school rule book, the issue of catching your own airball is located in the traveling section of the rule book and details this misconception.

The NCAA rules agree that a player can shoot an airball, catch it even while it is in the air, and do so legally because it is considered an intentional shot attempt. Both rulebooks consider traveling to be when a player moves his or her foot or feet while holding the ball. This is not the case when a ball is in the air, making it legal.

When a player shoots an airball and then catches his or her own airball, the NCAA considers this attempt to be a new shot possession. What does that term mean? The player is legally allowed to shoot the ball again or even dribble away with the ball. This is not traveling or a foul because the player was never moving while holding the ball.

Demarcus Holland Caught His Own Airball

This rule was actually seen in 2015 when Texas Longhorns guard, Demarcus Holland, caught an airball and then went on to score a layup. He shot the airball, followed the ball and grasped it out of the air, and then went on to score a seamless layout before the defending Oklahoma State even knew what happened. There was further confusion:

●     ESPN commentators had called what Holland did a traveling violation – even they did not know the rules for catching airballs in the NCAA.

●     The referees did know what traveling was and was not, including catching your airball and making a subsequent shot at the basket.

●     Demarcus would have only been charged with traveling if it was determined he was trying to pass the basketball back to himself.

●     It was determined that all levels of play except the NBA allow this to legally occur.

Holland was allowed to be the first player to touch his airball as long as the referees determined that it was an intentional shot attempt. This is because when a player catches his or her own airball, the player’s original control of the ball had ended after the ball was released. The second catch started an entirely new play.

The only reason the referees would have called a violation against Demarcus would have been if they determined he was passing to himself. They did not, and concluded the first shot as legitimate, allowing Holland to victoriously score after retrieving his own airball. Although the airball was embarrassing, Holland did make up for it legally.

What About Outside of the United States? FIBA Considers Catching an Airball Legal

Even the FIBA rule book, which dictates the rules for international basketball play, allows a player to shoot an airball and then catch it and continue playing. This rule book is the shortest of the three, coming in at under 100 pages. It includes eight sections of rules that each have their own articles. Airballs are detailed under Rule Four.

Rule Four – Playing Regulations, has 21 articles, and shooting an airball is discussed under Article 15 – Player in the act of shooting. Under this section, a shot is determined when a player moves the ball towards the basket and ends when the ball has left the player’s hands. However, it also ends when an airball is shot.

What does this mean in real terms? FIBA allows a player to rebound his or her own missed shot. When the ball leaves the hands of the shooter, the shot has ended so, when an airball is caught, it is not considered traveling because it is a new act of shooting the ball towards the opponent’s basket. Catching your own airball is legal.

The Only Time You Cannot Catch Your Own Airball is in the NBA

The National Basketball Association (NBA) has their own set of rules that differ from all other forms of basketball. Among other things (too many misconceptions to count), this includes whether or not a player can catch his own airball. Their rule book is also extensive, but airballs are similarly detailed under the violations of traveling.

The NBA has determined fourteen rules that have their own sections detailed on how professional basketball players must legally play during the game. Rule 10: Violations and Penalties is where you can find the NBA’s own section on traveling. Unlike high school, the NCAA, and FIBA, this is where catching your airball is detailed as illegal.

Section eight, letter f of Rule 10 details what is determined as traveling in the NBA. Basically, it states that a player cannot be the first to touch his ball if it does not touch the backboard, basket ring, or another player (making it an airball). According to the NBA, this would constitute a violation and would result in a turnover to the other team.


Due to all of the different rule books and legalities, one can see why the question of whether or not a player can catch his or her own airball is one of the most misunderstood rules of the game. Now, you are well-informed to protect your play if this occurs in a pickup game and may refrain from chanting “airball” at a professional game.

Even if you just play pickup basketball on a Saturday afternoon or after work, educating yourself with the basic rules and the differences depending on the level and league play will make you a better basketball player. It is not surprising that people who play pickup games do not know the official rules and how they are contingent on the leagues.

If you liked this post, be sure to check “Can You Pass to Yourself in Basketball?” & “Can You Jump During a Basketball Free Throw?”.


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