What Is an Air Ball in Basketball?

Anyone who has played the game of basketball long enough has been there; too short or way off to the side, and the other players and crowd gang up on you. An air ball is a devastatingly bad way to end up at the end of a shot. But, in the end, an air ball is simply a missed shot and nothing more than that; if you do not let it get too far.

In basketball, an airball is when a player takes a shot and completely misses the goal. There is no contact made with the rim or backboard, and the ball is undershot, overshot, or too far left or right. An air ball may result in a turnover, giving the other team a chance to score.

Bottom line, if you play basketball, you really don’t want to airball. But if you play basketball long enough, it’s inevitably going to happen. It won’t haunt you forever, but that night’s crowd might use it against you the rest of the game. 

What is an Air Ball?

In basketball, an airball is when a player takes a shot, and the ball does not touch the rim at all. The air ball is usually the result of one of two things:

  • A player taking a bad shot: The shooter takes a shot that is out of his or her range
  • Strong defense: A result of the defense being overwhelming and forcing a bad miss. 

For many people who are new to the game of basketball, the definition of an air ball may seem a little confusing. The two words put together tend to elicit images of the ball floating on without hitting anything, which is normally the case. For the most part, there are really two definitions of an air ball in basketball and are separated by the levels at which the game is being played.

These two scenarios below are the ways that many people in the basketball world define how an air ball would go.

The Ball hits the Backboard, but not the Rim: Air Ball?

Whether a missed shot that smacks the backboard but misses the rim is called an air ball or not depends on the level of the teams. 

High School Level and Younger 

Because younger players at lower levels may not be as technically skilled, they are given a pass for being inaccurate with their shot. For lower-level games, usually high school level and below, a basketball that is shot and hits the backboard and not the rim is not considered an air ball.

College and Professional Levels

Once players get to the collegiate level and beyond, however, the definition in this scenario changes. At these levels, any missed shot that does not touch the rim is considered an air ball. 

This is because the players are supposed to be experienced and skilled enough that every shot, they take at least hits the rim.

The Ball hits the Net, but not the Rim: Air Ball?

For this scenario, the overwhelming rule is that, yes, this would be an air ball. In general, an air ball is a shot that does not touch the rim. If it only hits the net underneath the rim, then it would be considered an air ball.

The only scenario where a ball being shot and only hitting the net would not be counted as an air ball would be if the ball goes straight through the rim, only hitting the net. In this case, the shot would be called a “swish.” 

The history of the swish dates back to the origins of the game of basketball. In 1913, a story called “The Coward” by Trebor Yarruns eluded to a shot in the sport of basketball and referred to the sound of the netting as the ball soared through without touching the metal rim. 

Reasons a Player Might Air Ball a Shot

According to Real Hoopers, there are a few common factors that can play into a player shooting an airball:

  • Injury
  • Fatigue
  • Good defense

There is also a possibility that either the ball or the player’s hands, or both, were sweaty and caused the ball to roll off wrong to cause a flawed shot. These all seem like simple issues that can be fixed, and sometimes they can be. But once in a while, there are a few other things that could happen when shooting a basketball.  

Sometimes Great Defense Causes an Air Ball

Another line of reasoning for an air ball would come from the defense. A good defender is going to be able to stay in front of the offensive player and prevent them from making a good pass, take a good shot, or dribble by them. If the defense is good enough, along with other pressures (a game clock or shot clock winding down), the offensive player might shoot an air ball. 

History of the Term and Chant: “Air Ball”

Shooting an air ball might be one of the worst things an offensive player can do. If a player does this in front of a crowd, then the chant of “Air Ball” will come through. 

The earliest record of the phrase “air ball” can be traced back to 1967. As covered by Slate, some of the first basketball games played at Cal State with actual orange baskets were filled with air balls. The players would toss some type of ball (some used soccer balls) to score it into the baskets. 

A New Chant Takes the Court

According to Slate and the Duke Basketball Report, the heated rivalry game between the North Carolina Tarheels and the Duke Blue Devils in 1979 was the game that fueled the airball taunt.

On February 24, 1979, the North Carolina Tarheels and the Duke Blue Devils met at Cameron Indoor Stadium to play one of the most-watched matchups in sports. 

After a strange change in coaching and offensive strategy, Tarheels’ Forward, Rich Yonaker, took a new approach to get points on the board: He air balled…miserably. In Yonaker’s words, “…it was a great shot, it was right on the line, but it was an eight-foot shot, and I shot it fourteen feet.”

After this shot, it wasn’t more than a few seconds before the Cameron Crazies started the chant, “Aiiirrrr ball, aiiirrrr ball.” 

The interesting thing about this taunt is that it doesn’t just follow that shot, but any time that same player touches the ball, the crowd will continue the chant, in a tradition that continues to this day at not only Duke but across the nation.

Normally, this chant continues for the rest of the game whenever the player touches the ball again. For the good players, an air ball is simply a miscalculation on the shot power or accuracy, or it was just good defense being played on them. The air ball happens to all players at all levels of the sport.

Final Thoughts

Overall, basketball players will always want to try and limit the number of mistakes they make, but an airball, in particular, is one that should be avoided like the plague. There may be worse mistakes, but this one may be an easier corrected error. 

It’s inevitable that something like this will happen to just about any basketball player who plays the game long enough. The ones that are able to get past this mistake are the ones less likely to make it again because they are determined not to be humiliated. 

The goal is always to continually improve and reduce mistakes. So when you airball, let it go quickly and move on; there is always going to be another shot coming.

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