The rules of basketball intend for the game to be contested with five players to a team, utilizing five athletes at five different positions, each with their own unique set of strengths and skills. However, whether due to mental mistakes or a lack of players, teams sometimes field more or less than the standard five players, enacting some of basketball’s most obscure — and most interesting — rules.
One of basketball’s most fundamental rules lies tucked away deep in Rule 10, Section 2, Article 6 of the NCAA Basketball Men’s and Women’s Rules book, stating simply, “A team shall not have more than five players legally on the playing court to participate.” When a team violates this rule by placing six or more players on the court during game play — whether at the conclusion of a timeout, by an illegal substitution or a player entering the court illegally during game play — the opponent is awarded two technical free throws and play is resumed at the point of interruption.
While a team is required to field five players at the tip-off of a game, a scholastic or collegiate team may finish the game with four players in the event of players fouling out or sustaining injury. In a January 2010 NCAA Division I men’s basketball game against UCLA, six Seattle players fouled out of the contest, forcing head coach Cameron Dollar and his team to finish the contest with only four players on the court. A similar situation occurred in a NCAA Division I women’s basketball game in December 2010, when injuries to six players on a St. John’s team only dressing 10 players at tip-off forced the Red Storm to finish with only four players on the court.
In extremely rare circumstances, teams have even finished a game with only three players on the court. While playing with only four players often forces teams to stall offensively and keep the game as low scoring as possible, while also dropping back into a zone or “box” defensive shell, playing with three players forces a team to play even more conservatively. In a 1988 junior college men’s basketball game between United Tribes Technical College and the University of North Dakota at Bottineau, United Tribes finished the game with only three players on the court after starting with only five players and fouling out two late in the second half. Even more shockingly, United Tribes won the game 84 to 81.
While scholastic and collegiate teams are occasionally forced to finish a game with less than five players on the court, an obscure rule in the National Basketball Association prohibits NBA teams from fielding less than five players due to foul troubles. According to NBA rules, when a player on a team with only five available players — whether due to players sustaining injury or illness or fouling out of a game — fouls out of a game, he must remain on the floor instead of forcing his team to finish with four players. However, the referee is required to assess a fouled-out player a technical foul for each additional personal foul he receives.