Two Different Games

by Sabrina Scott / @SabrinaScott22

If you’re a basketball fan, it’s safe to say you’ve seen an NBA game, an NCAA game and a FIBA game (the Olympics, or maybe a EuroLeague game?).

And while you may know the ins and outs of your league, the foreign game may remain somewhat of a mystery. Maybe it frustrates you to watch, or you don’t understand the intricacies or strategies of the game.

That’s perfectly normal because basketball played internationally (FIBA), and basketball played in the US are drastically different. Sometimes the differences lie in the rules. While other times, differences are a reflection of the way the game is taught.


Rule differences are the easiest to point out. They’re obvious, and can be seen across the board. These rules are not up for discussion, or up to a referee, or coach’s opinion.

Time outs

In the international game, players and coaches cannot call a timeout while the ball is in live play. Only when the ball is dead (out of bounds, made basket, foul call, travel call, etc), can the coach—and only the coach—ask for a timeout.

A player can never call a timeout in FIBA. This removes the bail out/emergency timeout we see so frequently in the US.

Team Fouls/Bonus

Team foul rules are the same in the NBA as they are in FIBA: teams are in the bonus, and awarded two foul shots, on the fifth team foul of each quarter.

It differs in the NCAA, where teams are in the ‘one-and-one’ (and awarded one foul shot, and if the shooter makes it, they receive a second free throw) on the seventh team foul of each half. Teams are then finally awarded two shots on the 10th team foul of the half.

Quarter/Game length

Four 10-minute quarters in FIBA (and the WNBA). Two 20-minute halves in the NCAA. Four 12-minute quarters in the NBA.


This is where the two games are most divergent, in my opinion. And where the misunderstanding can come into play. It can make the American fan frustrated watching the FIBA game, and the international fan frustrated watching the American game.

Some rules are subjective, and dependant upon, either the points of view of each referee, or the points of emphasis of the leagues.


Across the board, the travel call is the biggest point of discussion. Americans think Europeans travel all the time. And Europeans think Americans travel all the time.

Why, you ask? There are two very different points of emphasis in the international game versus the game in the US.

In the NBA and NCAA, the focus is on the number of steps taken after the dribble is picked up. Whereas in FIBA, the focus is on whether the ball was put down immediately before taking a step.

During the Olympics, one of the most overwhelming things you will hear from international fans is how much LeBron James travels. They see him take two steps (or sometimes more!) before he puts the ball down in transition, and think it’s obvious. Yet Americans don’t really get why they’re complaining.

What happens when Americans go abroad? They are called for countless travels because they don’t put the ball down fast enough before taking their first step (I can attest to that!).

It took me half of my rookie year in Italy to figure out how to not get called for traveling on drives to the basket. And the first time I did it, I almost stopped for celebration. There are still occasions when I get caught (actually happened in my most recent game), but it doesn’t happen nearly as often as it used to!

And what about when Europeans go to play in the US? They’re called for travels as they finish a drive with too many steps (I think this is seen more often in college than in the NBA). Just as I had difficulty adjusting, many Europeans who play collegiately have a difficult time adjusting to the new emphasis.

Another cause for this travel deviation is the way we are coached as kids. Americans are taught to have a big first step. It’s stressed over and over. Have a quick, as-big-as-you-can-make-it, first step.

You can’t have a big first step in Europe. When you lunge out as far as you can, you haven’t put the ball down to dribble, and that’s a travel every time.

Foul calls

Over the course of my 10 years in Europe, I’ve learned a few things about what referees will, and will not call.

Defensively, if you slap down on the ball, it’s always a foul. No matter if you touch your opponent or not. If you want to go for a steal, slap upward.

Similarly, referees will rarely call a hook, or an offensive foul, for clearing the defender out—no matter how obvious it is. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought they were going to call it, only to have the foul go against the defender.


Again, over the course of my 10 years in Europe, some things have stood out to me, strategically speaking, as well.

In my opinion, running a fast break in Europe resembles soccer strategy more often than not. Coaches stress getting the ball to one side of the floor immediately, and then attacking. Whereas in the US, players are taught to get the ball to the middle of the floor.

I don’t find the European strategy to be very effective. Moving the ball to one side of the floor too early, lets the defense off the hook far too quickly.

The international game is more guard/perimeter oriented. This is the one case where I think the US/NBA is becoming more like the European game. Gone are the days of dominant big men controlling the game. In today’s NBA, just as in Europe, guards and perimeter players are the game’s best players, and dominate the ball offensively.


In certain areas, the international and American games are becoming more and more similar. There used to be physical differences on the court (trapezoid lanes versus rectangle lanes), but FIBA recently made the change to rectangular lanes to match the American game.

FIBA has also recently implemented advancing the ball to half court after timeouts in end of game situations. This allows finishes to be a little more exciting, and buzzer-beaters to occur more frequently.

I can’t go into every single detail, but various other rule changes have been made that make the FIBA and American games more similar (shot clocks, jump balls, restricted area/arc).

While basketball is basketball no matter where it’s played, differences still have to be expected. Especially when there are different governing bodies. Frustration may remain (I never get less frustrated with getting called, for what I still see as a non-travel), but understanding game differences at least allows for a broader perspective.