Basketball Hand Signals

Basketball Hand Signals

Hand signals in basketball are used by referees, players, and coaches to communicate non-verbally. Basketball games can become loud environments, with fans cheering, music playing, and announcers calling the game, which makes verbal communication from a distance challenging at times. Hand signals have been used for years in basketball to help make communication easier. They are used by referees to communicate a foul or violation call, by a player to instruct their teammates on the court, or by coaches to signal what play to run on offense or defense.

Referee Hand Signals

basketball referee hand signals

Referees are constantly using hand signals on the court. Each signal represents a foul call or an action that needs to be communicated. These hand signals allow players, coaches, and statisticians to understand the call that was just made, in spite of spectator noise in loud environments.

Below is a list of the most common referee signals in basketball:

  • Blocking: Referee places both hands on their hips.
  • Carrying: Referee will repeatedly turn their palm over, alternating facing upwards then downwards.
  • Charging: Referee places one hand behind their head to form a triangle with their arm. They will then point the opposite direction of the team that committed the foul.
  • Double Dribble: Referee extends both hands outwards with palms facing down, and alternates moving them up and down as if to dribble a basketball.
  • Holding: Referee forms a fist pointing upwards with one hand and grabs their forearm with the other, out in front of their body.
  • Jump Ball: Referee lifts both arms up in front of their body with their thumbs up.
  • Personal Foul: Referee raises one arm in a closed fist.
  • Points Scored: Referee lifts one arm with the number of fingers held up denoting the number of points scored (two or three fingers).
  • Technical Foul: Referee puts both hands together perpendicularly to form a “T” shape.
  • Three-Point Attempt: Referee extends one hand outward with three fingers raised.
  • Three-Point Score: Referee lifts both arms straight in the air.
  • Three-Second Violation: Referee will lift three fingers on a single hand and swing their arm forward and back by the hip, pointing at the lane.
  • Traveling: Referee rotates clenched fists in front of their body in a circular motion.

Time Out Signal

Basketball Hand Signal timeout

In order to call a timeout, either a player or coach must signal it to the referee. This can be done with a hand gesture. Both arms are put outward laterally to form a “T” with the body.

The referee also uses specific hand signals to communicate whether a team wants a 30-second or 60-second timeout. For 30-second timeouts, a referee will tap both shoulders with their fingertips without crossing arms. This will create a similar appearance to flexing both arms. For 60-second timeouts, referees bring both arms in, then extend them outward to full wingspan, with palms facing forwards. Referees typically use these gestures to coordinate with the scorekeepers.

Play Calling Signals

Basketball Play Call

Hand gestures are an excellent way to simplify calling plays and establish a method for communicating them. A lot of teams assign plays to certain numbers. That way, when a point guard wants to run a specific play, it is easy for them to communicate what it is to the rest of the team. They just need to hold up the number on their fingers that is assigned to the play.

Some teams call plays with complex hand gestures to give more options than just five fingers worth of plays. It also makes it harder for the defense to pick up on signals and anticipate what is coming before they see it in real-time.

Call for a Pick Signal

basketball hand signal call for a pick

A common hand gesture used in basketball is when a player calls for a screen or pick to be set by a teammate. To call for a pick in basketball, the ball handler will raise a fist in the air, signaling for a teammate to set a screen near them. While this motion is almost universal in the sport, some teams will have unique signals for pick and rolls, which are predetermined before the game. Pick and rolls are an integral part of offensive strategy in basketball, so this is a hand signal with major significance throughout the game.

Isolation Play Signal

Basketball Isolation Play Signal

Isolation is a term used to describe when an offensive player wants to go one-on-one against the defense. When a player wants to call for an isolation play, they will wave their hand as if shooing away their teammates, signaling for teammates to clear the area. This motion is also done when a ball handler does not want a pick set by their teammate.

Celebration Signals

A lot of players also use hand signals while celebrating during the game. A common celebration is extending the pinky finger, ring finger, and middle finger while connecting the index finger and thumb to celebrate a three-pointer. There are also a good deal of personalized celebrations devised by players. Some of the most noteworthy personalized celebrations belong to Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith, and LeBron James.

Custom handshakes are also popular. Players like to have unique handshakes with each teammate and often break them out during pregame introductions.


What does it mean when a basketball referee holds up their fist?

When a basketball referee blows the whistle and holds their fist up in the air, they are signaling a foul and stoppage in play. The referee will typically point at the player who committed the foul with their other hand. They will then signal to the scorers’ table the specific foul call and the number of the player who it was called on.

What is Carmelo Anthony’s signature celebration?

Carmelo Anthony is known for being one of the most dangerous scorers in NBA history, with his own unique celebration. Whenever Anthony makes a three-pointer, he makes a hand motion with three fingers and taps on the side of his head repeatedly while running back on defense. This hand signal has become one of the most popular celebrations in the basketball world, with players of all ages and skill levels imitating some variation of Anthony’s famous gesture.

Why do referees use hand signals in basketball?

In basketball, referees mainly use hand signals to communicate foul calls with the scorer’s table, players, coaches, and even fans. At times, basketball gyms can get extremely energetic and loud, making it difficult to hear verbal communication on the court. To solve this problem, referees developed an extensive repertoire of hand signals to communicate calls for violations, fouls, timeouts, and more. These hand signals are largely universal across the sport and have been used by basketball referees for decades.