Basketball Hand Signals

Basketball Hand Signals

A hand signal in basketball is predominantly used when players want to communicate something non-verbally to their teammates. They use a hand gesture instead to tell their teammates what the play is for offense or defense. Hand signals can also be used by coaches and referees as a way to counteract loud crowds at games.

Referee Hand Signals

basketball referee hand signals

Referees are constantly using hand signals on the court. Each one represents a foul call or an action that needs to be communicated. These hand signals are mainly in place to allow players and coaches to understand the call that was just made, in spite of spectator noise in loud environments. That being said, these hand signals often dial up the noise in basketball stadiums even further when signifying a significant call.

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, 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 their 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.
  • Technical Foul: Referee puts both hands together perpendicularly to form a "T" shape.
  • Traveling: Referee rotates clenched fists in front of their body in a circular motion.
  • 3-Point Attempt: Referee extends one hand outward with three fingers raised.
  • 3-Point Score: Referee lifts both arms straight in the air.
  • 3-Second Violation: Referee will lift 3 fingers on a single hand and swing their arm forward and back by the hip, pointing at the lane.

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 hands are put perpendicular to one another to form a "T".

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 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 or do another hand motion as 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 1 on 1 against the defense. When a player wants to call for an isolation play they will wave their hand as if shooing away their teammates. 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, JR 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. 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 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. Oftentimes, referees will blow the whistle to stop play and simultaneously communicate the call verbally while also using the corresponding hand signal. This ensures that the scorers table or coaches on the far side of the court can still understand what call was made, even if they can't hear the referee.