Winter Gym Class: Learn to Play Basketball, the Gayest Sport of All

Illustration by Taylor Anne Mordoh

“I am not throwing away my shot. I am not throwing away my shot!” Are you at a Hamilton performance? No, you’re in the last 30 seconds of a championship basketball game, in possession of the ball, with one chance to shoot and break the tie to win! (Just typing that is making my palms sweaty.) But hit rewind—before you can make that winning shot, you have to practice the basics. Welcome to Gym Class, the basketball edition.

Introduction to Basketball

College women first played a modified version of basketball in the 1890s. Women’s basketball built popularity (and became more like the men’s game) over the next 80 years, and was introduced as an Olympic sport in 1976. The WNBA was founded in 1996 (coincidentally, the year I started high school and joined the basketball team … oof, it’s been a while!). Though sports franchises in general have not always been allies of our community, that’s starting to change—recently, the WNBA has been making an effort to reach out to LGBTQ+ folks and support important nonprofit organizations. One of the highlights of my first year in Seattle was attending WNBA games and cheering for the Storm, my new home team. So much talent on the court! So many queer people in the crowd! At a game benefitting Planned Parenthood, I wore my pink Tomboy Femme shirt in a sea of pink shirts and held my girlfriend’s hand and felt right at home. If you have the chance to go to an WNBA game, check it out and support the league. And if you’re interested in learning to play, this article will help you get started. Though the WNBA season takes place over the summer months, basketball is a winter sport on high school and NCAA calendars—so it gets a spot in the winter Gym Class lineup.

Things You’ll Need

  • Basketball
  • Court

Basic Terms & Positions

In the U.S., an NCAA women’s basketball game consists of four 10-minute quarters; recreational leagues may have a different game structure. Each team has five players on the court. Each half of the court is marked with the three-point line, the free-throw line, and the “paint” (the rectangle of space around the basket).

If you join a coached team, your coach will assign you to the position for which you’re best suited. If you want to join a non-coached recreational team, or develop your skills for a specific position before trying out, or simply feel prepared to drop in for a pickup game at your gym, the following list will help you choose a position or two based on your strengths.

No. 1: Point Guard

ROLE: The team leader, in charge of calling plays and bringing the ball up the court. Can be a smaller, faster player. IMPORTANT SKILLS: Ball-handling, passing, reading the court to call appropriate plays.

No. 2: Shooting Guard

ROLE: Similar to the point guard, with more of a focus on scoring. IMPORTANT SKILLS: Speed, ball-handling, shooting from the perimeter.

No. 3: Small Forward

ROLE: The Jack-of-all-trades position, capable in every area with the ability to drive to the basket. IMPORTANT SKILLS: Ball-handling, shooting both inside and from the perimeter, defense, rebounding.

No. 4: Power Forward

ROLE: This player focuses on aggressive offense and defense near the basket. IMPORTANT SKILLS: Rebounding, quick on defense, good shooting inside.

No. 5: Center

ROLE: Usually the tallest player on the team, with a focus on guarding the basket (defense) and making inside shots (offense). IMPORTANT SKILLS: Rebounding, blocking shots.

Training & Technique

These skills will be useful no matter what position you play, but the different positions have different strengths. Refer to the previous list for suggestions on where to focus: guards ought to spend time on ball-handling skills, for instance, while power forwards and centers might devote extra practice to rebounding. There are tons of drills out there, so to get you started I’ve listed each skill set with one drill. Build on these with other drills that are relevant to you.

Basic Shot Stance

Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. You can either square your body to the basket or stand slightly angled away; try both and see which gives you more control and range. Keep your eyes on the rim of the basket. Your legs provide a lot of power, so bend them as you prepare to shoot. With your palm under the ball (and your other hand at the side of the ball for balance), form an L-shape with your arm so your elbow is under the ball. Jump, extend your arm and snap your wrist forward as you release the ball. On the follow-through, keep your arm extended and your fingers pointed toward the basket. If you’re more of a visual learner, check out some of the shot-technique videos available online. Or review this step-by-step list of how to set up your shot, with accompanying photos.

Solo Drills

Agility: Line-touches: A staple at my team practices, these work on your speed and coordination. Starting from the baseline, run to the free-throw line and touch it, then without pause run back to the baseline and touch it. Repeat to the half-court line, the opposite free-throw line, and the opposite baseline. The whole thing is one repetition.

Dribbling: The Maravich Series is a sequence of ball-handling and dribbling drills. A couple drills from the sequence are figure-8 dribbles (stand in a wide squat and practice dribbling the ball around your ankles in a figure-8) and single-leg dribbles (while standing in a lunge, dribbling in a circle around your front leg). Your focus should be on quick hands and getting used to controlling the ball while it’s in motion.

Inside shooting: Layup practice: Starting from the three-point line—at the top of the key and off to one side—dribble in for a layup, rebound, dribble out to the other side of the perimeter, come in for the layup, and repeat for several sets. This will help you practice both right-hand (coming in on the right of the rim) and left-hand (coming in on the left of the rim) layups.

Perimeter shooting: Starting from one baseline, take a shot from the three-point line. If you make it, move to the next spot a few feet up the court (still on the three-point line). If you make that, move on again, tracing the three-point line around the court. Choose a penalty for when you miss, such as returning to the start position and having to shoot everything again, or line touches.

Endurance: Good running conditioning will help you keep up with a fast-paced game. Add a 3- to 5-mile jog into your training schedule, at least twice a week.

Partner Drills

Rebounding: To practice reacting quickly to a missed shot, have your partner take shots from around the court and be ready under the basket to rebound. Switch off so you each get a chance to rebound.

Passing: Practice these basic passes with a partner, standing farther and farther apart to increase difficulty. Chest pass (from your chest to theirs, no bounce); bounce pass (the ball should bounce one time between you, arriving at waist-height for the receiver).

Defense: The two primary types of defense in basketball are man-to-man (where you defend a specific player) and zone (where you defend an area and guard players who come into that area). To practice man-to-man defense, partner up and trade off on offense and defense. On offense, your goal is to get close enough to the basket to shoot; on defense, focus on quick feet, staying low (which allows you to move faster in any direction) with good balance, and staying between your opponent and the basket.

Inside shots under defensive pressure: Stand facing away from the basket (as if you just received a pass from the perimeter). With your partner guarding you closely from behind, practice different ways to get open for the shot: fake them out with a half-turn to the left, then pivot right and quickly shoot; or pivot and dribble around them; or half-turn but then step forward and a little farther out to take a jump shot; and so on.

Good-to-Know: Ball-Handling Rules

There will be a lot more to learn once you join a team, especially involving the physical parts of the game (once you have teammates to practice with, you can work on contact-heavy skills like boxing out, tough defense and taking the charge). Here are some basic ball-handling rules to get you ready for your first practice. Breaking these rules is a violation, which results in your team losing possession of the ball.

  • Don’t dribble, pick up the ball, and dribble again. When you receive the ball, you can dribble, pass, or shoot. BUT, if you dribble and then hold the ball with both hands, you can’t dribble again and you’re stuck in place. If you do dribble again it’s a double-dribble violation.
  • If you’re moving with the ball, you must be dribbling. The traveling violation happens if you a) carry the ball without dribbling or b) pick up your pivot foot after dribbling.
  • Don’t hang out in the paint. On offense, a player spending more than three seconds in the paint will be called for a three-second violation.
  • Don’t step out of bounds while in possession of the ball.

She Shoots, She Scores!

I hope this Gym Class got you pumped to try out some dribbling drills or play HORSE at your local rec center. (Or at least revisit the Hamilton soundtrack? Dancing in the living room is good cardio.) As always, let me know if you have questions, and get in touch for a pickup game if you’re in the Seattle area!

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Katrina is queer, Latinx, and embracing her futch-ness in 2018. She lives in Seattle with her two dogs. Some of her favorite things are jellybeans, the beach, weightlifting, eyeliner, dad jokes, and impromptu dance parties. Her debut novel THE BEST BAD THINGS will be released this Fall. The book follows Alma Rosales, a queer woman and ex-Pinkerton detective, as she switches between female and male disguises to investigate an opium-smuggling ring. Come say hi and talk about books, sports, or your favorite jellybean flavor at Katrina's website or on Twitter!

Katrina has written 12 articles for us.

11 Comments

  1. I think it would be worth mentioning one can’t dribble with both hands at the same time, as that is also considered double dribbling. Also, passing the ball to someone, then passing it back to you, without either player dribbling or the ball hitting the floor is also against WNBA/NBA rules, not sure about college or Olympic.

  2. I’ve been enjoying the basketball season, and it makes me excited to learn myself. The offense is so much like water polo, which I used to play. What’s my best bet for finding a league that will be tolerant of a newbie?

    • Hi Alison! To start, I’d recommend googling women’s recreational leagues near you, and keeping an eye out for those that ID themselves as beginner-friendly. Also, before signing up for anything, see if you can call or email whoever’s in charge of the league or team and ask them how you’d fit in as a player just learning the sport. This might take a bit more effort on your end that just signing up to join a team, but hopefully it will mean you land with a team that will help you grow as a player. Meetup.com is another place to look: for instance, there’s a Seattle meet-up that’s specifically advertised as casual, one-off games good for beginners or people who haven’t played in a while. Playing a few games in a setting like that can help you start building skills for league play later. Good luck and have fun! 🙂

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