There are moments in basketball that elicit fans’ reactions. A windmill dunk, an acrobatic layup, and a buzzer-beater could evoke cheers. On the other hand, getting crossed over or shooting an airball could do the opposite.
What is an airball in basketball, and who invented that term?
Airball Meaning in Basketball
Definition of an Airball: An unsuccessful shot attempt in basketball that entirely misses the backboard, rim, and net. The ball hits nothing but air, hence the name.
Either the offense or the defense can catch the airball on the court. If it goes out of bounds, the opposing team receives the ball via inbounds pass – it’s a change of possession. If the offensive team gets a rebound from an airball, the shot clock does not reset.
It is probably the worst way to miss a shot — talk about bad misses. Typically with a missed shot, the ball hits the rim or backboard, keeping it in play and enabling the offensive team a fair attempt at a rebound or a tip back to a teammate. Airballs typically don’t.
An airball will likely draw jeers and chants from the crowd. In the NBA, shooting one is a sure ticket to Shaqtin’ A Fool, a weekly segment hosted by Shaquille O’Neal on Inside the NBA.
It should also be noted that tipped or blocked shots do not qualify as airballs. Airballs occur when a player misses everything without the ball coming into contact with any defender. A player shooting an airball is not allowed to rebound his shot, or he will be assessed a traveling violation. Also, when a player airballs a second free throw (or one free throw in an And-1 situation), the ball possession is automatically awarded to the other team.
For other basketball terms, please see Basketball Terms and Definitions.
Makes and Misses in Basketball
Basketball is about shooting the ball through the hoop to score. That’s how teams win– scoring more than their opponents. A shot that goes straight into the net without hitting the metal rim is called a swish or “wet.” A shot that hits the backboard before going in is a “bank shot.”
Missed shots elicit many descriptions in a basketball game. For example, a shot that almost went in is simply called “in and out.” A missed shot that results in the ball getting stuck between the rim and the backboard are called “wedgies.”
Another commonly used term for a missed shot is a “brick,” which means the ball clanked off the rim or backboard so hard that it has no chance of going in.
Airball Basketball FAQs
Here are some frequently asked questions about airballs.
You can’t rebound your own airball in the NBA until it hits another player, the rim, or the backboard. In High School, NCAA college, and FIBA, you can rebound your own airball immediately.
No, an airball is not tallied as a turnover. Instead, it is an unsuccessful field goal attempt as long as the shot looks valid.
Duke fans started the infamous Airball chant in 1979 after a missed shot by North Carolina’s Chick Yonakor.
Airball is the preferred spelling.
History of the Airball Chant
Airball isn’t a part of the original basketball jargon. It is considered the greatest taunt in sports, and you can bet the fans have something to do with it. The question is, who invented it?
That Annoying Chant
Nobody can tell for sure, but basketball historians point to different clues about the origin of “airball.” According to Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest reference to airball is a 1967 column in Daily Review from Hayward, California. Here’s the line from Jack Smith, the writer in the newspaper: “Cal State, four times lofting air balls at an orange basket that may as well have been painted invisible.”
To nobody’s surprise, Cal State lost 43-57 to Chico State in this college basketball game.
By 1968, the term has already caught on in the West. Three years later, in 1971, the word made its way to the East Coast, specifically in the Bennington Banner of Vermont.
But it wasn’t until 1979 that it can be safely said that “airball” went mainstream. It was a Duke-North Carolina rivalry game, and it was quite a story.
The NCAA experimented with a 45-second shot clock in the 1985-86 season. In the seasons before, teams could pass and hold the ball as long as they could, making the games boring and uneventful. Still, teams were doing it as part of their strategy.
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Nothing But Air
In that particular game in 1979, North Carolina’s legendary coach Dean Smith did plan to drag out the game that way. He wanted to take the opposing players’ enthusiasm and quiet the crowd.
After Duke scored 2-0 in the first minute of the game, the Tar Heels executed Smith’s plan. Ten minutes had passed, and North Carolina was passing the ball around the perimeter. That’s all that happened, except for a time when Duke stole the ball, got fouled, and made a free throw.
Then, all of a sudden, North Carolina’s Rich Yonakor went rogue. After the ball was passed to him at the baseline, about eight feet away from the basket, the lefty shot a wide-open J.
Duke Fans Start the Chant
The announcers in the video clip above call, “He hit nothing but air.” You don’t hear the crowd chanting, “Airball, airball, airball!” The pair calling the game heard it; a sportswriter can attest to it, and so does Yonakor. The shot and the taunt stuck that Yonakor ended up with the nickname “Airball.” Every time he touched the ball against Duke, the Blue Devil crowd would continue the chant.
Yonakor got his revenge of sorts when North Carolina beat Duke 71-63 in the ACC Tournament Final a few weeks later. He even scored 10 points in that game for good measure. Like a good sport, Yonakor is not bitter about getting called “Airball” by Duke fans. He felt it was clever, innovative, and funny. And if not for his freelancing against the game plan of coach Smith, fans wouldn’t have been introduced to one of basketball’s most insulting chants.
Notable NBA Airballs
Even pros toss up their share. Here are some examples.
Reggie Miller jinxes LeBron James leading to a free throw airball
Vince Carter’s airball layup
We hope you picked up some basketball knowledge, and may all your shots be swishes.
By Jan Rey with Mike O’Halloran
Jan is a writer and a sucker for all things basketball. He still yells, “Kobe!” every time he tosses a crumpled paper into a trash bin. Mike is the founder of Sports Feel Good Stories and has authored three books on basketball coaching.
You are on our “What is an Airball?” page.
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