What is the key in basketball and why is it called that?

Dear Sports Fan,

What is the key in basketball and why is it called that? I don’t watch a lot of basketball but I was watching with a girlfriend of mine who is a Memphis Grizzlies fan and I kept hearing her shout about the key.


Dear Melissa,

The key is one of the name given to an area below and in front of the basketball hoop. It’s also commonly called the paint or the lane. That area is special because players in it have to obey slightly different rules than those outside of it. It’s called the key because when it was first instituted in 1936 it was shaped roughly like a… well, not a key honestly, but an old fashioned key hole — a narrow rectangle opening up into a circle. Over time, the area has been enlarged, specifically the rectangle at the base of the key, until the circle at the top is either the same width as the rectangle or smaller. Here are the rules that apply differently within the key:

  • Three second rule:  Offensive players are only allowed to hang out in the key for three seconds, whether they have the ball or not. In the National Basketball Association, defenders may also not be in the key for more than three seconds unless they are directly guarding an offensive player. This rule is intended to limit cherry picking, otherwise a team could theoretically win by hiring a nine-foot tall guy to stand under the basket, catch passes and drop them into the basket. Amirite?
  • On free throws: The key also designates where players are allowed to stand during a free throw attempt. The player shooting the ball has to be in the top half of the circle at the top of the key and the other players waiting to pounce on the rebound if the shooter misses have to be lined up on the outside of the key.
  • On jump balls: When something happens where possession of the ball (in the NBA, college has a different way of dealing with this) cannot be determined but the position of the ball was definitely in one team’s end, a jump ball takes place. The ref will throw the ball up in the air in a neutral spot between two jumpers who try to tip the ball to their teammates. This takes place at the center of the circle at the top of the key and everyone except the jumpers and the ref have to stay out of the circle until the ball is touched.

I’m not sure who first called this area the key. In the NBA rule book, it is referred to as the “free throw lane”, a term you’ll basically never hear any living, breathing basketball fan use. Nonetheless, it’s a nice coincidence or a clever pun because the key has a double meaning. Now you know about the original shape of the free throw area but as you watch or play more basketball, you’ll quickly realize that the key is often the key to who wins and who loses. Shots from within the key are the highest probability shots. Most rebounds are grabbed by players within the key. Just dribbling hard into the key often results in free throws for the team that does it best. Your friend’s favorite team, the Memphis Grizzlies, have two dominating big men, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph who are masters within the key. If she was shouting about it, my guess is that she was celebrating their dominance.

Thanks for the question,
Ezra Fischer

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