The Physics of Basketball

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The Physics of Basketball

The NBA playoffs are making the headlines all over. Every news channel, sports channel, and newspaper has a story about the big games. Everyone is making bets as to who will be the big champions. Will it be the defending champions, Los Angeles Lakers, or will it possibly be one of the underdogs. This is the most intensive time of year for basketball fans as they watch the teams battle out the game. Up and down the court, the turnovers, rebounds, fast breaks, and most of all the baskets make the games exciting. But have you ever wondered how these things happen? What enables the basketball to bounce, how does Kobe Bryant fly through the air, and why does the ball rotate backwards as it leaves a shooter’s hand and approaches the basket? These are all interesting questions and believe it or not they can all be answered with a discussion on physics. Whenever you watch a basketball game you are watching the “application of physics. It is very much at work in the game of basketball” (Hawkins).

One of the key pieces of equipment in the game is the basketball itself. The ability of the ball to bounce is entirely explained by physics. The law of conservation of energy says that the total energy of an isolated system does not change (Kirkpatrick, 131). When the ball comes in contact with the floor an elastic collision occurs in which the kinetic energy of the system is conserved. Two things determine the elasticity: the air pressure in the ball and the surface it is colliding with. The more pressure in the ball, the better the bounce and the greater elasticity. The energy will be stored in the compressed air inside the ball creating a greater bounce. “Air stores and returns energy more efficiently than ...

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... air, just remember that it takes the same amount of time for him to reach the basket as it does for him to fall. You may also want to notice how the ball spins as well as how it bounces. As you are watching the playoffs this year keep in mind that the application of physics is very much at work in the game of basketball.


Hawkins, Bethany. Physics of Basketball. “Intro to Basketball and Physics.” 25 March 2003.

Kirkpatrick, Larry D., Wheeler, Gerald F. Physics A World View. Fourth edition, Harcourt College Publishers. Orlando, Florida. 2001.

Willis, Bill. The Physics of Basketball. 13 March 2003.

Brancazio, Peter J. Physics of Sports. “Physics of Basketball. Department of Physics. Brooklyn, New York. 1981.

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