I recently joined a competitive basketball city league, and I've been dealing with some "cheap" stuff on the court - pulling on my jersey, pulling on my arms before a rebound (I'm taller than average), etc. The refs aren't calling this; I assume they aren't seeing it.

I haven't played much competitive basketball. I would like to know if it is something I should always expect. It seems "below the belt". Also, how do I overcome this sort of stuff. I'm getting a little frustrated, I want to be more effective, and I'm not getting much coaching.

  • 1
    Welcome. I added the sports-psychology tag as some of this is mental...and it seems that their "cheap" actions are working as it is frustrating you. Not saying whether the officiating is clean or not, but they are doing a good job in flustering you.
    – user527
    Jan 4, 2016 at 4:11
  • @mastermind_ed I looked for a "sportsmanship" tag, but couldn't find one. Would you consider creating one?
    – Josh C.
    Jan 4, 2016 at 17:48
  • Does etiquette suffice?
    – user527
    Jan 4, 2016 at 18:59
  • 2
    Perhaps. I suppose others would know better than me. In any case, I've updated my post to include that tag. Thanks!
    – Josh C.
    Jan 4, 2016 at 19:36

3 Answers 3


Competitive sports will be like this. Learning to deal with cheap shots will just be another skill to pick up.

Opponents pull cheap shots for two reasons: to create actual game play advantage and rattle you. In the sports I've played cheap shots meant to rattle the opposing player are often legal even if they are cheap. Referees are not there to make sure we play like ladies and gentlemen.

Here are the three tricks I picked up from captains, referees, psychologists, and sports articles that have helped me the most.

Cue phrase: Pick something to repeat like a mantra when you encounter unsportsmanlike play. Pick something that is useful to your sport to refocus your energy away from the other player and back to the game. Mine is "Get to the front."

Poker face: If your opponent can see that he is annoying you with antics, he will continue them. He will continue them even if your only response is acknowledgement. I de-personalize opposing players. They are just there, like the ball or boundaries. Let nothing show on your face.

Prepare: Think about what you will do when someone engages in cheap play. We prepare for different things that happen in play and this is just one more thing to prepare for. And then practice makes permanent. If there is something in particular that really irks you, you can have teammates do the same thing in warm up and practice so you can work out how you want to respond.

I found the following articles helpful:

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    +1 Great, experienced answer. I am reminded of this example when you state, "Let nothing show on your face."
    – user527
    Jan 4, 2016 at 17:06
  • Thanks. I figured I'd have accept it as part of the game, but besides emotionally, I'm not sure how to prepare to counter. I'm frustrated not because of fairness, but because I can't overcome. If I breakaway, and they are holding on my jersey, how hard can I hack their hand? What do I do about retaliation? (I'm also a little frustrated that I'm so out of shape. Previously, I probably could have simply played more physically)
    – Josh C.
    Jan 4, 2016 at 17:24
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    This is actually the thing that irritates me the most too and I do two things. I wear really tight jerseys and I hack away when I feel hands. I hack until I hear my number in association with a ref whistle and then I know I've pushed a smidge too hard for next time. Your play has to match what you are encountering even if you would prefer more sportsmanlike play. If something becomes egregious then it's time for a captain to request a review.
    – Val
    Jan 4, 2016 at 17:38
  • @mastermind_ed - not sure Kobe is the best example of keeping cool. When he played against top defenders he jacked up a lot of shots from 20 feet with the guy right in his face. I would have pointed to more Bird or Jordan on this front. Bird dealt with cheap guys in more of a happy way - and rose his play against top defenders. Jordan was great at focusing his anger and really looked like some possessed maniac when playing against Detroit for example - but still under control.
    – Coach-D
    Jan 6, 2016 at 23:34
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    @Coach-D One example doesn't imply a generalization...Kobe didn't react by the ball being pumped in his face in that instance, that's all I was pointing out. That said, I can appreciate what you are saying about Bird and Jordan especially as they primarily played in a different era than Kobe.
    – user527
    Jan 7, 2016 at 13:24

You have a good text book answer that you already accepted.

I will simply give you my take as a big - 6'3" 200lb point guard - that takes a ton of abuse especially when playing in lower income areas - top city leagues.

You are going to get pulled, scratched, elbowed, pushed, whatever. By just "taking" these actions you are allowing the referee to just ignore them. It is really easy for a referee to ignore the little things when there is no resistance. Also if you are playing against these type of players they will only do these actions more if you let them.

Also I have found that most referees at lower intramural levels call fouls based on the reaction. So if you get bumped mid air and fall over foul. If you are much bigger than the other guy and he bounces off you, no foul. Obviously this is blatantly wrong. However you are not going to make the referee "better" in one go.


  • Guy pulls your shirt. Grab your shirt and pull it back. If you don't have the ball this is a given. Or you can grab his back. And if you grab it, grab it. Don't tug it but give it a hefty grab. You could certainly use this tactic to slow him down and dart the other way.

  • Pushes you in the back. This usually happens when you box out well. So instead of pushing your butt back, chomp back with your heels and go after his toes. This isn't to disable the player, it is to give them something to think about. I can tell you I instinctively do this once I feel two hands on my lower back during a rebound.

  • Lazily keeps hand on your back at all times or when you have ball away from basket - to manipulate your body (and possibly tug jersey when you take off). This is illegal. Refs hardly ever call this on a smaller player. Chop their arm right at their wrist with your off forearm as you swing around.

  • Pushes your body as you shot. To me this is one of the cardinal sins of intramural/pickup basketball. Guys give you a little shove and you don't move much because you are bigger - but your damn shot is always slightly off. The good news is for a person to do this they have to be playing your pretty close. I handle this while shooting. I keep two hands on the shot until the last possible second and push through towards the man. If they are going in to push my stomach they are going to get a face full of ball or elbow. The key is to start your shooting motion while cracking the other player on the chin.

The examples above are just examples. How extreme you get with them is dependent on how cheap the player is playing and the crowd you are playing with. Rules I live by (and the first we were taught at referee school):

  • always assume negative intent by the player. If a player does something "wrong" it isn't an accident - in fact there are hardly ever accidents on the court, even the "accidents" have degrees of intent. They have a mind and body just like you and you are not to be treated inferior because you have more of a conscience. If someone is so dumb that they truly don't realize what they are doing then you will only be able to rationalize through them with action.

  • always assume positive intent by referee. Most of the time the referee isn't calling things because they don't know better or they feel that it would interfere with the flow of the game. If a player has their hands on your back and it stops a spin move you should chop their arms away (any good basketball coach will teach you this). If the referee calls a foul on you don't overreact. Simply have a small conversation, "Sir, he had two hands on my back and pushed me. I know I fouled him but his hands were on my back for 5 seconds without a call." Sometimes the only way to educate a poor ref is to get fouls called on yourself - this is a long-term approach and obviously should not be played with a minute left in a game down 1.

  • whenever you play against a cheap player - make sure you are guarding the cheap player on the other end. It is a common ploy for a cheap player to hack the crap out of you and make sure you are not guarding them.

  • more than anything else - use the cheap player as motivation. Play harder and more aggressive the cheaper they act. This is a skill to bring your game up a notch AND stay under control. Play harder, not violent. Run the other player around on offense a bit. Bump into them.

  • all of the advice I gave you in the examples involves skill. The cheap player is skilled at playing cheap without getting a call against them. If you are truly skilled you can jamb your arm through his face while putting up a shot, knock him over, and draw the foul - all legally of course :). Everything takes practice and skill. I play in leagues in the winter that are about DIII quality of play that are crystal clean. Guys say sorry after fouling and so forth. I play in a couple of summer leagues that after a game it looks like I was attacked by a lion. It might take me a game or two or three to get my groove back in the retaliation department. It is a defined skill (you are getting outskilled there right now).

The key to everything I am saying is use the "cheap" players tactics against them. Just like in judo every offensive move has a counter. Your opponent by doing these tactics is taking themselves away from playing sound D or rebounding right. You must learn to use those things to your advantage. If you have to step down your game to "take care of a player" then you aren't good enough to handle these things properly - yet. And I say yet because I would expect if you haven't played organized ball you will have a few missteps/fouls/issues when trying to "legally retaliate". You have to take care of yourself on the court and doing nothing will just lead to you not like playing the beautiful game.


1) It's not that cheap. Pulling jersey, being grabby, etc. are all "in-between" type of plays. It's physical play that isn't necessarily a foul. Remember, basketball IS a physical sport. Not every time players come in physical contact with each other it's a foul.

2) Suck it up, no excuses. The fact that it's frustrating you means you aren't being mentally tough enough. Whining to everyone on the court will be the worst course of action. Be grabby back, be physical back, use your body to shield their aggression or be timely with your movement to work against them.

3) Never count on the refs to bail you out, you're going to have to use your own savviness, scrappiness, skill, and toughness. That's a given. But if your opponent is clearly going over the top and fouling you every play, just tell the ref to keep an eye on it. If it's a pickup game with no refs, call a foul if it's OVERT physical contact, or be super physical back.

4) Retaliate. Be physical back, when they put their arm on you, slap it!

5) If you're taller than average, you need to use that inherent advantage. Taller than average + FEROCIOUS is a great combo. Your mental approach on the court should be like someone with Napoleon-syndrome with everything to prove. Like a small chihuahua. Tall guy with the heart of a chihuahua? That will be effective. I can't tell you how many tall guys I've played vs who underachieved because they were too frail. If they just knew how to use their frame and be MEAN on the court, they would be amazing. Keep playing 'cause you'll learn the ropes by constantly competing.

  • Basketball isn't an easy sport. It takes a great mixture of physical and mental toughness, finesse, athleticism, skill, and heart. Enjoy!

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