Operating the clock at a basketball game is a very important (but thankless) job.
- A focus on the clock and the referee, at the expense of enjoying the game.
- A basic understanding of the rules of basketball.
- The ability to handle stressful situations.
- The ability to be impartial, honest, and admit mistakes.
- The ability to communicate with others.
We will cover it all for you so that the next time you are needed, you will be ready and able, if not willing.
You might not be thanked the next time you operate the game clock at a basketball game, so we will do it now. THANK YOU! The players can’t play without you!
The reality is that the best clock operator is the one who nobody notices because everything goes “like clockwork.” (Bad pun intended 🙂 )
If you are attending a basketball game, you probably have a rooting interest for one of the teams. However, if you are the clock operator, you are considered a game official-just like the referees and the individual keeping the official scorebook. You will be seated at the official scorer’s table.
Since the official timer is a game official, you must be fair and impartial. That means not outwardly rooting for your team of interest. It also means starting and stopping the clock on the signals from the referees, regardless of how it impacts your team’s chances of winning.
In some instances, there will be a separate game official to operate the clock and another person (who is not a game official) to operate the scoreboard. Most of the time you will need to operate both the game clock and the scoreboard. If a shot clock will be use in the game, there will be a separate person to operate it.
The game clock is the official timing of the game. There is no backup to revert to in case of an error on your part. So, it is important that you give your job all of your focus during the course of the game!
The score that is indicated on the scoreboard is not official. The scorebook is the official score, the official record of timeouts, and the official record of individual and team fouls. Many scoreboards do display those totals for the information of fans, players, and coaches.
Familiarize yourself with the equipment
Every clock/scoreboard/control panel/software combination will be slightly different. Check to see what requirements in addition to running the clock, you will be responsible for. The game score, the number of fouls on each team, the possession arrow, the number of timeouts remaining are usually on the wall scoreboards in the gym. Check the control panel to make sure you know how to set each of those indicators.
If you will need to keep the running score on the scoreboard, check to see how to both add incremental points for two or three point baskets made and free throws and how to reset the score should that become necessary.
Check that all connections of all wires and cables leading into the control panel are secure.
Make sure that you know how to sound the buzzer (sometimes referred to as horn). You will need to use it to alert the referees:
- When there is a game stoppage and a player is at the scorer’s table waiting to enter the game.
- 15 second warnings prior to timeouts and quarter breaks ending
- That they are needed at the scorer’s table
- When a player receives their fifth personal foul
If there are any numbers on the scoreboard remaining from the last game, reset all of them to zero.
Meet the referees and others at the scorer’s table
Depending on the level of play, there will be either two or three referees. They will have the final authority on all matters relating to the timing of the game.
If a shot clock will be use, make sure that you introduce yourself to the person who will be operating it.
For school events, there will probably be a pubic address announcer seated at the scorer’s table. Make sure to communicate with them.
Meet the person keeping the scorebook for the game. You will need to rely on that person to verify that the score, the numbers of fouls, the timeouts remaining for each team, and the possession arrow that you have on the scoreboard reflect what is in the official scorebook.
Make sure that you know who will be the gym manager for the game. For school games, that will usually be an administrator from the school. If you are running the clock for a youth or select teams game, make sure you find that person in case there is a need for their assistance.
Prepare yourself to be at the scorers table for the entire game.
You should have a bottle of water and try to use the restroom prior to assuming your position at the scorer’s table. The gym manager might provide you with a snack at halftime, but don’t count on that. You might also be able to get to the restroom while the clock is timing the halftime break. Again, that might or might not be possible.
And it goes without saying, but we will say it anyway. Turn your phone off!
In Game Responsibilities of running the clock
Pre Game Warmup
Your clock responsibilities actually begin prior to the game. There will be a timed warmup period prior to tipoff. These warmup periods will normally be either twenty, ten, or five minutes in length. If you are in doubt as to how long to put on the clock for warmup, ask the referees.
You will sound the warning buzzer with
- Three minutes remaining in the warm-up period.
- One minute remaining in the warm-up period.
- 15 seconds remaining in the warm-up period.
As the warmup period timer on the scoreboard clock reaches zero, the buzzer will sound automatically. Let it run for two seconds and then turn it off.
As the teams go to their benches, set the game clock to length of the quarter, or half, that you will be timing. Also, indicate on the scoreboard, the first quarter or first half.
During the Game
The game will start with a jump ball. The referees who are not throwing the ball up will raise their arms. When they drop their arms, you will start the clock. Take a peak at the clock to make sure that it did start. If you are keeping the possession arrow on the scoreboard, indicate that the team that did not win the jump ball will have the next possession.
When the game is in progress, the officials will signal when to start on stop the clock. You will watch them and listen for the sound of their whistles, rather than watching the action of the game.
You will stop the clock only when they blow their whistles. At the same time that they blow their whistles, they will raise their arms as an additional way to communicate that you should stop the clock. They will have a raised and open hand if there is a violation or a timeout. They will have a raised clenched fist if there is a foul.
Another in game responsibility you will have is to sound the buzzer to alert the officials to wave a substitute player into the game. When a coach tells a player to report into the game, the player will come over and notify the scorebook keeper that she is going to check into the game. The player will then sit out of bounds and in front of the scorer’s table. The next time the referees indicate a stoppage in play by blowing their whistle, you will sound the buzzer. That alerts them that there is a substitute waiting to enter the game. It is the job of the officials to wave that player onto the floor.
When each period of play is over, the buzzer will sound automatically. You will let it sound for two seconds and then turn it off.
Another in game responsibility for the timer is to sound the buzzer to alert the officials that a player has received their fifth personal foul. You will be notified by the scorekeeper to sound the buzzer. Once the official notifies the coach that the player has 5 fouls, you will start the 20 second timer for the coach to put in a substitute for the disqualified player.
There are additional timing rules for college and professional games. We are going to make the assumption that if you are hired to operate the clock at any of those games, you don’t need to read this article…
For clock operators also responsbile for updating the scoreboard
If you are also keeping the scoreboard, watch for the referee signal two or three points for a made basket, or one point for a free throw. The clock is the priority and the score can be updated as quickly as possible. If in doubt that score on the scoreboard is not correct, as the official bookkeeper.
Make sure to add a team foul on the scoreboard each time a player is called for a foul. Some scoreboards also have a place to indicate the number of the player called for the foul as well as how many fouls she or he has accumulated. The official scorebook keeper can help with this.
Each time there is a held ball signalled by the officials, change the possession of ball on the scoreboard once the ball is inbounded. You will need to do the same at the beginning of quarters 2, 3, and 4.
Timeouts and Quarter Breaks
When a team calls a timeout, the referee will come over and indicate to the book keeper which team called the timeout. They will also indicate to you how long the timeout will be. The length will either be a full timeout (one minute) or a thirty second timeout.
You will not time the timeout on the scoreboard. There will be a screen on the scoreboard control panel to time the timeout. You will sound the buzzer at 15 seconds remaining in the timeout. You will also sound the buzzer to notify the officials once the timeout counter has reached zero.
If you are timing a level of play that plays four quarters, there will be a one-minute break in between the first and second quarters and the third and fourth quarters. Your responsibilities for these breaks are the same as for a one-minute timeout. Additionally, you will need to set the scoreboard to indicate what quarter you are about to start (2 or 4)
Your next responsibility will be to watch the official who is giving the player the ball to throw it in to play after the timeout. They will drop their hand to signal for you to start the clock.
You are responsible for the timing of halftime. Most halftimes will be ten minutes in length. Again, if you are in doubt as to how long the halftime is, ask the referees. Set the scoreboard clock, not the control panel clock, to the appropriate amount of time, then let it run.
If you are doing a high school or middle school game, most schools ask the clock operator to sound the buzzer three times when there are three minutes remaining in halftime. That alerts everyone that the second half is about to begin. Then, just as you did during the pre-game warmup, sound the buzzer once when there is one minute to go in the halftime and 15 seconds.
The buzzer will sound automatically at the end of halftime. Change the quarter on the scoreboard to 3.
You will then be ready to start the second half timing. Once the player hands the ball to the possessing team to throw in to begin the half.
Mercy Rule Timing
Some basketball organizations what is known as a “mercy rule.” It is invoked if either team gains a 35 point lead in the second half. If that is the case, the officials will notify you to invoke the mercy rule timing procedures. If this rule is invoked, it will remain in force for the remainder of the game.
The only times you will stop the clock during mercy rule timing are:
- A timeout charged to either team
- An injury substitution
- A disqualification of player, coach or fan
- To shoot free throws (the officials will notify you exactly when to stop the clock)
Keeping the Clock for Overtime Games
If the score is tied at the end of regulation time, an overtime period will be played. There could be multiple overtimes if the score is tied at the end of the first overtime. Your duties between the end of the game and the first overtime period are the same as between quarters.
The officials will tell you how much time to put on the clock for overtime play. A general rule of thumb is that the overtime period will be half the length of time of a quarter.
Troubleshooting and Problem Solving
Even with your best efforts to pay attention, the possibility of errors or clock related issues exists. And, if there are last second shots (aka buzzer beaters), they can be difficult for the officials to judge if the shot should count or not. Add to that excited and loud fans, and there is a lot of pressure to get it right.
You can relax, a little bit anyway. The referees are responsible for addressing, correcting, and administering any timing mistakes.
If there is any problem with the clock or if you know you made a mistake, immediately sound the horn to let the officials know what has happened at the next whistle. There are rules to handle most clock related errors and the officials are responsible for correcting the situation. If the horn is inoperative, get the officials attention by gesturing and by verbally calling to them.
Some possible errors are:
- Equipment malfunction. Since basketball scoreboards and their control panels are mechanical, they do malfunction from time to time.
- Timer did not start the clock on time.
- Timer did not stop the clock on time.
The official high school basketball rulebook states the following:
ART. 1 . . . The referee may correct an obvious mistake by the timer to start or stop the clock properly only when he/she has definite information relative to the time involved. The exact time observed by the official may be placed on the clock.
ART. 2 . . . If the referee determines that the clock malfunctioned or was not started/stopped properly, or if the clock did not run, an official’s count or other official information may be used to make a correction.
So, the responsibility is all on the referees—taking the pressure off of you. Don;t worry about it…The refs will handle it for you!
Summary and Conclusion
Operating the clock at a basketball game requires precision, attention to detail, and an understanding of the rules and regulations of the game. As the clock operator, you should be familiar with the equipment and software used, as well as the protocols for starting, stopping, and resetting the clock.
Additionally, clear communication with the referees and scorekeepers is essential for ensuring that the game runs smoothly and accurately.
With practice and experience, clock operators can become proficient in their role and help to ensure a fair and enjoyable basketball game for all involved!