Why Do Basketball Players Use Chalk?

Basketball is a popular sport that is performed all over the world, and chalk is an important item that quite a few players prefer to make use of during matches.

This is especially prevalent in the NBA, when an athlete may make use of chalk when preparing themselves to take a free throw shot opportunity.

Although it must be noted that the habit of using chalk may be observed in a variety of different games, with its usage not necessarily restricted to the elite players.

In this article, we will explore why basketball players use chalk, along with its different functions and benefits.

For starters, we’ll summarize why basketball players love to utilize it.

Basketball players use chalk to absorb the sweat and moisture which builds up on their palms and fingers as a result of the physically demanding nature of the game. The chalk – also known as the chemical compound magnesium carbonate – is also said to aid with blister prevention and makes up part of the pre-game routines that some NBA athletes are accustomed to.

Reasons why NBA players put chalk on their hands

So, what exactly is the purpose of basketball players using chalk?

Well, it’s actually quite simple to understand.

To begin with, basketball is a sport full of continuous, vigorous exercise.

During a game, a player is believed to run an average of two to three miles, which typically results in profuse sweating via the palms and fingers.

These parts of the body are used to grasp and hold on to the basketball during games.

And because a player’s grip is critical to winning matches, losing control of the ball can potentially lead to basket scoring opportunities for the opposition team.

From that analysis, you can easily see basketball players applying chalk for the purpose of…

1. Sweat absorption

When doing a power lift, such as a big deadlift, competitive powerlifters use chalk to improve their grip on the barbell.

The last thing a powerlifter would want is to lose his or her hold on the bar because of sweat build up through their palms, and waste valuable amounts of energy completing an ineffective lift.

In a similar vein to powerlifting, basketball players apply chalk on their hands for sweat absorption.

why basketball players use chalk - for sweat absorption

You’ve probably had the experience of trying to grasp on to a wet basketball during a pickup game or scrimmage.

Alternatively, you may have had a first-hand encounter with the difficulty involved when it comes to dribbling or shooting a basketball that has a bit of moisture on it.

The ball easily slips off of your palms no matter how hard you attempt to grab hold of it.

This is where chalk comes in handy, as the properties contained within magnesium carbonate (i.e. the inorganic salt chemical referred to as chalk) make it efficient at absorbing water and other forms of moisture from sweaty hands, especially because it’s insoluble in water.

In fact, there are a few scientific studies which support the notion that using chalk improves grip through moisture reduction, such as:

  • A January 2018 paper in the International Journal of Exercise Science – results show 16% and 58% improvements in performance when using lifting chalk on respective open and pinch grips; and
  • The authors of a January 2014 report in the Science of Gymnastics Journal – who found that seven participants benefitted from the use of magnesium carbonate when lifting gymnastics equipment

2. Following a pre-game ritual

Basketball players also have a wide range of pre-game rituals that they like to perform.

In particular, some NBA players have their own set of rituals that they firmly believe in and follow throughout the course of their career.

A famous example is LeBron James, who had a famous chalk toss that he used to perform prior to the start of NBA games.

why basketball players use chalk - pre game ritual

What Lebron would do is grab a handful of chalk and hurl it in the air, then watch it disappear into non-existence right before the opening tip-off.

Here’s a video of this:

He started this ritual ever since his rookie year back in 2003, and the action immediately became a fan favorite moment for basketball supporters within the city of Cleveland.

It wasn’t long before the entire league eventually got behind LeBron’s chalk toss, showering him lots of praise for it in the process.

3. Blister prevention

Blisters on the hands can be painful and uncomfortable, and they can prevent basketball players from performing well on the court.

Chalk is said to be a tremendous help towards stopping blisters from forming due to the way in which the chemical compound regulates moisture.

why basketball players use chalk - blister prevention

Here’s an excerpt which explains this concept a little better:

“Chalk will help protect the skin on your hands by drying it out and forming a thin barrier between your skin and the barbell. This layer will help protect the skin on your palms from tearing, especially the tops of calluses which are prone to tear when sweaty.”

Source – Little Bloke Fitness

However, if blister prevention is no longer an option for you due to having already picked up one, then check out our article on how to play basketball with blisters, as it offers some tips and tricks that you can use to remain effective on the court in spite of the injury.

Where did the act of basketball players applying chalk originate from?

The practice of applying chalk on basketball players’ hands has a long history in the sport, extending back to its early days in the late 1800s.

The technique is thought to have started as a means for players to increase their grip and control of the ball, especially when they were sweating or playing in humid circumstances.

The first reported occurrences of basketball players using chalk may be traced back to the basketball sport’s formative days in Massachusetts, when it was played exclusively in gymnasiums and other indoor spaces.

According to legend, players began using chalk to keep their hands dry and strengthen their grip on the court’s smooth, wooden surfaces.

Some of the first basketball players to use chalk were members of the Springfield, Massachusetts YMCA teams in the 1890’s.

What chalk does LeBron James use for his hands?

James has become well-known for his pre-game ritual of tossing and spreading chalk in the air.

This magnificent gesture was inspired by his childhood memories of watching Chicago Bull’s legend Michael Jordan perform it.

James’ chalk toss is a fan favourite and a trademark of his pregame routine.

While there is no concrete evidence on the exact brand or type of chalk he uses it is highly probable that he uses magnesium carbonate chalk, popularly known as gym chalk, which is widely used in the sports industry.

This type of chalk is a fine, dry powder that absorbs moisture and provides a better grip for athletes.

Weightlifters, gymnasts, rock climbers, and other athletes that require a firm hold while executing their activity use gym chalk.

Because it is non-toxic and hypoallergenic, magnesium carbonate chalk is frequently used in the sports world.

It does not include any potentially dangerous components or chemicals.

Gym chalk also has no smell, colours, or other additions that might affect an athlete’s performance.

This type of chalk may be acquired at reasonable prices from sporting goods stores and internet vendors.

Does baby powder really help with basketball grip?

Baby powder and other types of chalk, such as blackboard chalk, can still be used to minimize or avoid excessive sweating.

Baby powder, while not as powerful as other products like gym chalk or liquid chalk, does aid with grip.

This is due to the fact that it contains natural sweat-fighting compounds.

When the margins in basketball games are so fine, that extra bit of grip can be all you need to hold on to the ball better as you attempt to put it in the basket!

Although baby powder not the most sanitary method of improving grip due to the fact that it leaves behind a smell on the athlete’s hands, it works nonetheless.

Closing thoughts

In conclusion, as we have seen, NBA players use chalk to improve their control and grip on the basketball.

This chemical, however, is not the typical chalk used on chalkboards.

To improve grip, most players like to use performance chalk and other comparable compounds that function by keeping the skin dry (i.e. the opposite of a lubricant).

So, now you are in the know.

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About Samuel Waihenya

Samuel is an avid fan of basketball and has been following the sport for over 10 years. He now intends to dedicate his time to produce great content for his own little basketball blog that aims to help its readership with whatever basketball-related topic they can think of. Have a read through Samuel Waihenya's author bio page here.