The term has often been deemed to have been created by the Cameron Crazies of Duke University. Some have pointed to the date of February 24, 1979, during a college basketball game between the Duke University Blue Devils and their in-state rivals, the North Carolina Tar Heels, as the first recorded use of "air ball". During a highly unusual Duke-UNC game, in which UNC failed to score during the first half, the Duke crowd broke into a chant of "air ball" after Tar Heel player Rich Yonakor took UNC's only shot of the half, which missed the rim. It has become one of the most iconic cheers in college basketball.
Nevertheless, while the UNC-Duke game may have popularized the phrase, it is doubtful that the term originates from that date. American television announcer Keith Jackson can clearly be heard using the term "airball" in game five, during the third quarter of the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks1972 championship series. With the score 69-65, Jackson's call is as follows: "Goodrich almost lost it to Monroe. Shoots. Short. Airball. Frazier rebounds. Bad shot by Goodrich."
The Oxford English Dictionary cites earliest printed use of "air ball" in a 29 January 1967 article from the (Hayward, Calif.) Daily Review, which reads: "Cal State, four times lofting air balls at an orange basket that may as well have been painted invisible."