OK, so we all know what a slam dunk is, and we know a little about the alley-oop, too. But these are really basic basketball slang terms. Some of the more original slang terms that are used in basketball circles carry more interesting stories, and are worth looking at a bit more closely. A few examples follow.
If you perform a move that leaves your opponent standing around like an idiot – perhaps you have managed to complete a slam dunk over his head, then you are said to have “posterized” him. This term comes from the usual shots used on posters of star basketball players in full flow with an opponent trying, but failing, to stop them. The implication is that this person will be on a poster, but as the poor mark standing and watching as you do something awesome.
“Hack-A-Shaq” is a tactical move which is pretty much indistinguishable from fouling your opponent. This is because it is fouling your opponent. It is only applicable, though, when playing against someone you know can’t make free throws. Shaquille O’Neal, for all his ability with a basketball, is a terrible free-throw shooter – to the extent where teams feel confident fouling him. It stops him dunking the ball and he’s likely to miss the shots.
Finally, two terms which are entirely literal: “All Ball” and “Nothing But Net”. The first is shouted at a referee who has blown for a foul when you have blocked an opponent’s shot – the implication being that you haven’t touched your opponent, just slammed the ball away. The second applies to a jump shot you have hit which caught none of the rim on the way in. With that lovely “swish noise”, all it hit was net.
Basketball is almost unique in an important way among the big four sports in the US calendar. The proximity of players to fans makes for a real feeling of being part of the game in a way that football just cannot – sitting above the sidelines means that you are separated from the players by some distance. In baseball you are sat at the top of a high wall and in hockey you are, for your own good, separated from the action by a wall of reinforced plastic (so that no flying frozen rubber puck can hit you in the face).
In basketball, though, a courtside seat really is a courtside seat. If a pass is slightly overthrown there is a good chance that it will land in your lap. You can’t keep it, but you will get to see yourself on the Jumbotron. But quite apart from your proximity to the ball, there is your proximity to the players. You can hear them calling for passes, you can hear their sneakers squeaking on the floor, and you can see the sweat beading on their foreheads. It really is disturbingly close to being in the game.
In one game in 2004 between the Indiana Pacers and the Detroit Pistons, a scuffle broke out on court between the Pistons’ Ben Wallace and the Pacers’ Ron Artest. A plastic cup was thrown at Artest, who entered the stands along with some team mates and sparking a player-fan brawl that ended in five players being charged with assault.
In soccer, drawn games are fairly common given the fact that it is entirely possible to go all the way through a game without a goal being scored, and the overall number of goals scored in a game is usually between two and three. In basketball, tied games are less common – but when they do happen, the game will go to overtime and provide the watching fans with one of the most nerve-wracking experiences imaginable. Watching your team play a fifth quarter with the realization that every missed basket could be the one that loses your team the game is something that stretches any fan.
Of course, on the flip side is the fact that with your nerves stretched to breaking point you will enjoy it all the more if your team emerges triumphant. In overtime, every mistake can be a crucial one. Miss a free shot and you could have thrown away the winning point. Try a risky three-pointer and you know it had better come off. This raising of the stakes often brings out the best in the real marquee players. You will often find that the handling and passing in overtime periods is a little more erratic due to adrenaline, but the best players have a way of making time around them slow down.
In the playoffs, overtime takes on an even more sadistic turn – at least in regular season games it is possible to have a game finish on a tie if there is no clear winner after the first overtime period. In postseason, you play on for as many periods as it takes to decide the game. Now that is pressure.
One of the most frequent set pieces of a basketball game is the free throw. Awarded for certain fouls, and then for all fouls after a set number have been committed, the free throw is a penalty which provides the offended team with a chance to score some points, but may also be used by their opponents as a way of limiting the damage and stopping the clock. It is not uncommon to see tactical fouls committed by teams who have learned to see everything in terms of how it impacts the end result.
The truth is that some players are ace shots at free-throw time and giving them the ball with time to get their bearings and no-one getting in their face is tantamount to giving their team free points. On the other hand, some players are so bad at free throws that the opposition will be happy to foul them so that they are the ones charged with trying to score a point. If you are playing against a team with an ace three-point shooter, it makes sense to foul the guy on the team who has nerves of balsa wood on the free-throw line.
In some cases, fouling the free-throw expert is even a reasonable move. When time is running down and you need the ball back, committing a foul is one way of stopping the clock. Even if you know it might mean conceding points, you will want to get hold of the ball and try to score yourself, so it makes more sense not to give them twenty-four seconds to set up their shot.
Although absolutely central to the way that professional sports are played in the USA, the draft system is largely unique to America – over the Atlantic in Europe players sign with a club as an apprentice during their schooldays and afterwards can only move when the club which covets them pays compensation to their current club. This makes the draft system all the more a part of American sport, and something which takes on as much importance as almost anything else to do with the sport.
Due to the extensive scouting system in place – many colleges will offer scholarships to particularly gifted high school athletes – it is usually easy to spot the players who will come out of college into the NBA with a chance of success, but this does not mean that every player picked early in a draft will turn out to be an NBA superstar. The step up between college and professional hoops is quite considerable and brings with it not only a more complicated, competitive game but a lot of additional pressure.
When a team drafts a player, they cannot just look at their game statistics and decide that they are good enough. They also need to consider how the player will fit into the team camaraderie and whether they will be a disruption to team morale, whether the player fills a need or whether they will create friction with another player in the same position. Not least, they will need to have some idea as to whether the player who put up such great numbers in college can do the same in the big leagues, and whether their attitude matches their ability.
One of the most enduring elements of a sport is the classic rivalry. This is something which is present in all sports – anyone who has witnessed a derby match in soccer will know that while all games are important for a team, the games that happen each season between close rivals are somehow more important than simply how they affect the league standings. Basketball is no different in this respect, although franchising and the league structure has seen to it that the rivalries are less geographical and more historic.
One of the most classic rivalries of recent years was the rivalry that bound Boston and Los Angeles for most of the 1980s. With little in common on the surface – Boston being a fairly blue-collar city in Massachusetts and Los Angeles the glitzy home of Hollywood – the rivalry between the teams was a result of their respective possession of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, two instant stars of the game. The teams played out three Finals series during that decade and ever since there has been a frisson to their encounters.
More recently there have been rivalries between teams who have exchanged high-profile players, which causes a lot of heat when the former crowd hero returns to their old stamping ground. Teams that are unpopular – often due to a reputation for “buying success” can expect to have a number of teams claim a rivalry with them, making every game a pitched battle for supremacy. This does explain the large number of rival clubs for the Los Angeles Lakers.
The importance of merchandising to professional basketball teams has always been high, but the recent past has seen the saturation of an industry, with merchandise becoming so prominent that some sports have even gone so far as to provide branded coffins for fans who wish to be buried in their team’s colors. Although professional basketball has yet to go to this extent, there is little else that remains unbranded in this day and age. When your baby is born, you can buy it some clothes in the team’s colors, ensuring that if they aren’t going to leave this world in team merchandise, their early days can at least be a display of team loyalty.
The most obvious form of merchandise is the team replica jersey. The reasons for this are fairly obvious. Sitting in the arena watching the team play, any fan will naturally feel so much a part of the team that they wish they could play. The next best thing to playing for the team is to at least be able to dress like a player, and it also gives a chance to wear a replica team vest with your favorite player’s name and number on it. this forms a very firm bond between fan and team, something which makes for a greater atmosphere at games.
It is not uncommon to see musicians appear on stage or in videos wearing their team’s replica jerseys. Showing an identity connection with your team allows you to send a message to other fans and attract goodwill – something that sport is notable for fostering.
As a child, your first game of basketball is a world of discovery. As you are not allowed to run with the ball it is important to learn to dribble it, and this is something that plays a very important part in the smooth running of the game. Many novice players, aware that they have to keep bouncing the ball, will feel more comfortable doing so with both hands. Once you are in a league game, though, this is actually against the rules, giving as it does an unfair advantage to the team in possession.
The “double dribble” rule is one of basketball’s more esoteric ones, and is rarely seen in action in the NBA due to the tactical importance of retaining possession until you are in position to score. The most common infraction under the double dribble rule is when a player comes to a stop and takes the ball in both hands before looking around for a pass, and continuing to dribble if they see no options. Once you have stopped still to look around, it is obligatory to either attempt a shot or pass the ball to a team mate,
The reason that this is so important is that carrying the ball is illegal, and stopping with the ball in both hands is a clear effort to retain the ball without the risk of an opponent taking hold of it. In basketball, the continued recycling of possession is an important part of the game, and for a player to effectively carry the ball with him is an unfair excessive protection of the ball.
Basketball is considered to be one of the fastest ball sports there is, and there are a number of rules in place to ensure that this remains the case. One such rule is the shot clock, which is used in the NBA and most professional and amateur leagues to ensure that teams do not simply play possession basketball when their team is in the lead, making it impossible for their opponents to get the ball back quickly and without attempting an offensive move.
The shot clock is in place from the moment a team gets possession of the ball, and counts down from twenty-four seconds. After that time has elapsed, the team in possession will be penalised if it has not attempted a shot at the basket. The clock is reset the moment a player attempts a shot at the basket or loses possession of the ball. Once the ball is back in the hands of a player on either team, the shot clock resumes counting down from twenty-four seconds.
If a team does keep possession without attempting a shot, the ball is turned over to their opponents at the sideline nearest to the point where the infraction was committed. This ensures that at any given time the team in possession of the ball must be looking to complete an offensive move by attempting a basket before their twenty-four seconds are up. Teams in the lead by a small score with time running out will still endeavor to use all of the shot clock before attempting a shot, but cannot do it for any longer than the specified 24 seconds.
When talking of the true legends of basketball, people always tend to refer to players – those who have scored a lot of baskets, have made important baskets, or have made assists to other players or stopped opposing players from scoring. However, no pantheon of basketball legends could ever be complete without paying tribute to the name of Phil Jackson – probably the greatest head coach in the history of the game. In the first 20 years of his coaching career Jackson won ten NBA titles, and he is still going. That means that half of the completed seasons in his career have ended with the ultimate prize.
If that’s not enough for you, then think on this. Only five times in the history of basketball has a team carried out a “three-peat” – winning three NBA titles back to back. On three of those occasions, the team was coached by Phil Jackson (twice with the Chicago Bulls in the 90s, and with the Los Angeles Lakers at the beginning of the 21st Century). The last time it happened with anyone other than Phil Jackson coaching was in the 1950s. There is no doubting that Phil Jackson has been blessed with talented players, but it says something that the tandem offense of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant finally kicked into gear in 1999 when Jackson arrived in Los Angeles.
Sometimes it isn’t the players that win titles. Sometimes it is the tactics and the game plan. If you were to select one man to put together the perfect game plan, Phil Jackson would have to be that man.