Friday, December 01, 2006

December 1: Basketball Metaphors

Today is the anniversary of the first basketball game played in 1891. At the time there was very little hoopla (no pun intended) about this first game. Instead it was just another in a long string of invented games by James Naismith, a physical education instructor at Springfield College in Springfield, Mass.

Looking for a rigorous indoor game for his students, Naismith first tried to adapt lacrosse and football, but he didn't have much success until he tried nailing two peach baskets to balconies on either side of the gymnasium court. The success of this game that Naismith called Basket Ball was not assured, however. In fact as recorded in Naismith's own diary the first review for the game was less than enthusiastic: "Huh. Another new game," was the response of one of Naismith's students.

The rules and apparatus of the game evolved over time. Naismith added a backboard so that people in the balcony couldn't swat away the shots of the opposing team. Also, the bottom of the peach basket was eventually removed, significantly increasing the speed and flow of the game. Many of Naismith's students went on to become instructors in newly opened YMCA centers around the country, and although their initial reaction was rather ho-hum, they seemed to like the game enough to teach it to their own pupils (1).

One indication of the popularity of any game is when the game's jargon becomes a metaphor used outside of the game for everyday situations in real life. From basketball there are two significant examples of this phenomenon: slam dunk and my bad.

Slam dunk, which was later shortened to dunk, became the operative basketball term for stuffing the ball into the basket with either one or two hands. The term leapt from the gym to the world of business and government to mean figuratively any sure thing. The most famous example of its use as a metaphor comes from former CIA Director George Tenet. When asked by the Bush administration in 2001 whether or not the public could be convinced to go to war in Iraq, Tenet famously responded: "It's a slam dunk case!"

My bad is a colloquial phrase that originated on the asphalt courts of the inner-city where it is used as pick-up basketball shorthand meaning: Sorry, I make a mistake! This apologetic exclamation entered the off-court vernacular in the 1990s, but further word study will show that a similar expression has been used for centuries, an expression that came not from the sports world, but from the Catholic Church confessional: the Latin expression mea culpa, meaning my fault (2).

Today's Challenge: From Backboard to Boardroom
Below are examples of other basketball terms. What does each term mean? Can you think of a situation in which each term might be used as a metaphor beyond basketball. If you don't know all the terms, check out the Wikipedia entry on Basketball Terms.

flagrant foul

sixth man

Jordan Rules

garbage time


pick and roll

flop brick

buzzer beater (3).

Quote of the Day: Basketball is like war in that offensive weapons are developed first, and it always takes a while for the defense to catch up. --Red Auerback


1 -

2 -

3 -

No comments: