Ron Morris

Shooting the ‘rock’: Basketball lingo evolves

Basketball’s terminology has changed the way we talk about the game

rmorris@thestate.comFebruary 19, 2013 

JIM VALVANO WAS THE first I remember to introduce a new language to the game of basketball. I thought he was displaying his terrific sense of humor when he referred to a basketball as an “orange” or a “rock.”

In retrospect, the late Valvano most likely was transferring the language he learned on the streets of New York City to his locale during the mid-1980s as North Carolina State’s coach.

The language of basketball — the hoops jargon, if you will — continues to evolve today. To understand that language, you must know what it means to “score the ball,” “hit the trey,” and “dominate the paint.” Long gone are the days of “using the backboard,” “making a field goal” and “driving the lane.”

Stan Dubinsky is a professor of linguistics at South Carolina and has studied language — not necessarily as it pertains to basketball — for decades. He says the change to a more hip style of describing the game is a natural linguistic transition.

“There are traditional terms that we’re used to, the old people terms. I say that only half-joking,” Dubinsky says. “What happens is there are typically huge generational changes in every generation, language use.

“The quickest changes are the use of words, what I call varieties. Some people call them dialects, but (dialects) don’t extend to everything. Your doctor has a dialect. Your doctor has a dialect that he uses on his colleagues, which is called an in-group language. Then he has words that he uses with you.

“There’s a sense of in-group authority that goes along with use of certain terminology. An in-group authority could be a professional position, like a physician. Or it could be an in-group authority as in, we belong and you don’t.”

To best understand what Dubinsky is talking about, he suggests you begin to talk like a teenager to a teenager. “You know, like, whadzup?” Your teenager is likely to look at you as if you just dropped in from Mars.

The same holds true in basketball, where observers of the game can no longer speak the old language of the game if they expect to be taken seriously. That means accepting, however difficult that might be for some of us old codgers, that the “lane” area of the court is now called the “paint.”

If you do not believe it, check out an official NCAA box score from a game. One category is labeled “points in the paint.”

My introduction to “the paint” came in the movie, “Hoosiers,” the 1986 basketball classic in which the Hickory High players are instructed to “run the picket fence, but don’t let the paint dry.” In other words, do not stand in the lane too long.

The lane area once was called “the key,” because it was narrower and ballooned out above the free-throw line to look like a key. When the free-throw area was widened, it became known as the lane. The advent of the universal painting of courts — more specifically lane areas — advanced the terminology to what we know today.

I do wonder, though, if it is still OK to refer to “points in the paint” in games at Florida, where the court’s only painted area is in the half-circle above each free-throw line? And, since we are at it, why do we still refer to the “top of the key?” Should it not now be the “top of the paint?”

The Urban Dictionary lists five definitions under the term “rock,” including a form of cocaine, a stone, a type of music, a fake wrestler and a basketball. The same dictionary does not recognize “orange” as a basketball, only as a fake tan.

Then there is the term “trey,” for a 3-pointer. Trey is the English version of tres in Spanish and trois in French. The word’s definition is a “3” in a deck of cards, much like the “ace” or “deuce.”

“These are borrowings,” Dubinsky says. “It’s interesting that something as new as ‘trey’ sort of wanders down to us a Nuevo term. I don’t think the people who use it have any consciousness of its etymology.”

My guess is the people who use the word “trey” in basketball terms have no consciousness of the meaning of the word “etymology,” which is the study of word origins. My guess also is that TV basketball analyst and former Ohio State player Clark Kellogg had no idea of the etymology of the term “dropping a dime,” which he began using in the mid-1990s to describe an assist.

Apparently the term originated on the streets when someone would “drop a dime,” in a pay phone to call the police and snitch on a criminal. In other words, the caller was assisting the police.

The logic of using the phrase in basketball terms seems a little twisted. But it has become part of the game’s language, and is commonly accepted by those who both play the game and describe it on radio and TV.

Me? I am slow coming to the game’s latest lingo. But when the zebras toss the orange for Wednesday’s Mississippi game in South Carolina’s barn, it is important that the Gamecocks clean the glass, score the ball, drop shiny dimes, establish position on the blocks, dominate the paint, gain a clear advantage on the boards, and hit many treys from the bonus-phere if they expect to put up a W. If so, maybe the students will storm the court.

The State is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service