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 States 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 were 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) dont 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.
Theres 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 dont.
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 dont 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 courts 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 words definition is a 3 in a deck of cards, much like the ace or deuce.
These are borrowings, Dubinsky says. Its interesting that something as new as trey sort of wanders down to us a Nuevo term. I dont 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 games 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 games latest lingo. But when the zebras toss the orange for Wednesdays Mississippi game in South Carolinas 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.