Now is the time of March Madness, when otherwise calm, reasonable, sedate citizens never, ever stop talking about their brackets.
While the NBA is the highest form of basketball from a skill level, the excitement of the NCAA men's college basketball tournament does tend to cause more exclamations and sick days. Maybe it's the unpredictability inherent in a 68-team tournament. The NBA playoffs are relatively predictable, and I'll be gobsmacked if this year's Finals aren't the third straight meeting of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors. While that's a heavyweight fight to look forward to, the uncertainty level until then is nil. Predicting the Final Four, by contrast, is a fool's errand—which is why it's so much fun.
Here's the highest praise I can give the event: it's the favorite sporting event of my dad, who is an Olympic-level, weapons-grade, restaurant-quality sports fan. He'll watch pretty much anything involving a ball or violence, but if he could pick only one event out of the umpty-zillion sporting events he watches, the NCAA tournament would be his pick.
But if you're a newcomer to March Madness or even the game of roundball, here's some info on some key terms. They could prevent you from repeating the mistakes of Liz Lemon, who once referred to a basketball as "the old leather pumpkin."
You can also test your b-ball word IQ with this list: Basketball Words for March Madness
There are many rebounds in life, and they all involve bouncing back in some way. You can rebound from a failed relationship by starting a new one, and you can rebound from losing your job by spiffing up your resume and replacing that tie with the mustard stains. But in basketball, a rebound is more literal: it's any time the ball bounces off the backboard or rim, doesn't go through the hoop, and a player grabs it. If someone on the team trying to score gets the ball, it's an offensive rebound; if someone on the other team snatches the ball, it's a defensive rebound. If you grab a lot of rebounds, you're a good rebounder. Rebounding is often called part of the dirty work in basketball: it doesn't get you fame and sneaker contracts, but it sure helps your team win.
Just about any area in the world can be a zone if it has a specific purpose or characteristic. There are no-smoking zones, loading zones, and demilitarized zones. In baseball, the strike zone is the area the pitcher tries to place the ball. In basketball, the main use of zone is in zone defense, which is the opposite of man-to-man defense. In a zone defense, the defenders don't have specific assignments: they cover areas of the court. This is often a losing strategy, since not having a specific player to follow can lead to chaos and anarchy, which aren't as fun as they sound. When a player is lighting up the scoreboard—scoring points—you can also say they're in the zone.
The center is located at the middle of anything, from a circle to a city. That concept is stretched just a little in basketball: center is the name of one of the three positions, along with forward and guard. Fittingly, there's only one center, while there are two guards (point and shooting) and two forwards (power and small). The center is usually the biggest player on the court: many NBA centers have been 7 feet tall. In fact, if you are this height, you are legally obligated to play in the NBA, according to the Geneva Conventions.
This is the most helpful word in the basketball lexicon. If you throw me the ball and I make a basket, I may get the glory of scoring 2 or 3 points, but you receive something besides a warm feeling inside: an assist. Assists are passes that directly set up scoring. Any player can make as assist, but usually the quarterback-like point guard gets the most assists. A point guard—like greats Magic Johnson, Steve Nash, and John Stockton—is there to keep the game flowing and get everybody involved. If your center has more assists than your point guard, your team has a problem.
Many sports—such as baseball, football, and soccer—are played on a field. Not basketball, which takes place on a court. This is one of many meanings of court, including a place where you'd find a judge or king and any closed-in area (such as a courtyard). The other major sport that takes place on a court is tennis, though if you try to play basketball on a tennis court, you might need to retake Sports 101.
This versatile word can be an adjective, noun, or verb. It can describe a stinky smell ("Yikes, what is the foul odor?") that assaults your nostrils, and that gross meaning might help you member the basketball meaning: a violation of the rules. The referee blows the whistle when one player fouls the other, resulting in free throws for the victim. A universal truth about fouls in basketball is that every player feels they are constantly fouled, while no player feels they ever commit one. Hypocrisy, thy name is basketball player.
Pay attention to other terms that pop up during March Madness. Even if your bracket gets busted on the first day, you can still complain about it with a vocabulary as big as a hulking center.
Mark Peters is a language columnist, lexicographer, and humorist who has written for Esquire, The Funny Times, New Scientist, Psychology Today, Salon, and Slate. He contributes to OUPblog and writes the Best Joke Ever column for McSweeney's. You can read Mark's own jokes on Twitter, such as, "I play by my own rules, which is probably why no one comes to my board game parties anymore."Click here to read other articles by Mark Peters
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