Behind the Dictionary
Lexicographers Talk About Language
NBA Lingo: Staying Aggressive While Avoiding Hero Ball
It's NBA Finals time—a time I love. I've been watching the NBA since I was a wee lad, back in the mythical time of Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and the Minotaur. (I think the Minotaur played for Portland, but let me fact-check that.)
Every spring, the NBA playoffs are like a long-running TV show I return to eagerly, and like most other TV shows, the NBA has its own lingo, which can be colorful and clichéd, odd and obnoxious, clever and cute. Here are some terms—more slang than jargon—from the Association, as the NBA is often called. Even if Golden State and Cleveland don't go seven games, words are enjoyable even in garbage time.
This is a fairly straightforward term that got a humorous spin thanks to an inept marketing campaign. When TNT started their coverage of the NBA playoffs this year, they had a new slogan: Hero Ball! One problem: hero ball refers to selfish, dumb basketball. The "hero" is a player trying to do too much individually at the expense of passing, teamwork, and smarter plays. TNT gamely tried to recover, as announcers suddenly started talking about "the redefinition of hero ball," but the damage was done. I wonder if next year's playoffs will be called "Air Ball!" or "Turnover!"
This is a sorta affectionate term for any team including LeBron James—the unquestioned best player of the past 10 years or more. Jerry Greene recently used this nickname in the Orlando Sentinel: "With a functional Kyrie Irving, the Cleveland LeBrons can be competitive against Golden State. Without Irving, get out the brooms." (In other words, Cleveland could be swept: lose the series 0-4.) For four years and two championships, fans watched the Miami LeBrons. Calling a term the LeBrons is definitely an insult to King James' teammates, it's also a pretty apt compliment: the guy has made the finals five years in a row, and he brought Cleveland back from basketball oblivion in one season. This term is a throwback to a similar term involving the player LeBron is constantly compared to: Michael Jordan, whose teammates were called the Jordanaires.
the Splash Brothers
This is a nickname for Golden State's backcourt of 2015 MVP Stephen Curry and fellow all-star Klay Thompson. Warriors marketer Brian Witt came up with this one as a hashtag in 2012 after a particularly stunning performance by the two sharpshooters. The nickname is a play on Bash Brothers, as fellow Oakland stars Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire were known. A splash is also reminiscent of the swish of the ball going through the net, which is fitting for two guys with absurdly high shooting percentages. The NBA has always been the home of great nicknames, such as Larry Legend (Larry Bird), the Big Fundamental (Tim Duncan), Wilt the Stilt (Wilt Chamberlain), the Iceman (George Gervin), the Answer (Allen Iverson), the Truth (Paul Pierce), the Admiral (David Robinson), the Glove (Gary Payton), the Mailman (Karl Malone), the Microwave (Vinnie Johnson), and the Round Mound of Rebound (Charles Barkley).
As I discussed in Slate awhile back, aggressive is the ultimate NBA buzzword among players, coaches, and announcers. Seemingly everyone associated with the NBA loves this word—or at least prefers it to more truthful or interesting alternatives. If you believe the NBA community, being more aggressive is key to rebounding, shooting, defending, hustling, staying hydrated, not losing your hotel key, and winning the White House in 2016. I tried to stay aggressive while writing this column, but my laptop didn't respond well to the constant trash talk and flagrant fouls.
This prefix began with the hack-a-Shaq, a play on the game Whac-A-Mole coined for when teams would deliberately foul all-time great center Shaquille O'Neal due to his poor free-throw shooting. The idea is that since Shaq stunk at free throws, you'd eventually come out ahead. Since then, the strategy has been used with other craptastic shooters, and the prefix hacka- took on a life of its own. If you foul poor shooters DeAndre Jordan and Dwight Howard, it's hacka-Jordan and hacka-Howard time. Unfortunately for the fans, it's also hacka-patience time, since watching terrible free-throw shooters clumsily toss up bricks is not exactly riveting entertainment.
hand down, man down
Former coach and player Mark Jackson often bellows "Hand down, man down!" after a player makes a shot. This expression appears to come from boxing and can be loosely translated as, "If you don't keep your hands up, you shall soon kiss the canvas." Since keeping your hands up is also important to basketball defense, the phrase is an NBA natural, though I suspect Jackson enjoys the catchy rhyme as much as the sage advice. If you tune into a finals game, you will surely hear this phrase, among others. Jackson has more catchphrases than a superhero team, as he also likes to exclaim "That was a grown-man move," "You're better than that," and "Mama, there goes that man!"
This term has been around since at least the 1980s, but it's one of the most distinctive and creative NBA terms. To posterize another player is to dunk on them—but not just any dunk. To achieve posterization, the dunker must dunk so forcefully upon the dunkee (who pitifully fails to contest the shot) that the dunkee would appear cowering and helpless if someone made a poster of this tragic spectacle. If you posterized somebody, you could also say you gave them a facial, because your dunk was so very in their face.
I feel like the concept of posterization could be more broadly used. Perhaps writers of Internet think pieces could be said to posterize the subjects of their pretentious monologues. Maybe my dog could posterize a squirrel by chasing it up a tree. I'd say the entire human race has posterized Mother Earth through centuries of environmental abuse: though I guess we've actually posterized ourselves in that case. As Mark Jackson would say, "You're better than that, humanity."