I-so! I-SO! Double down now! DOUBLE DOWN! All right, rotate! ROTATE! No, let's go big on big. Look—they're goin' Hawk. HAWK! Watch the curl! Help! No, it's a turnout! Now, they're gonna pick-and-fade! PICK-AND-FADE! Look out! STAY LEGAL! STAY LEGAL! Oh, jeez, see the ball. YOU GOTTA SEE THE DAMN BALL...!
The above alien dialect will be spoken quite regularly all over America during the next few months. Call it NBA-speak. It is not nearly as well known as NFLspeak, which during Sunday afternoon telecasts is frequently accompanied by illustrations, or baseballspeak, which has been part of our culture for more than a century. It is similar, but not identical, to colege basketballspeak. The excerpt above, for example, relates almost entirely to the NBA rules mandating man-to-man defense. The dialect also owes a tremendous debt to former NBA coach turned TV commentator Hubie Brown, who created or inspired much of the terminology. NBAspeak, it should be noted, bears no resemblance to Vitale-speak. Then again, what does?
What follows are the definitions of some essential terms, a glossary to guide you through the new season. Sorry, but there will be no help from the telestrater:
SEE THE BALL—The meaning of this command seems obvious enough, and, in fact, it is. It is a plea for a defender to locate the ball even if the man he is guarding doesn't have it. In effect, it is a shorthand reiteration of the hoariest of basketball principles: To play good defense you've got to see both your man and the ball at all times. The expression made an indelible impression during the 1980s when Brown, who during that time coached the Atlanta Hawks and the New York Knicks, screamed it about 100 times a game.
November 9, 1992
JUMP SWITCH—This occurs when a defender more or less springs into the path (see: the Wolf in Little Red Riding Hood) of a dribbler as he's coming off a pick, forcing him either to stop dribbling or to veer away from the basket.
ROTATE—When a defense double-teams the player with the ball, the remaining defensive players must then rotate, either clockwise or counterclockwise, toward the double team and try to cover the unguarded offensive player.
ISOLATION—Though also a good description of anyone playing in Sacramento, this term is really used to identify the unaesthetic but effective tactic of moving four offensive players to the side of the court away from the ball, where, hey, let's be honest, they won't get in the way (see: Manute Bol).
I-SO—This is a warning hollered to a defender when the man he is guarding is being isolated to create a one-on-one opportunity, thus embarrassing the defender in front of his friends and family (see: last year's NBA Finals when Clyde Drexler repeatedly found himself iso-ed against Michael Jordan). I-so can also refer to playing conditions at ancient Chicago Stadium, where the hockey ice is right under the floorboards.
BREAK DOWN YOUR MAN—This is what a coach wants an offensive player to do to the defender who is being iso-ed. A man breaks down his defender, i.e., gets him off balance, with a quick dribble move, whereupon he can take the ball to the hole for either a layup or, if the defense smothers him, a dish to an open teammate for an easy score. Breaking their man down is also what the Los Angeles Clippers eventually did last season to their coach, Mike Schuler, who was fired.
TWO-MAN GAME—Isolation can open up the floor for this play, which brings together two offensive players working in concert. They might run a pick-and-roll, or one player might simply post up and look to receive an entry pass. Two-man game is also what Utah's Karl Malone and John Stockton used to play before Jeff Malone came along.
DOUBLE DOWN—This refers to the action of a defender (usually a guard) leaving his own man and dashing down to the post area to double-team the big man who has the ball. If the offensive player successfully passes out of the double team, the defense must rotate back into a straight man-to-man alignment to cover the open man and to avoid being charged with an illegal defense violation. Bol is never doubled down. Sometimes he's not even singled down.
BIG ON BIG—Instead of doubling down with a guard, a team might decide to go big on big and send another frontcourt player to the post. This invariably puts a small defender on a big offensive player somewhere on the court, but damage can be minimized if the offensive player left alone is Bol.
GET LEGAL—A frantic plea from the coach when one or two (or maybe all five) of his players are violating the league's illegal defense rules (which are only slightly less arcane than quantum physics). The warning presumes that the officials can actually spot an illegal defense.
DAMMIT, DARELL, THEY'RE NOT LEGAL!—The flip side of the preceding term, this phrase is employed by a coach to scream at, say, head zebra Darell Garretson that the opposition is in egregious violation of the illegal defense rules. In the view of most coaches their opponents are never legal.
TWENTY—A coach wants a 20-second timeout, an NBA innovation in which the players no sooner report to the bench than it is time for them to turn around and return to the court. Actually, Chicago Bull coach Phil Jackson sometimes does have time to set up a sophisticated play. He says, "Get the ball to Michael, and get the hell outta the way!"
TRANSITION—A good portion of the NBA game is played in transition, not to be confused with the fast break, which is just one phase of transition. Put it this way: When a team is changing from defense to offense, but is not yet setting up for a specific play, it is in transition.
FLOW—If the offense fails to score in transition, it might be able to flow right into its offensive set without stopping the action.
SPOT UP—Sometimes this refers to the act of offensive players getting to the proper spots so that a set play can commence. More often, though, it refers to the action of a shooter scurrying to a familiar open spot on the floor, where he can catch a pass from a penetrating teammate and launch a jumper.
RUN OUT—When a player shoots, the man guarding him might decide to run out (also known as run and go and, in earlier eras, as snowbirding and cherry picking), which means that instead of boxing out or going to the boards, he sprints toward the other basket in hopes of getting a long pass for an easy score. Rebound-shy players have this term handy at all times, as in, "Whatta you mean I wasn't goin' to the boards, Coach? I was runnin' out!"
HAWK—An offensive set used by the Hawks when Brown was their coach. Teams run it in various ways now, but generally the Hawk set calls for two players (typically the center and the small forward) to stack themselves on the left side of the lane, with the power forward at the foul line and the guards on the perimeter. A series of screens and picks creates offensive movement and, one expects, an open man.
TURNOUT—An action in which an offensive player travels along the baseline from one side of the floor to the other sideline, turning off a teammate's screen at the end of the trip in an effort to get an open corner or baseline jumper.
CURL—Instead of turning out, a player might curl all the way around the screen, with a helpless (and dizzy) defender in his wake, and receive the ball as he cuts to the basket for, presumably, a layup.
PICK-AND-FADE—The pick-and-roll is used at all levels of the game, but the pick-and-fade is largely an NBA weapon. After an offensive player sets a pick in the two-man game, he does not roll toward the basket but instead fades toward the three-point circle (sometimes even beyond it) to get in position for a pass and an open jumper. The master of the pick-and-fade is the Detroit Pistons' Bill Laimbeer, a fine outside shooter. Some say Laimbeer is also good at picking a fight and then fading into the background when punches are thrown.
Double down! Double down!
Watch the pick-and-fade!
Dammit to hell, Darell, they're not legal!
Let's go big on big!
You gotta see the damn ball!