The Layperson’s Guide to Talking About Basketball

A couple of months ago, I wrote a post called “The Laypersons’s Guide to Talking about Football.” It was inspired by watching sports with my girlfriend, a person who is generally not extremely intelligent about sports, but incredibly aware about what’s funny. The post was a guide to always sounding like you are a football insider, even if you have no idea what’s going on.

I have been really surprised by how many people read that post and how many times I heard the suggested talking points brought up in conversation while watching football games with actual people. So surprised, in fact, that I decided to celebrate basketball season with a post about talking about basketball. Below are 11 talking points that are 100% guaranteed to make you sound like you know what you’re talking about, even if you don’t. If you’re a basketball fan, read through it to beef up your vocabulary. If you’re not, memorize these thing and casually throw them out the next time you’re around a televised game. It’s good for instant street cred.

11 Rules for Speaking Basketball-ese 

1. Similar to the NFL, the NBA is going soft — It seems like every game you watch today ends with 40, 50 or even 60 fouls, most of them weak; that’s ridiculous. Basketball is a man’s game and your belief is that streetball rules like “No Blood No Foul” or simply “No Foul” ought to be be enforced at the pro level. As a nifty rule, the guideline should be: if he’s still breathing, he didn’t get fouled.
Suggested conversation piece: “I remember when Isaiah Thomas and the Bad Boy Pistons used to boil acid and (legally) throw it at Michael Jordan during layup attempts. It didn’t bother him then, so I don’t see how that wimpy hand check is worth two free throws.”

Either the refs gave this game to the Lakers or Mike Bibby has a really aggressive face.

Either the refs gave this game to the Lakers or Mike Bibby has a really aggressive face.

2. The NBA is at least 15% rigged  — This is an idea that I originally read about in a Chuck Klosterman book.  Since then, I’ve calculated the percentage to about 15%. Remind your fellow game watchers that “the NBA is a business,” and it definitely benefits business to create mega-star teams and mega-star players in the big cities. The good news for you is that most NBA cities are big cities, so whenever you hear a whistle near the end of a close game, point out the obvious foul play. Genuine NBA fans have at least two legit conspiracy theories working at all times and you should too.
Suggested conversation piece: [with sarcasm] “He was pretty clearly on the line (doesn’t matter which line, just one of them), but I get the call, David Stern has to eat too.”
Bonus suggested conversation topic: Bring up the fourth quarter of Lakers-Kings Game 6. Anyone who knows basketball will get it.

3. Shooters just have to shoot — Occasionally a player on one of the teams will have a particularly bad shooting night (anything under 30% is particularly bad). Most of the time, the announcers will call out how terrible that player is shooting on that particular night. What they won’t say is that the only way to get out of your slump is to keep chucking, and that’s where you come in. Encourage that guy to just keep throwing up those airballs until they start going in. If you’re trying to look like a mathy basketball fan, talk about “the mean.”
Suggested conversation piece: “Shooters just need to keep shooting, sometimes all he needs is to see the ball go through the basket a few times.”

4. Always blame the refs —  NBA officiating is almost entirely gray area and a lot of games end up being decided by a few possessions worth of points, so this almost always is in play. When your team wins, you should explain the officiating by saying something like “the bad calls even out the good ones.” When your team loses, you should always remember one particular penalty that “totally changed the game” and made it impossible for your team to win. No matter which team you’re playing, the refs are definitely your enemy.
Suggested conversation piece: “Come on, Stripes, just let the players play.”

You really have to respect Cavs fans for pulling out the stops when LeBron comes to town

You really have to respect Cavs fans for pulling out the stops when LeBron comes to town

5. It’s always OK to hate star players — Most likely, the team you are cheering against will have one player who’s better than the rest. Absolutely nothing is off limits when you’re criticizing this guy. He probably killed a guy. Likely multiple. He probably has 1,000 kids. He gambles. He does drugs. He’s definitely taking steroids (or at least HGH). He’s sleeping with his teammate’s wife (or even mother). He’s certainly overrated. Whatever it is that you hate about anyone, you hate it about the opposing star player.
Suggested conversation piece: “I hope Carmelo’s check isn’t late this month, he got a lot of alimony bills to pay and those bookies aren’t going to pay themselves.”
Caveat: You’ll want to make sure that the target here is an actual star and not just a benchwarmer playing the game of his life.

6. Talk about “the paint” or “the key” — The is the basketball equivalent of football’s “the box.” Technically, these phrases refer to the space between the basket and the free throw line (it’s painted differently than the rest of the floor). This is the easiest place to score, so when your team is on offense, you want them to “get into the key” or “attack the paint.” When you are on defense, you want to “protect the paint” or “load up the key.” It’s important to note that there isn’t a specific number of players on your team you want in the paint, just more than they have right now.
Suggested conversation piece: “You’re not going to make anything from out there, they really need to put their heads down and hammer that paint.”

7. You never understand how a guy makes million of dollars and still misses free throws — Some NBA players shoot free throws at basically a 50% rate. That’s unacceptable. It’s the same shot every time. Same length, same height, same ball, same everything. This is what he does for a living, he should be able to make at least 4 out of 5.
Suggested conversation piece: “For every free throw Dwight Howard misses, he should have to give $10,000 of his salary back. If I only [something you do at your real life job] half the time, I’d get fired!”

Almost no one ever gets fouled in a way that forces their arms to go flailing. This is a sure sign on a flop.

Almost no one ever gets fouled in a way that forces their arms to go flailing. This is a sure sign on a flop.

8. You hate flopping and it’s ruining the NBA — There’s nothing basketball purists hate more than flopping, or acting like you got fouled when you didn’t to try to get some dumb ref (see point #4) to give you the call anyway. It’s certainly ruining the game. When you see a a player try to exaggerate contact to draw a foul, you should instantly accuse him of flopping and demand he be ejected from this game and probably suspended from more.
Suggested conversation piece: “He obviously flopped. I don’t know why the league doesn’t just tattoo ‘Flopper’ on all these guys’ faces so they never get away with it again.”

9. You don’t understand why he didn’t just dunk it — There are going to be plenty of times in a basketball game when a player on your team misses a shot from really close to the basket. That’s unacceptable. The dunk is always an option. It’s a guaranteed two points and it always gets the crowd fired up. In your mind, today’s NBA should be kind of like that NBA JAM code that gives you the ability to dunk from anywhere on the court. Or at least everything inside the free throw line.
Suggested conversation piece: “Can’t get fancy with it. Don’t try to lay it up, just throw it down.”

10. Your team is playing the wrong kind of defense — There are basically two types of defense in basketball: man and zone. You don’t need to know which one your team is playing, you just need to know that every time the opposing team scores, your team was in the wrong one. It’s obvious to everyone but your coach. Most of the time, you won’t want to guess which defense your team is in, but if you experience a moment of bravado, take a stab and guess they’re in man.
Suggested conversation piece: “We’re getting killed in this man defense, that coach needs to call a timeout and set up a zone.”

11. Ball don’t lie — This is probably the ultimate insider basketball phrase. It basically means that a player who has benefitted from questionable means is being punished by the basketball universe. For example, when a player flops and benefits from a poorly-called foul then misses a  free throw. In that instance, you should state “ball don’t lie” once in a conversation tone, like it’s obvious. Basically any time a player benefits from a 50/50 call, the first mistake he makes after that is an example of ball don’t lie. Note that “ball don’t lie” is never an instance of a wronged player later getting a fortunate break, it’s only to be said accusatorially.
Suggested conversation piece: “He mugged that guy to get the steal, of course he missed the dunk on the breakaway. Ball don’t lie.”

Pass this along to anyone you know for sure is in dire need of a basketball conversation upgrade.