Basketball Idioms



It’s time for March Madness to begin (that’s the NCAA basketball tournament for you non-sporty types), so I thought I’d talk a bit about how this sport has influenced everyday speech here in the U.S..

I did the same for baseball some months ago, and perhaps it won’t surprise you, but basketball’s contributions to common parlance are far less significant than that of America’s pastime. I’m not just saying this because I prefer baseball to basketball. It’s just true that for whatever reason, basketball idioms have not caught on quite so readily as baseball idioms.

Still, there are a few that you’ve probably heard once or twice:

full court press

A full court press in basketball is an aggressive defensive strategy, so it has come to represent any all-out effort.

If the company is going to hit our revenue goals for the quarter, it’s going to require a real full-court press from the sales department.

slam dunk

A slam dunk is a hard shot to miss in basketball, so the expression is used for sure-thing opportunities, something easily accomplished.

After that presentation, getting Jefferson to sign off on the agreement will be a slam dunk.

on the rebound

After a missed shot in basketball, there is still the opportunity to get a rebound and score. Thus, if something or someone is on the rebound, it means they are recovering or improving after a difficult time.

After the record decline last week, the stock market seems to be on the rebound.

buzzer beater

A shot that goes in just before the buzzer to end the game is a buzzer beater, so the expression is often used for anything that gets accomplished just before a deadline.

I filed that report on time, but it was a real buzzer beater.

That’s all I could come up with for basketball. If you can think of others, please list them in the comments.

Even if not many terms have entered the mainstream, basketball jargon is still rich and evocative. Below are some of my favorite basketball coinages.

the basket and ball

Basketball is a simple game — a ball and two baskets. We all know the story of the original game that used actual peach baskets as goals. Later, they figured out that it was easier to remove the bottom of the basket. What I enjoy are the varied and colorful synonyms that have emerged for basket: net, goal, hoop, bucket, hole, and can, to name a few.

Without taking time to define them, these are some of my favorite basketball terms:

  • pick and roll
  • screen
  • flagrant foul
  • and one
  • zone
  • air ball
  • free throw
  • swish
  • dribble
  • outlet pass
  • alley-oop
  • box out
  • post up
  • paint
  • pump fake
  • double pump
  • perimeter
  • drive and dish
  • take a charge
  • technical foul
  • teardrop
  • layup
  • run and gun
  • trap
  • double-team
  • jump ball

One final word. I know it’s a hopeless cause, but Let’s GoHoos!


About the Author

Brian Wasko

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

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