Every spring, millions of Americans start obsessing over March Madness, two weeks with more than 60 different games between the very best college basketball teams. And if you know nothing about the sport at all, you may be in for culture shock this week, as the NCAA Final Four descends upon Detroit, putting metro Detroiters at Ground Zero for college basketball. But if you're swept up in the March Madness at a busy sports bar or overrun with soused fans and boosters at a party, you don't want to spoil everybody's fun with your ignorance of the sport. That's why we recommend you bluff your way through the Final Four with this guide...
Basketball's origins are shrouded in mystery. Though some say it was invented by a Canadian health nut, it has become an American institution. As with military might, it's one of the few remaining ways in which the United States still dominates the world. And why is college basketball such a big deal for Americans? Because the competition is ruthless and intense, with scores of college teams playing one another until they're whittled down to the Sweet Sixteen, the Elite Eight, the Final Four and the National Champion, the best in America. And what's more American than watching TV, eh? For the slack-jawed basketball zombie, this is prime TV season, with lots of televised matches in the "tourney."
Unfortunately, the ambiguous terminology and tortured metaphor of sports talk often leave the novice guessing about what's happening. Unlike in baseball, a "run" is a string of unanswered points, and a "field goal" doesn't involve goalposts. Even the "basket" in basketball is increasingly called the more macho-sounding "bucket," aggravating an outsider's confusion.
And metaphorically speaking, teams need to do things, whether it's dominate the paint, stop the bleeding or body-up on the big guy. They can be "on fire" as they "light up the scoreboard" or "ice-cold" when they "can't buy a basket." And they "need" things: They need to block out better, to pound the ball inside, to knock down their free throws and to take it to the hole. Sometimes they're really banging in there and sometimes they can't get their shots to fall.
It's easier to understand the chatter about individual players — commentators love to talk about them. You'll often hear that he "is" something: He's automatic, money or a pure shooter. Or he gives his team things, such as "good minutes off the bench" or "instant offense." Then there's what he can do: He can fill it up, dish the rock, bury the three-point shot or really "sky" for those rebounds. And even if a player isn't doing anything, they can still talk about him, observing, "He's been quiet so far."
Some metaphors can call unusual scenarios to mind. When an announcer cries, "They're shooting the lights out!" or "He's been unconscious!" or "They've been throwing up bricks!" you may wonder what the hell is going on. But remain calm. It isn't what you think when they say, "The big guy is really sweeping the glass," "They're shooting from downtown" or the Sesame Street-like, "It's raining threes."
So novices should avoid metaphor completely. Say little. Stick to a few safe bets. If somebody asks you about the game near the beginning, say, "Either team has a chance to win this game." If you see a few minutes of static players shooting free-throws from the foul line, say, "This game has turned into a free-throw contest." If somebody looks worried about the outcome, reassure them, "Every trip down the floor is a chance to score." You get the idea.
If alcohol is involved in your March Madness celebrations, try to keep things inbounds. Have a draft, a first round and a second round. You can have a higher percentage shot, but if you're a rookie, you should go with a lower percentage shot. If you're over the limit, you might get a blocked shot and lose your key. Or else the officials might take you to court and give you to the guards.
Another party game, technically a violation, has the players pick a starter who'll take possession, do a pick and roll and light it up. The friendly roll is then passed around, following the alternating-possession rule. Fouls include the blind pass, out of bounds and a keep-away game. Players should end up in the paint, hoping they won't get an official visit.
If you're out and about enough, you could end up with pick-up games. Whether you're a swing man looking for a ball handler or a double-team looking for a 3-on-3, only proceed if you're getting some good, open looks. If you see that scoring opportunity, make incidental contact, leading the receiver until you're squaring up. When you find an established position, break and start moving downcourt, dribbling until you're in a full-court press. Drive to the basket, take it to the hole for your slam dunk. Have a fast break, a quiet period and then a turnover.
The truth beyond the terms
We don't recommend trying to master the often-confusing terms used in basketball. Just flow with the possessions and watch them charge down the court. You can also mostly ignore basketball's detailed system of game-changing fouls, which include technical fouls, personal fouls, defensive fouls, offensive fouls and even "flagrant" fouls. Bluff your way through by only paying attention to personal fouls. When a player has a foul called on him, you can say, "He's got to watch his fouls" — unless it's his last foul, when you can say, "He should have watched his fouls."
And with March Madness, it's often about college rivalries you may not understand, with an emphasis on the words "Cinderella" and "upset." If you think "boosters" are just powerful rockets or you're baffled when your co-workers ask you how your bracket's holding up, you may want to be especially wary hazarding specific terms when it comes to the games. Just try to cheer when everybody else is cheering. If you really don't know what's going on, and somebody asks you what you think about March Madness, you can always hoist a beer and yell, "March Madness! Wooo!" Repeat as necessary.
In short, don't risk saying anything that brands you as a basketball moron. Stick with the fundamentals. Remember: Defense wins games. It's important to score as many points as possible, as fast as possible. Teams need to be sure they're not down before going into the second half. It ain't over till it's over. Frankly, a lot of sports chatter is simply the art of stating the obvious with appropriate gravity. For blunt truth, you can't beat, "If this team wants the national championship, they've got to win this game." If you say it passionately enough, you may just get that welcome nod of approval.
Don't use metaphor unless you're sure:
It's OK to say: He's been throwing up bricks all night.
It's not OK to say: He threw up a pile of bricks last night.
Avoid overt lewdness:
It's OK to say: I love how he handles that ball.
It's not OK to say: I'd love him to handle my balls.
Appreciate it for what it is:
It's OK to say: I think the intensity of college basketball far exceeds the pros.
It's not OK to say: I think this is an idiotic distraction from more important issues.
Michael Jackman is a writer and copy editor for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
Special thanks to editorial intern Nathan Stemen, for his research and sports humor.