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Dribble-Step-Step: Get Over It

As you may have noticed, the NBA has updated their rulebook to allow two steps after gathering the ball from a pass or dribble.

As Henry Abbott pointed out this morning, the overall reaction from fans has been negative. (Check out his post for a sampling of responses.) Henry disagrees with this response, supports the NBA's move to make the rulebook reflect the reality, and exhorts us to see this as a positive thing.

In this case, I fully agree with him. I'm here to tell you that it's not a big deal, the game is not being watered down, and you need to just get over it. And best of all, I am going to use a linguistic argument in my attempt to convince you.

My parents are linguists. Both have Masters degrees in linguistics, and my dad is fairly close to completing his Ph.D. They met in Israel, speak fluent Hebrew, and my dad is one of the world's experts in ancient Hebrew. When I was in grade school, my parents were Bible translators. In elementary and middle school, we lived in Switzerland and France, and our whole family is fluent in French. My dad now works for a leading language assessment company, and is considered the leading expert on language assessment.

As you can imagine, I grew up with language and linguistics being a common topic of conversation in our house. We discussed dangling modifiers, referential ambiguity, subject-verb agreement, and when to use dont instead of que in French, the way most American families discuss last night's episode of Survivor or Lost.

One of the things I remember well is my dad's discussion of a common mistake in the study of etymology. Etymology is the study of the history of words, and how their form and meaning have changed over time. (For most of us, the furthest extent of our exposure to the study of etymology is a quick glance a root words when studying vocabulary.) The common mistake when studying etymology is to try to discern the meaning of a word, or to better understand a word, by looking at its root words. This is a mistake. I can still quote my dad word for word on this: "A word's meaning is determined by its usage, not by its etymology."

Basically, he is saying that a word is defined by how it is used, and not by what it meant when it came into being several hundred years ago. The reality of language is that it is practically a living thing, and it changes and evolves with the culture of those who speak it. A word's meaning can change significantly, even in as little as 30 or 40 years. Consider the word gay: Once, not very long ago, it was used almost exclusively to convey a pleasant emotional state; now, today is used almost exclusively to indicate sexual orientation.

How does this relate to basketball? The basic concept is the same: Reality is not determined by what is contained in some rulebook, but by what actually happens in real life. And the rule book should reflect reality.

Both Henry and the original ESPN article make two key points:

  1. This is not actually a change in reality; it is merely a change in the how we speak about reality. That is, nothing about the game has changed in the slightest; only the rulebook has changed. As far as dribbling and traveling are concerned, the basketball you see this year will be identical to the basketball you watched last year and the year before.
  2. This is not a recent thing. Jordan, Magic, Cousy, and Maravich all did it. So claiming that the game was somehow purer or better in the '90s, '80s, '70s, or '60s is wrong. As Henry pointed out, the father of an NBA official (and not a young one), who was also an NBA official, attests that the game has been called this way as long as he can remember. That's probably close to a century back.

So to those that claim this changes anything in the present, you're wrong. It simply changes how we describe the present. And to those who claim that it represents a change, either drastic or gradual, over the past — even the distant past — you're also wrong. It has been this way as long as anyone can remember.

In reality, all that the NBA has done is change the rulebook to align with reality. And it can only be a good thing to align the two. If anything, it leaves less room for baseless complaints made out of context by people who don't understand that this has always been the reality of the game. And in that way, as far as I'm concerned, it might just make the game a slight bit purer.

In all things, it is reality itself, and not some arbitrary abstraction, that determines the nature of things. It is true in linguistics and grammar, and it is true in basketball. So stop complaining, because this rule change isn't worth it. The basketball you watch today may be different than it was in the past, but it's not because of this rule change. A traveshamockery this is not.


Note:  Apologies to my dad if I have butchered any linguistic terms or concepts. He's the expert; I just grew up around it.

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