I love the NBA. I’ve been a rabid fan since the Bird-Magic days, through the Jordan years, and up to the phenomenally high level of basketball achieved by last year’s San Antonio Spurs. But I have one NBA pet peeve that’s been driving me nuts for years. Not flopping. Not high salaries. Not the meaninglessness of too many regular season games or the persistent crappiness of the Eastern Conference. My NBA rage is caused by the word aggressive.
NBA players, coaches, and announcers use this word with mind-numbing frequency. The NBA loves aggressive more than the corporate world loves synergy and Chihuahuas love yipping. I really believe NBA Commissioner Adam Silver needs to take immediate action before my pet peeve destroys this beautiful game.
There are so many examples, it’s almost pointless to single them out, but here a few from the recently concluded preseason. Marc Gasol: “I’ll be more aggressive. It doesn’t mean I’ll score the ball more. It means I’ll be on the go all the time.” I’m not sure what “on the go” means in this context, but for Carlos Boozer, aggression is about defense: “For us, we just tried to use our hands, be aggressive, get some deflections, get us out in transition, get some easy buckets.” Jameer Nelson applies the word so broadly I fear for his friends and family: “Most importantly, I just have to be aggressive in whatever I do.” Future Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett: “My mindset last year was taking a step back. This year is to be more aggressive, to get back to my winning ways because I’m an aggressive person and I’m an aggressive player, to bring that attitude.”
Part of why aggressive gets used so aggressively is that its meaning is very broad. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, there are specific usages related to disease, surgery, chemical reactions, smell, and finance. NBA uses seem to fit under two meanings in particular. There’s the original sense, which has been in use since the late 1600s: “involving attack; offensive.” Football, as we learned from George Carlin, is our most militaristic sport, but pretty much all sports partake of war metaphors a little. “Coach has been telling me to be more aggressive, attack the rim and then take the 3-ball once you get warm,” Marcus Smart said before his Celtics opened the season.
The other meaning of aggression that fits many NBA uses originated in the U.S. and isn’t found in print until the mid-1800s: “Energetic, enterprising; self-assertive, pushful.” (I’ve never seen the word pushful before, but it’s a variation of pushy that also popped up in the 1800s.) Announcers love to talk about great players imposing their will on the game or taking over the game—both involve a form of aggression. When Portland’s Wesley Matthews described what he’s learned from teammate LaMarcus Aldridge, he’s using the word this way: “I learned by watching him. How he picks and chooses his spots—when to be aggressive, when to go and make a play and when to make a play for others.” In this case, aggressiveness is a type of assertiveness exercised when appropriate.
So the flexibility of the word is surely a factor in its overuse. But another factor is the sorry state of postgame interviews. Players are constantly asked questions that amount to, “Why did you, your teammates, or your opponents play well or not play well?” Honest, revealing answers are usually rewarded with a nuclear overreaction in the media. Why would an athlete avoid buzzwords and say anything interesting when the risk-reward ratio is so skewed toward disaster?
While I was writing this, I was listening to Charles Barkley join Marv Albert and Reggie Miller for commentary on the first half of LeBron James’ return to Cleveland against the Knicks. Barkley said aggressive at least six times. At the risk of provoking Sir Charles, I hope that he and the rest of the NBA community will take my challenge and forsake the word. Describe good play as smart, focused, energetic, strong, or some other word that might drive me nuts in the future—anything except aggressive. Of course, I know I have stronger feelings than most about this. So apologies if this argument comes off as a bit … pushful.