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VOL. 40 | NO. 3 | Friday, January 15, 2016

Finding the key to an enduring basketball term

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A few years ago, I’m shooting buckets in the driveway one afternoon. And up walk a couple of the neighborhood kids. We begin to chat. It’s one of those conversations that I know is somehow going to educate someone about something before it’s over.

I explain how, in a junior high tournament game, once upon a time, I hit a shot “from the top of the key” to tie the game and send it into overtime. One of the kids says, “The what of the what?”

I explain that the top of the key on a basketball court is the area near the middle of the semi-circle that starts at one end of the foul line and loops around to the other. My questioner then follows up: “Why do they call it a key?”

Why indeed? And how might this be explained it to a 10-year-old?

The best answer I can come up on the spur of the moment is that the area called “the lane” used to be narrower (back when the average height of a cager was not much over six feet), so that the semi-circle and the lane together looked like a key.

The visual memory takes me back to the gymnasium at Bass Junior High (Greenville, Mississippi), where my first real basketball coach says to our team that a player should be able to convert on eighty percent of his free throws. But I don’t say anything about that.

The kid still has this blank look on his face. He has no visual memory of the type of key to which I am referring. He withdraws from his pocket a small item that does not resemble anything that might even remotely be connected to a basketball court. It is, of course, the key to his to his bicycle lock. He eyes it and then surveys the concrete in front of the goal.

Anticipating his concern, I offer that the key on an old basketball court looked kinda like keys looked back then. Words to that effect. I feel pretty helpless, truth to tell. Or is hapless the word I’m looking for. Maybe both.

“Like keys on a typewriter?” the other kid chimes in. “My mom has a typewriter. It’s old. Really old!”

“My mom says homework is the key to good grades. What does that key look like?”

“What about piano keys?”

“Yeah, and the key that you play music in. Like D or C.”

“Somebody keyed our car last year. They put a big, ugly scratch on the door.”

“Dad says that we’re going to the Florida Keys for vacation. They’re like islands or something. Do they look like basketball courts?”

“What about the guy who wrote the national anthem, Francis Scott Key?”

At that point, I thought I heard one or more mothers calling for their kids to come in for dinner. Or at least that’s what I said. They went to check it out.

I shot a couple or more buckets and then went inside myself. And got out the dictionary.

Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at vicfleming@att.net.

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