In many ways, basketball terminology is as entertaining as the game itself. It features terms like “score the ball,” “defend the arc,” and “ball out,” and if you can’t get behind the strangeness of that kind of language, you’re clearly watching the wrong game.
Two of the more entertaining terms used to describe basketball players are “cagers” and “ballers.”
The latter, of course, is far more accurate as a description of modern players, but both terms have fascinating histories that definitely deserve a deeper dive.
Did you know that basketball players were once referred to as “cagers?” Most people don’t, largely because the term dates back to the 1920s, which is considered prehistoric times in the minds of most contemporary fans.
It’s an accurate term, though. Way back in the day, a 12-foot high mesh fence surrounded the court. Part of the logic was to protect players from fans.
It is clearly not the case in the following video where fans/spectators are on the court even though the fence is in place:
The fence was a dual-purpose deal, too. It prevented fans from being inadvertently assaulted by players fighting for a loose ball that was either heading out of bounds. Watch today’s game, and you’ll see the legitimacy of these kinds of boundaries; while it’s funny to see an unsuspecting fan get a lap full of LeBron James, the possibility of getting hurt by large athletic men hurtling into the front row seats is more than slight.
The cages also had an interesting influence on the game itself.
Conceptually, basketball landed closer to hockey back then; if a ball hit the fence, players simply fought it out until someone gained possession, in much the same way that hockey players smash each other along the boards.
This arrangement mirrored the way the game was often played on playgrounds in major cities.
Courts were often surrounded by wire fences to keep balls from rolling into busy streets, not to mention players who would charge into traffic to chase them down, with occasionally tragic results.
Eventually, the game became more civilized and evolved, of course, and the fences went the way of all souls. This brings us to the more modern description, “ballers,” which has a history that’s just as fascinating.
Searching for the first use of the word “ballers” to describe modern basketball players is an intriguing exercise in etymology.
It probably dates back to Ice-T, improbably, when the 80s rapper used the term to lump basketball players in with a variety of other street characters from the hood.
Initially, it was a way to pay tribute to players who made it out of the playgrounds to earn big bucks in the NBA, and after that, it slowly infiltrated the street lingo that’s an essential part of today’s game.
“Ballers” also took on a shadow meaning that was more dubious. It referred to “thugs” and “gangstas” who had risen up to either make it out of the hood or stake the ultimate claim to their turf by becoming a kingpin.
A lavish, ostentatious lifestyle was required to be a true baller, and perhaps the ultimate version of this was Lavar Ball’s efforts to usher his sons into the league by starting the Big Baller athletic shoe brand, which featured sneakers that were so poorly made that they quickly fell apart during heavy use.
Today, the term “baller” has been significantly neutered, and it extends to life beyond the basketball courts as well. In sports, it tends to refer to skilled players who add some flash and dash to their game, but on a broader level, “ballers” now refer to anyone who has mastered the process of mastery.
In other words, if you can master any kind of skill that requires serious work, you’ve got a chance to be called a baller.
Watch the following video if you want to see what it looks like when a “professor” challenges a “baller”:
The most interesting variation on this term is a spin that refers to being called a “one baller.” This refers to someone who wants to be a baller in a particular endeavor but is only willing to try that endeavor once (think toddlers who fall down during their first effort to walk, then get put in a wheelchair for failing).
Will “baller” earn a lasting place in the lexicon of sports? That’s anyone’s guess, but the fact that it’s been around for several decades now indicates that it does have a certain amount of staying power.