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On, and In, the Bubble

The_Boy_in_the_Plastic_BubbleContinuing on the subject of sports, March Madness, aka the Big Dance, aka the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, is nearly upon us, bringing to mind the subject of basketball catch phrases, buzzwords, and clichés. Each year, a new selection of these emerges. Most subside after a few seasons, while a few — such as go-to guy or buzzer-beater or knock down (a basket) from downtown — stick around for the long haul.

Some of these terms have an evident utility. A few years ago, announcers and pundits began to replace references to height with length. That makes sense since the distance from toe to head plus wing span is going to be the key number in the ability of a big to block shots — excuse me, reject. (It helps of course, if he can elevate.) A current vogue is to refer to players’ positions by numbers: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, corresponding to the traditional point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward, and center. It saves time, although one has to wonder, what’s the hurry?

Actually, a lot of vogue basketball terms do the opposite and fold in redundancy and extra syllables. Traditionally, the rectangle under the basket was rather elegantly known as the paint, on account of it being painted a different color from the rest of the court. A few years ago, announcers inexplicably started calling it the painted area, and they persist. Similarly, instead of he can score or he can rebound, we now hear, he can score the basketball and … rebound the basketball. What bloody else is he going to do it with?? A friend complains that dribble-drive is redundant, since you can’t do the second without the first. My own new pet peeve is something I’ve only started noticing in the past month or so — the unnecessary word “made” in a sentence like, “For the game, he has seven made field goals and two made three-pointers.”

Of course, March Madness bracketology can’t commence until Selection Sunday determines which on-the-bubble schools will have their ticket punched because their body of work contains a signature win. On the bubble is an odd phrase to indicate a team that might be selected, might not be, but it’s unavoidable this time of year, in pundits’ exegeses, in CBS Sports’ feature “Bubble Watch” and in barroom, dorm-room, and sports-radio conversations all over the country.

The expression has been associated with college basketball for what seems like forever, but the Phrase Finder website found that it originated in auto racing, in particular regarding the Indianapolis 500, where the qualifying event is sometimes called “Bubble Day.” The site offers a quotation from The Lima News, May 1970:

“On the ‘bubble’ is rookie Steve Krisiloff whose 162.448 m.p.h. was the slowest qualifying speed last weekend. With only six spots open, Krisiloff’s machine would be ousted if seven cars qualified at a faster speed this weekend.”

And why bubble? “The most popular theory,” says Phrase Finder, “ … suggests that if a driver were about to qualify and then someone did a better time and pushed him down the rankings into the nonqualifiers then dreams of qualification would be dashed and his bubble would be burst.”

The first basketball use I’ve been able to find is in a 1985 article from the Chicago Tribune:

Remember that it doesn’t matter if you went to Purdue in the by God Big 10 and the guy who sits next to you on the train went to Iona. His team is going. Your team is on the bubble. Iona is 25-4 and in the final of the Metro Atlantic Conference tournament.

Another kind of bubble often discussed these days is the political one. I always associate the metaphor with What It Takes (1992), where the author Richard Ben Cramer referred to the large organization that allowed George H.W. Bush to “leave his office, board an airplane, travel halfway across the nation, land in another city, travel overland 30 miles to a ball park and never see one person who was not a friend or someone whose sole purpose it was to serve or protect him. This is living in the bubble.”

But the late New York Times language columnist William Safire  pointed to a passage in a book published two years earlier, What I Saw at the Revolution. The author, the speechwriter Peggy Noonan, reproduced a conversation with her boss, Ronald Reagan, where she referred to the case that inspired the 1976 made-for-television movie The Boy in the Plastic Bubble.

“Do you ever feel like the boy in the bubble?” Ms. Noonan asked.

“Who was that?” Mr. Reagan replied.

“The boy who had no immune system,” said his speech writer, “so he had to live in a plastic bubble where he could see everyone and they could see him, but there was something between him and the people, the plastic. He couldn’t touch them.”

“Well, no,” Mr. Reagan said.

Over the years, political bubbles have been democratized to the point where we all have one. Also known as the echo chamber, it’s the electronic or real-life environment where everybody thinks the way we do and shares the same talking points and news stories (real or fake).  A  New York Times article last week cited various critiques of what some are calling the “filter bubble.”

“The ‘Filter Bubble’ Explains Why Trump Won and You Didn’t See It Coming,” New York magazine announced the day after the election. “Your Filter Bubble Is Destroying Democracy,” Wired declared a week out. One month in, an MIT Media Lab analysis confirmed that Trump supporters “exist in their own information bubble,” as Vice reported — and that journalists didn’t let Trump supporters into their bubbles, either.

Obviously, living in a bubble isn’t great for one’s perspective, or for democracy. The Times article lists various widgets and tools that provide forcible exposure to other points of view, including Escape Your Bubble, a plug-in that populates your Facebook feed with political positions and links you would normally flee from. Seems like a good idea, but be forewarned: It might burst your bubble.

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