Sometimes it’s easy to forget how historically recent the sport of basketball is. The above graph shows how this game, invented in the 1890s, didn’t enter the printed corpus until the 1910s. A slow steady rise continued and peaked around 1940. The sudden and drastic decline can likely be attributed to World War II’s impact on the sport. Nascent professional leagues and college teams were depleted by the wartime draft. After the war, numerous college betting scandals likely kept a lid on the sport’s actual popularity and thus its printed popularity. The 1970s began a long, steady, and continuing ascent in basketball’s prevalence in the printed corpus. I’m assuming the emergence of Dr. J, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Micheal Jordan, 24/7 cable news, and all that Dream Team coverage contributed to this explosion.
Within that 1st era of basketball popularity, there was the unique moniker of “cagers” applied to basketball players. The term arose from the fact that basketball was often played in metal or net cages up until the 1930s in many areas and the name continued to stick for a little while after. The first peak of the term occurred during the early 1900s and a second paramount peak happened just prior to World War II. After the war, cages permanently went by the wayside and so did its popular usage as a term for basketballers.
One final basketball term of much more recent vintage is “slam dunk.” Illustrated by the graph, the term really didn’t exist until the mid-1970s but quickly exploded into popular usage thanks to the aformentioned Julius “Dr. J” Erving and Michael Jordan as well as Dominique Wilkins and the exciting slam dunk contests sponsored by the ABA and then the NBA.
A limitation of using the Google Ngram search is that it is a blanket survey of all books. Genres can’t be separated and particularly examined. Furthermore, these are just books. To my knowledge, magazines, websites, periodicals, and other non-book materials aren’t considered. Still, this is a neat way to chart how popular words and terms were at certain moments in history.