Review of Ball Don’t Lie!

Colás, Yago. Ball Don’t Lie!: Myth, Genealogy, and Invention in the Cultures of Basketball. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2016. Pp. 226. Notes and Index. $79.50 cloth, $19.95 paperback, $19.95 ebook. 

Reviewed by Cat Ariail

The Golden State Warriors-Cleveland Cavaliers Finals rematch has reinvigorated debates about whether Steph Curry has surpassed LeBron James as the best player in the NBA. On a recent episode of ESPN’s TrueHoop podcast, reporter Brian Windhorst suggested comparisons to Curry frustrate James. He recounted how much James’s return to Cleveland had altered the Cavs’ fortunes and then speculated James’s perspective on Curry. Windhorst stated, “He’s thinking, ‘Most valuable? Most valuable? That’s most valuable?’ And it bothers him that no one sees that [meaning his impact on the Cavs]. And I don’t think it [James’s frustration] is against Steph.” James’s frustration at the lack of credit he receives in contrast to the reverence granted Curry reveals the power of the “white basketball unconscious.”

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Temple University Press, 2016.

In Ball Don’t Lie: Myth, Genealogy, and Invention in the Cultures of Basketball, Yago Colás introduces and explores this concept. A scholar of comparative literature at the University of Michigan, Colás defines the white basketball unconscious as “a hypothetical container constituted by its contents: the wishes, terrors, and impulses related to race and basketball that the conventions of the time and place require us to repress before we are even conscious of them” (p. 27).

By applying Susan Birrell and Mary McDonald’s method of “reading sport critically,” he demonstrates how the mythologies of NBA history reveal the persistent influence of the white basketball unconscious, while also offering alternative myths that foregrounds black agency. Colás does not intend for these alternative histories to be the “truth.” Rather, he transparently presents them as his “inventions.” The contrast between Colás’s inventions and popular NBA myths highlight how differently situated authorities privilege particular perspectives and thus produce particular narratives.

The phrase “Ball don’t lie!,” made famous by Rasheed Wallace, captures Colás’s perspective. He contends Sheed’s declaration of “Ball don’t lie!” as an opponent misses a free throw suggests the physical ball, representative of player authority, has challenged the (presumably inexplicable) foul called by the ref, whose authority is granted by the league and its rule book. Colás discusses the power of the phrase in his introduction, explaining, “Ball don’t lie!” is not a petition at all. “Ball dont’ lie!” does not imply a counter-truth, but it is of another category than the truth it would counter.” (Note: Colás’s excellent blog includes several posts that further explain his theorization of “Ball don’t lie,” as well as other posts that complement arguments made in his book).

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Sheed Detroit Pistons Print by Nathan McKee, the frontispiece image in Ball Don’t Lie. (Photo courtesy of makemtakem.com)

In three sections, “Myths of the Basketball Republic (1891-1949),” “Myths of the Modern Basketball State (1949-1991),” and “Myths of the Basketball Empire (1991-Present),” Colás includes two to four case study chapters that expose and contest the most prominent historical myths about basketball in the United States. He convincingly demonstrates that white anxieties about blackness and black power have resulted in a NBA history that contains and constrains the influence black players and black styles of play have had on the league.

Colás’s historicized examination of each basketball myth augments his argument by illuminating how these myths are a response to broader racial tensions in U.S. society. Furthermore, his use of the language of state-building to describe the trajectory of basketball mythology aligns the popular history of the NBA with other histories of cultural, economic, and political contributions of persons of color that have been co-opted and silenced by white cultural imperialism. While the cultural turn has made sport historians aware of the importance of language, Colás’s examination of the myths of basketball exposes further significant but often-unnoticed degree to which language and, most importantly, its racialization influences interpretations of sport.

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Colás begins his analysis of the rise of the “Myth of the Basketball Republic,” with a critique of “The Myth of Creation” (Chapter 1), which he argues portrays the sport as the “static,” “solitary,” and specific creation of James Naismith, with the reverence for the document listing the sport’s thirteen rules capturing how this creation myth privileges a hierarchical, institutional interpretation of basketball’s origin (p. 19,22). Colás also recognizes the impact of the historical moment on the mythology of the sport’s founding, asserting that the morals attributed to the game reflect an effort to value and preserve white manhood. He then contests this narrative with an alternative origin narrative that privileges the game’s inventiveness. In particular, he emphasizes the significance of the dribble, a strategy “that originated as a deceptive breaking of the rules to get free” (p. 32). The dribble is thus an expression of freedom and autonomy that symbolizes the mythology of basketball Colás narrates, one characterized by “movement,” “flexibility,” and “innovation” rather than “stasis,” “stability,” and “tradition” (p. 35).

He then examines “The Myth of the Foundation” (Chapter 2), revealing that the foundation myth of league perpetuates “the belief that professional basketball reached its ‘maturity’ only when properly organized, sponsored, and regulated by capitalist franchise owners operating in large media markets” (p. 41). The sustenance of this institutional perspective of basketball history depends on the erasure of the National Basketball League (NBL), a league that, unlike the NBA’s celebrated predecessor, the Basketball Association of America (BAA), featured a cooperative organizational structure. By favoring an hierarchical, institutional perspective of basketball, the myth of the league’s founding also represents the founding of the modern basketball state.

Colás invents a narrative of “basketball modernisms” that emphasizes player agency in order to illuminate the reactive character of the modern basketball state. Coáas defines basketball modernisms as “the technical and stylistic innovations developed by participants to cope with the conditions of basketball,” such as the dunk, fast break, and defensive traps (p. 48). These innovations attracted audiences and thereby established a grassroots basketball network outside of formal institutions. Colás authoritatively asserts, “Basketball players played the game and – by playing – made the game” (p. 48). Yet, the modern basketball state has regulated the influence of non-white players on the sport’s development by “‘criminalizing’ elements of their technical or stylistic repertoire” and “disparaging them as morally suspect” (p. 51).

In the next three chapters, Colás considers the three basketball myths that best capture the hegemonic power of the modern basketball state. He begins with “The Myth of the Rivalry” (Chapter 4), which concerns the portrayal of the rivalry between Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. As Colás demonstrates, popular understanding of Russell and Chamberlain positions them as distinct opposites in terms of the style of play, stature, and demeanor, with Russell embodying the values and Chamberlain the fears of the white basketball unconscious. The “Myth of the Rivalry” illustrates how the white basketball unconscious negotiated the reality that basketball had become a black dominated sport by typecasting black players as flattened representatives of basketball virtue or vice. Colás counters this myth by viewing the Russell-Chamberlain rivalry not as “a zero-sum contest” but as “the fluid interaction of two agents competing freely” in a “joint creative endeavor” that “transforms the sport and the culture” (p. 68). His invention honors the agenetic power of black players that “The Myth of the Rivalry” erases, situating the influence of Russell and Chamberlain as consistent with other racial struggles of the 1960s.

Like “The Myth of the Rivalry,” “The Myth of the Garden” (Chapter 5) aims to manage the influence black players and racial difference have had on the league. “The Myth of the Garden” emphasizes the racial and socioeconomic diversity of the early 1970s Knicks’ and their so-called “democratic” style of play to establish a readable narrative of racial harmony and basketball morality. The social, political, and economic environment of the early 1970s rendered this image of the Knicks more powerful; they symbolized “the continued promise of liberalism” (p. 75). Colás critiques popular understandings of Bill Bradley and Willis Reed to show the fallacy of this mythology. He challenges the reverence for this “democratic” brand of basketball by celebrating the dunk, a play symbolic of the black individualism and creativity that “democratic” styles marginalize. He also recognizes that the supposedly neutral language used to describe the dunk represents an effort of white basketball unconscious to police and control the black autonomy that the dunk expresses.

Just as the previous two myths managed racial changes in basketball within their specific historical contexts, “The Myth of Amateurs” (Chapter 6) narrates an early 1980s “color-blind fantasy” where collegiate stars Magic Johnson and Larry Bird “save” the NBA (p. 88). Whereas Russell and Chamberlain were framed as opposed rivals, Magic and Bird were portrayed as a “complementary pair” that perfectly embodied traits associated with white and black players and traditions (p. 90). Colás interestingly suggests emotion serves as the crux of the Magic-Bird amateur myth. He writes, “The term amateur derives from the Latin word amator (lover). And it was, the myth of the amateurs maintains, as ‘lovers,’ amateurs in a deep and encompassing sense of the word, that Bird and Magic saved the NBA.” Colás continues, “Through their love, Bird and Magic stoked our desire to get close to them by setting aside our shameful attachment to irrelevant, superficial racial differences and tapping instead into our own deep love, our investment in the deep values of the game, that the duo embodied” (p. 93).

He then recounts various episodes of their career to illustrate how Johnson and Bird’s affection for one another sustained this mythology, rescuing the league from moments of racial antagonism. To contest the myth, Colás recognizes what it suppress; that the “black basketball aesthetic,” in the words of cultural critic Nelson George, in fact “saved” the league (p. 101). Colás specifically identifies aspects of Bird’s game reflective of the influence of black, playground basketball. Yet, because this black aesthetic was introduced to white sports fans through the racially harmonious Johnson-Bird pair, it was understood as “safe for white fans to consume” (p. 101). “The Myth of the Amateurs” thus set the stage for the era of the “Basketball Empire” and “The Myth of the Greatest of All-Time.”

In deconstructing “The Myth of the Greatest of All-Time” (Chapter 7), Colás provides a fresh interpretation of Michael Jordan that critically situates the mythology of his greatness within the social, cultural, and intellectual currents of the 1990s. Building on the ideas of Bethlehem Shoals, the basketball public intellectual who co-founded Free Darko, Colás assess the narrative of Jordan’s rise to greatness as a “bildungsroman,” which “symbolically support[s] the social status quo of industrial capitalism” by requiring the hero “to subordinate his understandable, but ultimately selfish and immature, romantic aspirations of transcendent individual greatness and accept instead the values of the bourgeoisie” (p. 110).

Colás also suggests that Jordan “embod[ied] all of basketball history effortlessly” (p. 110). By incorporating the valued tactics and traits of other mythologized players and teams, Jordan “appear[ed] to resolve all the tactical and moral conflicts of basketball history” and thereby “appeared also to resolve the suppressed racial conflicts for which the former were made to stand in myth” (p. 110). Colás further communicates the significance and power of the myth of Jordan all-time greatness by contextualizing it with Francis Fukuyama’s 1990s best-seller The End of History and the Last Man; “The Myth of the Greatest of All-Time” is the basketball analog to The End of History.

To problematize the myth of the “GOAT,” Colás adopts a nonlinear temporal perspective. Instead of considering Jordan’s chronological career trajectory, he focuses on a version of Jordan often-elided in the master narrative. Colás celebrates, in the words of Shoals, “the brash, brilliant doodles” of late 1980s Jordan, foregrounding his creativity and ingenuity. Colás describes Jordan’s “myriad versions on a layup” as “a perfect slice of pure invention in process,” highlighting the “wonder” and “uncertainty” they evoke that contrasts with the “sense of inevitability” expressed by “the early Jordan dunk” and “late Jordan jump shot” (p. 117-8).

While Colás’s myth of an inventive Jordan seeks to subvert the dominance of “The Myth of the Greatest of All-Time,” the next generation of NBA stars, who were defined by their blackness, also challenged the image of the league established by the “GOAT,” producing “The Myth of Blackness” (Chapter 8). Colás conducts a close reading of the newspaper recaps of a March 1997 match-up between the Chicago Bulls and Philadelphia Seventy-Sixers, a game famous for Allen Iverson’s crossover on Jordan, to illuminate how these accounts communicated racialized messages that denigrated Iverson, a player representative of unapologetic blackness. Colás recognizes that “the headlines trumpeting Iverson as a ‘star’ and the ‘flashy’ nature of his performance” capture “a trope of the myth whereby blackness is associated with a morally suspect investment in style over substance” (p. 126).

Whereas the NBA promoted the other myths Colas explores, “The Myth of Blackness” is reactionary and defensive, an effort to control black players consistent with 1990s urban policing of black men. Colas offers an alternative perspective of Iverson’s crossover in order to appreciate how Iverson and his generation of black players changed the game tactically, not just culturally. By introducing the crossover and scoring point guard to the league, Iverson and his cohort initiated the NBA’s positional revolution, exemplifying how players, not rules or institutions, continually have made and remade the game.

“The Myth of the Right Way” (Chapter 9) represents an effort by the white basketball unconscious to reclaim the league from “The Myth of Blackness.” According to Colás, “the right way” is a hierarchized version of basketball, with coaches instructing players to embrace selfless, team-centric basketball and, in the process, also endowing them with the white, American moral values supposedly inherent in this playing style. Larry Brown, coach of the 2004 NBA Champion Detroit Pistons, symbolizes this brand of basketball. The recent emphasis on analytics and efficiency similarly supports the desires of the white basketball unconscious, as Michael Wilbon’s recent piece for ESPN’s The Undefeated indirectly suggests. (Note: The manner in which Wilbon’s protestations disarm the co-hosts of 538’s analytically-inclined podcast Hot Takedown further validates Colás’s assertions.)

However, “the right way” remains under threat from “blackness,” epitomized by the fact that the 2004 U.S. Men’s Olympic Team, coached by Brown, did not medal. Based on his reading of the analysis of the U.S.’s failure, Colás determines that the idea of the “right way” now belonged to the gold medal-winning Argentinian National Team whose star, the white Manu Ginobili, seemingly “heals the ills of basketball” by “transcend[ing] the very antagonism – white game versus black game – that historically provoked white inferiority” (p. 146). Colás then dissects Manu’s style of play, emphasizing the “ambiguity” and “confusion” of his play that thereby “exceeds simplistic formulas promoting a single ‘right way’” (p. 149). He demonstrates that, rather than a “great white hope” who plays the “right way,” Manu evokes the traditions of inventive black basketball.

Colás concludes with “The Myth of the Man” (Chapter 10), which examines the white basketball unconscious’s reaction to LeBron James, particularly his decision to join the Miami Heat in 2010. Colás contends that James entered the NBA as the “promised” “Heir to Jordan,” suggesting he would follow Jordan’s basketball trajectory. Yet, James “refuse[d] to play passively his role in our drama” (p. 158). The white basketball unconscious responded to James by viciously emasculating him, denying him the manhood that his decision in fact expressed. Colás borrows Nietzsche’s idea of “ressentiment” to capture this reaction; “It means resentment, of course, but the specific form of resentment we feel when someone else is doing what we wish we could – or, rather, wish we had the courage to – do” (p. 160). Instead failing to live up the standards of Jordan, Colás positions James as his “antithesis.” In contrast to Jordan as “bildungsroman,” James is a basketball “emperor” who “redefines the territory and history that came before it” (p. 161). Collaborative inventiveness, rather than individual inevitability, characterizes his perspective of James.

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The current cultural estimation of James, Curry, and the 2016 NBA Finals suggests Colás’s re-visioning of James has not invaded the white basketball unconscious. And, if the Cavaliers do win the 2016 NBA title, the myths that emerge likely will incorporate James into the “moralizing parameters” of “a static image of the game” and thereby continue to “express an unconscious tension with respect to the increased presence and then dominance of black men in basketball” (p. 164). A championship for the Cleveland Cavaliers likely would renegotiate “The Myth of the Man,” where LeBron, as a paternal “Man,” finally gets credit for individually uplifting and reviving “The Land,” a city symbolic of post-industrial ruin. In contrast, a repeat championship by the Warriors could validate “The Myth of the Bay.” Premised on efficiency and productivity, the team of the “Bay” exemplifies the superiority of sharing economy basketball, with the Curry, a sui generis and transcendent basketball “unicorn,”embodying the paradigm-altering potential of this technologically sophisticated brand of basketball.

As these musings suggests, Colás’s book provides a rich model for making connections between conversations about basketball, racial ideologies, and the broader socioeconomic environment. Through an accessible and entertaining work, he powerfully captures how sport communicates ideas about race that have broad implications and, in turn, how sport provides a productive lens for scholars to explore them. He also demonstrates how scholars can challenge the hegemonic public histories of sport by rejecting an insistence on truth in favor of authoring alternative histories that acutely illustrate that, just like the game of basketball, “all of this involves traffic in fiction, fabrication, or invention of one sort or another” (p. 10).

Cat Ariail is a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Miami. She researches women’s sport, race, and nationalism in the late-twentieth century U.S. and Caribbean. You can contact her at cat.m.ariail@gmail.com.

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