July 15, 2014 § 4 Comments
I just can’t let this go. My distaste for Bill Simmons’ smug pseudo-argumentation has led me on a four-day journey down a rabbit hole of advanced statistics and I feel compelled to share my report of the trip.
At issue? The debate over whether Bill Russell or Wilt Chamberlain had the better supporting casts. For those who don’t follow basketball (those who do can skip this paragraph), Russell and Chamberlain were unarguably two of the best centers ever to play the game. During the ten years they were both in the NBA, their teams played against each other 147 times, including eight playoff series (two NBA finals series). Pretty much since their first face-off, on November 7, 1959, fans and writers have debated which of the two is the greater player. Among those who partake, the consensus seems to come down in favor of Russell, primarily on the grounds that his teams won more of their head to head games and playoff series (his Celtics teams beat Chamberlain’s teams won 87 of their games and 7 of their 8 playoff matchups). Though Chamberlain amassed superior individual statistics in nearly every category, the argument goes, basketball is a team game in which success is ultimately measured by team success. Over the years, the debate has grown beyond a question of basketball skills to involve playing styles and the moral virtues (and deficiencies) these styles supposedly embody. In this way, Russell appears as intelligent, principled, unselfish, dedicated and hardworking and Chamberlain as short sighted, opportunistic, selfish, lazy, and naturally talented.
Bill Simmons is only the most recent—though also one of the most popular and influential—writers to take this position. In Chapter Two of his 2010 New York Times bestselling The Book of Basketball, Simmons claims to lay to rest what he calls the “insane” position that Wilt was superior by debunking what he sees as the six myths upon which this position is founded. Here, I’m only interested in the first of the so-called “myths” that Simmons takes on: that Russell had a better supporting cast. Simmons purports to debunk this one by examining their respective supporting casts, year by year. He assesses the strengths of their teammates primarily through (selective) references to how many of their teammates appeared in All-Star games or on the annual All-NBA teams, or would eventually be inducted in the Hall of Fame status. His conclusion, which he frames as generous to partisans of Chamberlain, is that Russell had the superior supporting casts 5 times (1960-1964), Wilt had the upper hand 4 times (1966-1969), and they were even in 1965.
Setting aside the selective way that he uses these indicators, I believe that the indicators themselves are probably not the best for assessing supporting cast strength. The annual All-NBA teams are voted at the end of each NBA season by a panel of US and Canadian sportswriters, starting lineups for the NBA All-Star game are determined by fan balloting and reserves by a poll of the coaches in each conference. Both of these then involve subjective judgments without any clearly or explicitly defined criteria and, moreover, don’t give us a clear sense of whether the player is being honored for achievement in this season or whether past accomplishments are being considered as well (whether or not they should be). As for the NBA Hall of Fame, the selection process for its inductees takes place only well-after the conclusion of a career (and so gives no evidence of a player’s contributions in a given season) and involves an even smaller judging panel and criteria that are even more shrouded in mystery and, for some (including Simmons, who devotes an entire chapter to reinventing what he sees as a flawed Hall of Fame), controversy. Finally and strikingly given the anti-individual slant of Russell partisans like Simmons—all there of these measures tend to magnify the impact of exceptional individuals. What would be better would be a measure built upon something less subjective, with clearer criteria, and that offered a picture of the contribution of the whole supporting cast—not just the All-Stars and Hall of Famers—to the team’s victories. After all, it’s a team game, right?
Since the debate itself largely hinges on winning, it would be better to measure the contributions of the supporting cast members to the wins accumulated by Russell’s and Chamberlain’s teams. Fortunately, there is a metric that approximates exactly this. Win Shares per 48 Minutes (WS/48) is designed to measure an individual player’s contribution to team wins per every 48 minutes played. Though I’m far from adept at statistical thinking, I got some advice from Neil Paine of Basketball-Reference.com, who has thought a bit about this himself before proceeding (though I should say that any errors in approach or execution here are my own). Here’s what I wound up doing:
- I included only those teammates who played enough minutes in each season to qualify for the statistic according to Basketball-Reference.com.
- I tabulated (1) their age; (2) Career Regular Season WS/48; (3) Career Playoff WS/48; (4) WS/48 for each regular season and (5) each playoff run that they played with Russell or Chamberlain.
- I also came up with a rough measure of how well they performed in (6) a given regular season or (7) given playoff run by dividing their regular season and playoff numbers for that season by their overall career regular season and playoff average and multiplying by 100 (yielding what I’ll call, for lack of a better phrase, an “actual performance index”).
- Lastly, I noted whether or not each player’s (8) regular season or (9) playoff WS/48 number ranked in the All-Time Top 250 for the category (and where), just for the fun of seeing who put up monster performances.
- I then totaled and averaged these figures for each team in each season.
- Separately, I gathered the same statistics and performed the same calculations for Russell and for Chamberlain in each season.
Let me remind you of Simmons’ conclusions, Russell had the superior supporting casts from 1960-1964, they were even in 1965, and Chamberlain had the superior supporting cast from 1966-1969. Since Russell’s teams won championships in all of those years except one (1967), Simmons concludes that Russell, on this score anyway, was the superior player.
I can’t say who was the superior player, but based on what I found, Simmons seems drastically to have missed the mark in his assessment of supporting cast strength.
That’s right. According to the figures below, and contrary to Simmons’ conclusion, Russell had the better supporting cast for the regular season and the playoffs in each of the ten years both players were in the league.
Let me share some of the key data (if you’d like to see all of it, just let me know). Green shading indicates that Russell’s supporting cast outperformed Chamberlain’s in the category. Red (or in the case of 1969 purple) shading indicates that Chamberlain’s supporting cast got the upper hand. The number indicates the actual difference in the relevant total WS/48 value of the two supporting casts. For the final two categories, I’ve simply listed the ranking on the Regular Season or Playoff All-Time Top 250 WS/48 for that season or playoff run (no team under consideration ever had more than one individual supporting cast member place in the top 250). In other words, the more green you see in a given year, the better Russell’s supporting cast, and the numbers in the right two columns tell you when one of their teammates made a historically strong contribution to regular season or playoff wins, respectively.
So, yeah, it’s lookin’ pretty green…Celtic green. What’s obviously striking here is that in every single season—including in 1967, when Chamberlain’s team won the championship and including 1969, when (playing alongside legends Elgin Baylor and Jerry West) Chamberlain’s Lakers were favored to win it—Russell’s cast of characters brought the higher Career Regular Season and Career Playoff WS/48 and contributed more to the regular season and playoff wins of their team than their counterparts on Chamberlain’s team every single year. I think that Boston’s domination of the NBA from 1956 through 1969 (11 of 13 NBA titles, including eight straight from 1958-1966) is very impressive. But, once I saw these numbers, I started to wonder not how they managed that feat, but how it was that Chamberlain’s teams contended in so many of these seasons, often taking Boston to seven games before succumbing; let alone how they won a championship in 1967.
To suggest a response to that, here’s the same table, only now I’ve plugged in Russell and Chamberlain’s individual numbers: again shading green for Russell and red (or Purple) for Chamberlain (I’ve left their career numbers out because they obviously would remain fixed throughout the ten year span—for the record, though both are among the league’s All-Time leaders, Chamberlain’s Career Regular Season and Playoff WS/48 were somewhat higher than Russell’s).
Lots of red (and a little purple) now mix into the sea of green. In nine out of ten regular seasons, Chamberlain surpassed Russell’s WS/48 mark. And, in seven out of the nine seasons in which both players were in the playoffs Chamberlain did the same. Chamberlain also offered five playoff performances worthy of the Top 250 all time, compared to two by Russell, and nine regular season Top 250 years, compared to three by Russell.
Don’t get me wrong, the numbers don’t show—and I’m not saying—that Russell was carried to victory like a sick dog by his superior teams despite heroic efforts by Chamberlain to overcome his shitty teammates. They just suggest that far more often than not Russell got greater contributions from his supporting cast than Chamberlain, and that Chamberlain, as most already concede, outperformed Russell individually, though clearly not by enough (except in 1967) to make to make up for the difference in their supporting casts. You can pinpoint this a bit just by looking at the substantial difference between Russell’s supporting cast’s advantage over their counterparts and Chamberlain’s advantage over Russell.
What we don’t know from these numbers alone is the cause of the difference in support in cast contributions? Did Russell’s “unselfishness” make his teammates better than they otherwise were (as conventional wisdom frequently holds)? Did Chamberlain’s “selfishness” make his worse? The fact that Russell’s supporting cast had substantially higher Career WS/48 numbers might suggest that they were simply better players, regardless of who they played with. But we actually don’t have enough information to make that claim.
What we are really asking with these questions is the following: setting everything else aside, what effect did one player (Russell or Chamberlain) have on another (any one of their teammates)? This turns out to be an enormously complicated question, requiring rather minute tracking of game play. Economics professor Dan Rosenblum tried to figure this out for just two NBA seasons and James Piette, Lisa Pham, and Sathyanarayan Anand sought, if I understand their work, to root out the limitations in Rosenblum’s model in this paper. When you look at the complexity of the operation, you can understand why, if for no other reason than the creakiness of the stats gears in my mind, I hesitate to take it on (though I’d be delighted if someone else did!). In any event, my numbers by themselves don’t tell us. In fact, I’m no stat guru, but I think that we lack the raw data we’d need to figure this out where Chamberlain and Russell were concerned.
Hopefully, what the numbers do show nonetheless usefully complicates the pseudo-argumentation and so-called conventional wisdom purveyed by Bill Simmons and other adherents to the “Myth of the Rivalry.” It can be fun to engage in such debates, I know, and to bring passion and partisanship to them. If I didn’t think so I wouldn’t have spent the last four days poring over websites and trying to remember how to use Excel. What’s more, though it’s never inclined me to say he was better than Russell, I’ll acknowledge that Wilt holds a powerful grip on my heart, one that runs through my recently deceased father and back into my early childhood and that it’s important to express these things. But if one is going to play the sophist and craft arguments to support the views of one’s heart, let these arguments hold up to minimal rational scrutiny, or, if not that, then at least be beautiful. Otherwise, it’s just sports guys shouting, trying to make up in arrogance and bluster what they lack in evidence and reasoning ability.
I must say, however, that I would prefer—even more than sprinkling a bit more reason or elegance into the fray—to understand what the hell we are doing as a culture—the culture of basketball, I mean—by aggressively arguing over an unresolvable question for more than half a century. Or, to put it another way, to take seriously the rhetorical question that Chris Flink posed here:
@YagoColas “You see a man with 31k points. Another has 11 rings. You think: I have to choose. What the hell is wrong with you?”
— Chris Collision (@cfCollision) November 16, 2013
Really: what is wrong with you? With us? To begin to understand that, we’ve got to step out of the debate entirely. Then, we’ve got to carefully examine how the whole debate is structured in thought and language (I made a first, rough and hasty stab at this a few years ago), learn the facts of the history of basketball and society, and reflect on how the topic of debate and the way that people approach it fits into the issues of its time and place, thereby shedding some light on what sort of social and cultural work its doing.
Having done some of this work, I believe (as I will argue in third chapter of my forthcoming book Ball Don’t Lie!) the debate expresses powerful anxieties and desires stirred within what I call the White Basketball Unconscious in America by the the rapid racial integration and sharp rise to preeminence of African-American men at basketball’s highest and most visible level, beginning in the decade ushered in by these two players. In the face of the integration of basketball and the undeniable fact that the league’s best players were disproportionately African-American, the debate appeared to accept these realities (by confining the debate over who was best to two African-American players) while simultaneously denying them (by reducing Russell and Chamberlain to embodiments of athletic and moral attributes racialized as “white” and “black,” respectively). In so doing, and by declaring Russell the superior player, it served to protect the imagined “whiteness” of a static, idealized form of the game.
So that’s some disturbing shit right there that should make us cautious about casually getting into that particular argument. But even setting aside the racist implications, the way the debate encases certain styles of play and tactical approaches in moral shatter-proof glass strikes me as utterly contrary to the spirit of a game whose essence, if it has one, has been continual, dynamic variation from the moment the first game was played up through the present day. Both Russell and Chamberlain embody that variation, and each with a level of unsurpassed excellence. In that sense, finally, the debate is not just outrageous but profoundly saddening to me in that it reduces the enormous athletic and human richness and complexity of these two figures, on and off the court, to an infantile morality puppet-show. We, the game, and they deserve more thoughtful treatment.
And don’t worry, after this adventure in stat-land, I promise to go back home to incisive cultural analysis and never come back!
July 9, 2014 § Leave a comment
I don’t often write about sports other than basketball, but when I do, I prefer to unchain the deep irrationalities of my idiot sport heart. To wit: my handy, interactive rooting guide to the 2014 World Cup Semi-Final match between Argentina and the Netherlands.
May 5, 2014 § 4 Comments
Somewhat under-examined in the Donald Sterling Shit Show of the past week has been Sterling’s rhetorical question asserting his creative importance as owner: “Do I make the game? Or do they make the game?” Though Sterling has appropriately been chastised, lampooned, and punished for these and other remarks as well as for past behavior, I believe he has also to some degree been scapegoated by other owners, league executives, the news media and fans availing themselves of the easy opportunity to distance themselves from the kind of extreme and easily quotable form of racism that, too often, is the only form of racism acknowledged to exist in sports and in this country more broadly. As Tim Marchman has put it, “Sterling isn’t some anomaly; he’s the perfect representative of his class.” Indeed. In fact, his claim that it is the owners, rather than the players who “make the game” expresses a key component of a myth that runs like a fault line back to the very foundation of the NBA.
Remember, after all, that though it was officially formed as a legal entity on August 3, 1949, the NBA itself celebrates its birthday on June 6, 1946. Why? Because that’s when a group of large-market hockey arena owners, looking to fill their arenas on off nights, saw the basketball talent commanding increasing public attention and gate receipts in the existing pro National Basketball League (NBL) and to decided to form a league of their own (called the Basketball Association of America or BAA).
Slowly over the next three years, BAA owners sucked the life out of the NBL, eventually absorbing a handful of floundering franchises and their superstar players like George Mikan into the newly formed NBA. Though it was largely NBL talent that sustained the NBA in its early years (as it remains the basketball playing talent that sustains the league today), the NBA itself, by officially tracing its birthday back to June 6, 1946 asserts the fantasy that the agents of its history are the franchise owners.
The idea that the owners, as Sterling pithily put it, “make the game” holds some currency beyond the League’s official publicity machine. In the Fall of 2011, when the owners locked-out the players during negotiations over the terms of the new collective bargaining agreement, I was teaching my Cultures of Basketball class. As we discussed the lockout and possible solutions, I was struck that not a single student imagined the possibility of the players simply forming a league of their own. Indeed, when I suggested it myself, the possibility was fairly roundly dismissed as implausible, if not laughable.
That particular suggestion may or may not have been realistic at the time. But leaving that aside, I found the exchange indicative of the degree to which the capitalist ownership model in professional basketball had become naturalized in students’ minds—to the point that they struggled even with thought experiment of imagining a league owned and run by players. Alongside its effects inhibiting the imagination of basketball futures, the naturalization of this idea has also the effect of obscuring the historical fact that professional basketball (though certainly not the NBA) was indeed founded by players (pictured above) organizing themselves to elude the authority of the Trenton YMCA which in the 1890s sought to curtail, regulate or ban basketball play.
The NBA neither simply is or is not a “players’ league.” But, to the degree that it occasionally functions as such it is either because player interests coincide with owner interests or, more interestingly to me, because players assert their interests and forcefully threaten owners (as they did a week ago in threatening a boycott of playoff games, or as they did in the 1964 all-star game, in seeking recognition for their union) with exposing the reality that it is the players who make the game.
In my research, I’ve come to think of the institutional forms and practices that emerged (like the NBA) or gained ascendancy (like the NCAA) around mid-century to monopolize the production and consumption of basketball playing in the United States as “the Modern Basketball State.” The Modern Basketball State, on the one hand, bore idealizing aspirations to preserve eternally the basketball status quo. On the other hand, it emerged from complexly related and uneven, and sometimes chaotic processes.
In part perhaps to compensate for the fragile, contingent nature of its own emergence and of the forms of basketball play then prevalent, the Modern Basketball State began to spawn an interrelated complex of myths and myth fragments. These would come to suggest to the imaginations of many that basketball as produced and consumed within the Modern Basketball State was not only the best but the only possible state of affairs.
In another post, I showed how one of these myths–of James Naismith’s ex-nihilo creation of basketball—operates to efface those elements from that event’s history that express the essentially dynamic, changing nature of the game. That is, effaces those elements that—by their very dynamic character—threaten the “state” of the game, in every sense of the term “state.” Basketball’s Myth of Creation came to be intertwined with others, among them:
- the Myth of the Amateur Athlete driven by love of the game and guided by the (mythical) Benevolently Authoritarian hand of the Unselfish Teacher-Coach;
- the Myth of the NBA’s Birth to innocently meet an ostensibly previously unsatisfied market demand;
- the Myth of the Playing the Right Way, wherein the sport as, at its highest form, entailing the absolute sublimation of individual desire and creativity to the interests of the team, not only for tactically pragmatic purposes but as a moral imperative;
- the Myth of the Great White Hope, that Caucasian player who supposedly embodies and whose success restores the moral spirit of the Playing the Right Way, maligned and besieged by Others (as in the next myth)
- the Myth of the Dangerous Negro, that African-American player whose combination of “boundless innate talent” and equally “boundless undisciplined desires” threatens the tactical and moral purity of the sport.
Some of these myths would attach themselves to particular instances of basketball play. Some of them would combine, like bits of genetic material, with other myth fragments and then crystallize into narratives about particular players or teams or eras.
But all such myths find their their reason for being in the mid-century emergence of the Modern Basketball State and it is some version of basketball as it was organized and played within this state which they hypostasize as the timeless essence of the game.
The Modern Basketball State became thus a powerful entity, both materially and culturally. It came to control vast resources, reserved the right to enact and enforce complex laws governing the activities of its “citizens,” and generated self-idealizing cultural material that proved appealing to the popular imagination.
However, like other modern states, the equilibrium it appeared to have achieved was just that—an equilibrium in appearance that 1) bound together autonomous constituencies and dynamic forces often in uneasy tension with one another and 2) depended for its stability the complete exclusion of still other elements.
In the case of the modern basketball state these potentially “destabilizing” forces are numerous and include among others
- the initial de facto exclusion from, but eventual—under competitive and commercial pressures—incorporation of African-American players into the NBA, as well as the more gradual racial integration of the high school and college game;
- the various attempts on the part of basketball labor—first in the NBA but also eventually in the NCAA—to collectivize and assert independent rights;
- the parallel development of the sport’s popularity and the emergence of its own institutional forms internationally as well as that of women’s basketball in this country and abroad;
- the very success of the Modern Basketball State itself, and especially, of its associated commercial interests and the pressures these in turn exert on associations and leagues to alter and promote the game in particular ways conducive to the sale of every product imaginable.
In other words, despite the state of apparent equilibrium achieved at mid-century, forces constitutive of the Modern Basketball State, as well as individuals and groups within the game carried forward the inventive force and the plasticity with which Naismith had imbued the game, developing new forms.
These forms—whether developed in cooperation with, as a challenge to, or as entirely independently of the Modern Basketball State—had the effect of shattering the status quo and—like a player rushing the ball up the court on a fast break without a clear end in sight—pushed the game forward into a new era, itself constituted by ebbs and flows in the development of basketball and by fluctuations in the state of tension between the game’s mythic (or static) and its inventive (or dynamic) tendencies.
May 2, 2014 § Leave a comment
Following upon my brief but mighty appearance in POLITICO this week (which itself followed the viral thrill of my rant about Mitch McGary just last Friday), I continued my meteoric ascent to the dizzying heights of media stardom in an interview with Jonathan Zarov, host of the Friday morning Eight O’Clock Buzz on my hometown Madison, Wisconsin’s community-owned WORT FM.
Here’s the (very brief) interview:
April 29, 2014 § Leave a comment
The Donald Sterling story that has filled sports pages and overflowed into mainstream news coverage and water cooler conversations over the last week provides reason #50 why we need the Allrounder and why you should support us today.
From the tactical to the cultural to the historical, from the political to the legal to the economic, Sterling’s case exemplifies perfectly the sort of complex breaking event in the world of sport that arises out of the intersection of a variety of forces in human society and that the Allrounder, with its pool of teachers and scholars from different disciplines will be poised to cover, as I explained to The Classical’s David Roth last week.
Just imagine, if the Allrounder already existed, you might have read Professor David J. Leonard (author of After Artest: The NBA’s Assault on Blackness) contextualizing Sterling’s taped remarks and backhistory within the broader framework of the league’s racial history.
But what about the economics of the case? Without a search or even a change of website, at the Allrounder you might see Professor Stefan Szymanski (sports economist, director of the Michigan Center for Sports Management at the University of Michigan and author of Soccernomics) break down the bewildering legal and economic issues and implications of the NBA’s response in ways we can all understand.
Of course, we all know that sports aren’t only about the bottom line. What might the Clippers and other NBA players be thinking about their options? How do these options fit into the history of Black athletes and political protest? Professor Amy Bass, historian and author of Not the Triumph but the Struggle the 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete, would provide you with thoughtful reflections on these questions.
Sure, there have been, amidst the din of noisy jackassery that is the mainstream sports media, a handful of clarifying pieces by smart journalists. But they are scattered across the web and, besides, who helps you think critically about even the best journalism?
Your professors! Think back to when you were in school and some news event broke that touched directly on your professor’s area of expertise. How excellent was it to be able to ask her directly in class what she thought of what going on? Don’t believe me, then ask POLITICO, which just yesterday phoned yours truly, Allrounder editor Yago Colás, for his views on the Sterling affair.
That’s who we are at The Allrounder: your sports professors! And we will give you just what professors can give: an informed expert’s opinion on what you care about. But it’s even better because it will be more like a team-taught course by some of the most experienced, accomplished and accessible individuals teaching about the world of sports in all its many dimensions.
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April 28, 2014 § 2 Comments
In my post yesterday, I analyzed the structure of a foul call in an NBA game to show that a foul doesn’t cause the whistle to blow (as the rules prescribe); the whistle blowing causes a foul to come into being. But neither the rules of the game nor basketball common sense acknowledge the real nature of the foul call or the quasi-divine power NBA refs enjoy to actually constitute (not just identify) illegality. And, if this power isn’t acknowledged, it cannot be challenged. This is where ‘Sheed and “Ball Don’t Lie!” come in.
In fact, I consider his 317 career technical fouls a rough index of his ability to convey to referees his intent to expose and challenge their power. It may seem at first glance that, like basketball common sense, “Ball Don’t Lie” also mistakes the referee’s speech act as a descriptive statement, one with which ‘Sheed (or, actually, “Ball”) merely disagrees. But I believe the outraging power of “Ball don’t lie!” goes beyond simply countering one description of reality with another. It may do that. But its power and danger lies in drawing attention to the power of the referee to create a reality within which the players must play and which they must accept without question.
“Ball Don’t Lie” does this by offering us the possibility—however fanciful it may seem—that other powers, greater even than that of the referee, are weighing in as well. And this implicitly reminds us of the referee’s powers. Indeed, the very absurdity of the “ball” making a call draws our attention to the fact that the referee was not actually objectively describing a play but exercising what are within the universe of basketball quasi-divine powers to bring a foul into being.
‘Sheed isn’t just disagreeing with the call, he’s exposing these powers and in exposing these powers he is also calling into question the hierarchical structure of the sport whereby a referee is uniquely endowed with the powers to define reality. Indeed, I think ‘Sheed’s 2012 ejection from a Knicks-Suns game occurred not because ‘Sheed applied “Ball don’t lie!” to an ordinary personal foul call whistled against him, but because he applied it to a technical foul call: in other words, he challenged the referee’s authority to enforce conformity with his decisions.
So Rasheed Wallace lays bare and challenges the power dynamics of the NBA, but he also affirms a positive alternative. The phrase “Ball don’t lie!” comes from the culture of recreational or “pickup” basketball played on urban playgrounds. In such settings, without referees, players referee themselves, calling their own fouls and violations. Of course, just as in any formal game, disagreements may arise. One way these are often settled is by one of the disputants taking an uncontested shot from the top of the key. If the ball goes in, his or her claim is upheld, if it doesn’t go in, his or her claim is rejected. Though some grumbling may continue, the dispute is definitively settled because, well, as everyone knows and accepts: “Ball Don’t Lie!”
By introducing a phrase from this setting into the NBA, ‘Sheed reminds us that players can and do play basketball without refs and their transcendent powers. Viewed from this angle, “Ball Don’t Lie!” doesn’t so much invoke a transcendent power higher than that of the referees. It rejects the very idea of transcendent power. Instead, it invokes a lower power—or, more accurately, a power that circulates horizontally among equals rather than vertically from the top of a hierarchy to its bottom: that is, the immanent, self-organizing autonomous power of basketball players. I share with Rasheed this belief in the crucial importance of the self-organizing autonomous power of players. In fact, I’ve tried to let this power guide my my approach to basketball history in my teaching and in writing Ball Don’t Lie!
But the urban playground is more than just the site of “informal” play outside the sanction and control of hierarchically organized institutions. It also signifies within basketball culture the big city and, via an associative chain, impoverished urban neighborhoods and the residents of those neighborhoods, who early in the 20th century were already playing pickup ball because, with its relative simple requirements where space and equipment were concerned, basketball lent itself to cramped and crowded spaces and limited resources. Over the course of the middle of the 20th century, as ethnic immigrants migrated out of America’s urban core and African-Americans migrated in, and especially in the second half of the 20th century, urban pickup basketball came to be associated with African-Americans in the American cultural imagination.
When ‘Sheed yells “Ball don’t lie!” then, we should imagine the phrase as a kind of kite pulled onto the center of the NBA’s stage. Attached to that kite is a string of associated phenomena: not only player autonomy, but also both the stereotypes and the real material conditions that link urban Black males with basketball. Beginning with its integration in the 1950s, but in a more marked way since the mid-1980s the NBA, as Todd Boyd, David Leonard and others have shown, has sought to profit from the black bodies of its players (and from some of the stereotypical images of black male urban culture) while simultaneously maintaining a “safe” distance from the less broadly marketable images associated with Black urban males. The NBA treats “Blackness” and its stereotypical signifiers as a kind of fluid cultural currency: it wants that currency to flow into the NBA in the form of talent and marketable cool, but it wants to control the flow.
“Ball don’t lie!” then also brings the playground into the mainstream arena of American culture, but in a way that resists defusing appropriation because it appears as a direct challenge to the authority of that culture as embodied in the referees and the league and its vertical, hierarchical power arrangement. The political importance of “Ball don’t lie!” then, resides, in its affirmation of the autonomous self-governance of intersecting populations (basketball players, the poor, urban dwellers, African-Americans in general and young black males in particular) whose capacity for self-governance public policy and popular culture attempts to hamper and then denies exists.
April 27, 2014 § 1 Comment
I knew I wanted to call my book “Ball Don’t Lie!” before I knew why I wanted to call it that. Some of you might already know that the phrase comes from retired NBA player Rasheed Wallace. He used to shout the words out when an opposing player missed a free throw awarded after a foul had been called on ‘Sheed or one of his teammates; at least if Wallace thought the call had been unjust. Sheed was whistled for over 300 technical fouls for personal misconduct during his NBA career, a record. Once he was even called for a technical foul (and ejected) for saying “Ball Don’t Lie!” after an opponent missed the free throw he’d been awarded for a technical foul ‘Sheed had been assessed just a moment before. The usual way to see this (if you aren’t clucking disapprovingly) is as 1) Sheed evoking the work of the basketball gods who, the phrase implies, caused the missed free throw as a way of righting the injustice of the erroneous call; and 2) as perhaps the iconic example of ‘Sheed’s more general outrageous, but likable, outlaw persona.
I can feel all this, even get excited about it. But my excitement runs into a limit for I am agnostic when it comes to the existence of basketball gods and pragmatic when it comes to issues of truth and justice. And “Ball don’t lie,” at least when interpreted in this way, seems to appeal to those transcendent basketball gods and fixed ideals of truth and justice, which I just can’t believe in. No matter how exciting it may be to me whenever Rasheed invoked them, I think that things like transcendent gods and fixed ideals are too powerful and I worry about them falling into less judicious hands than ‘Sheed’s. So I wrote an Introduction to the book in order to understand at least some of the deeper reasons for my affinities with this statement. To begin with, I did the Bad Professorial thing of actually trying to understand the true nature of the thing ‘Sheed had been complaining about all these years : in other words — What the hell is a foul anyway? It turns out that when you think about it, it’s more complex than you might think.