I’ve recently completed my book Ball Don’t Lie! Myth, Genealogy and Invention in the Cultures of Basketball, and am now revising it, so stay tuned for updates on the publication timetable. But in the meantime, I’ve also published a few related essays in academic journals. Though the style of writing of these is a bit more formal than what you’ll find in the book, the substance of the arguments is very similar. What I’m sharing today combines elements of the Introduction and Chapter 7 (“The Myth of Blackness, March 12, 1997”) of my book. Just click on the image below.
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.
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.
A few years ago, probably in late 2006 or early 2007, when my wife and I were getting to know each other, we would watch Pistons games on the local affiliate. She had not been raised a sports fan, though she seemed to take a natural delight in awesome sports performance. In the course of one of those games, Rasheed Wallace, then of the Pistons, was whistled for a foul. Sheed threw his head back, indeed: threw his whole upper body back in a spasm of outrage and frustration. He complained loudly and aimlessly to the air as he turned his back on the stopped play and stomped toward the scorer’s table. Another whistle, sharper this time. And the referee dramatically formed his hands into the shape of the letter “T.” “T” for technical, as in technical foul, as in one of the 317 such technical fouls Sheed has amassed (counting the two this past Sunday) in his 1103 NBA games.
I don’t think it was a particularly critical moment in the game, or I might have felt frustrated with Sheed. If the game were on the line, I might have turned my back on Sheed, betraying him and all he’d done for the team with a canned rant about how selfish it was for him to indulge his emotional outburst. But the game wasn’t on the line, and so, safe, I laughed. My wife, however, as I explained what had happened, was indignant; more, she was outraged. But it’s not what you’re thinking; or not only that, anyway. It wasn’t just that she felt Sheed’s technical was undeserved. Her outrage was directed at the refs: not at their incompetence, but at their existence. “Why do they have to have refs?” Read more
Here are the ways of seeing and being in basketball:
I call “Hoops 1” everything that pertains to basketball as a manifestation of integrated human capacities exercised in such a way as to produce beauty and good.
A win always seems shallow: it is the loss that is so profound and suggests nasty infinities.
—E. M. Forster
It is a moment of loss for me, a moment of frustration, disbelief, sadness, and then numb resignation. Read more