- Ball Don’t Lie! Myth, Genealogy, and Invention in the Cultures of Basketball by Yago Colás
On the surface, Yago Colás’s Ball Don’t Lie! describes a collection of pivotal moments in hoops history. But digging deeper, readers will find that Colás is actively and intentionally challenging everything they knew (or thought they knew) about the sport of basketball. Using a variety of theoretical and intellectual approaches and drawing on works as varied as Greek philosophers, Michel Foucault, and modern sports journalists, Colás explores nine fundamental myths of the game that, taken together, reflect issues of race, labor, and masculinity played out over more than a century of sport.
Opening the work in 1891, when Dr. James Naismith drew up thirteen rules to dictate play, Colás situates each of these nine myths into the context of its particular era. “The Myth of Creation,” for example, explores how Muscular Christianity and Progressive Era social reform shaped the beginnings of the sport, while the chapter explaining “The Myth of the Greatest of All-Time” traces the “complex racial positioning of [Michael] Jordan” in the 1980s, allowing “white consumers to invest in Jordan” as “an appealing racially transcendent emblem of the American dream” (115). Each of these nine myths engender a popularly held truth—an issue about which we, as fans, tend to agree: Michael Jordan was the greatest player of all-time; Wilt Chamberlain was a tremendous individual star, but Bill Russell was a better teammate; the Old Knicks of the early 1970s and the Detroit Pistons of the mid-2000s played the “right way” (138), sharing the basketball and eschewing individual accolades for team success; and so on. By offering up alternative models (why must we assign a binary response to the question of whether Chamberlain was better than Russell or vice versa?), Colás forces readers to reconsider these “truths” of the game.
Because Ball Don’t Lie! “exposes how cultural and philosophical conventions conspire to stack the odds in favor of institutional authority,” ultimately “discriminating prejudicially against African Americans” (10), it is unsurprising that race underscores much of Colás’s work. For every acknowledged “Great White Hope” like Larry Bird, Bill Walton, or Manu Ginobili, Colás argues, even black men could be perceived as white if they played a particular style on the court. Unselfish, team-based players like Bill Russell or late-career Michael Jordan? Far more palatable for a predominantly white fan base than early-career Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, or—most importantly—Allen Iverson, the poster child of NBA “blackness” (122). In fact, the “white unconscious” (127) plays a prominent role in Ball Don’t Lie!, actively requiring that players and coaches adhere to racial constructs (real or imagined) when creating teams and developing on-court strategies.
Readers hoping for definitive player rankings, statistical models of evaluation, or wide-sweeping narratives tracing developments of the game might avoid this book. They shouldn’t. Instead, even those who are not hoops fans will recognize the importance of Colás’s work in cogently discussing controversial topics like race, masculinity, and labor in the context of American sport. Ball Don’t Lie! challenges prevailing wisdom about [End Page 102] professional basketball and is so incredibly well written that even readers who don’t like basketball will find something to latch onto here.