A conversation with Yago Colas about Ball Don't Lie, his book on basketball

In which two Classical-ers unite to discuss rivalries, the Warriors, Great White Hopes and more.
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Above all else, basketball a game of movement. In his book Ball Don’t Lie: Myth, Genealogy, and Invention in the Cultures of Basketball, Yago Colàs reminds NBA consumers that the future of basketball might not always be what the game is now and that the game did not always have to be what it is now. The sport, like the ball itself, is fluid.

Beginning with an account of Naismith’s invention of the game and ending with an analysis of LeBron James’ circular migration from Cleveland to Miami and back again, Colàs writes against the grain of the game’s most traditional narratives. One such moment occurs within Chapter Six, when Colàs writes the law of Michael Jordan back into a human body:

Like the statue of Lenin, which reveals its fragile beauty and full humanity only after it has been toppled, Jordan reveals his fragile beauty and full humanity--and, indeed, his inventive greatness--only when we have let go of the myth and toppled the statue. These instants of Jordan at play, in motion neither exclamatory dunks nor smooth narrative jumpers, serve as apertures in the closed narrative universe of the myth of the greatest of all time. (120)

This brief passage reveals Colàs’ efforts to crowbar open a formerly closed story, not just for Jordan but within the sport itself. More importantly, his claims about narrative, race, and basketball stretch well beyond the court’s borders and into the realms of everyday American life. In Colas’ world, basketball can be a conduit for discussing everything from segregation to the Cold War’s aftermath, and the significance of burning LeBron jerseys.

I spoke with Colas about Ball Don’t Lie, the Warriors, analytics, the myth of the Great White Hope and more.

Bryan Harvey: Considering the Golden State Warriors’ recent assault on history, is there a chapter you would most like to revise considering their war on the record books this past season?

Yago Colàs: I have a brief, very superficial reference to analytics in Ch. 8 that the Dubs’ and Steph’s domination this season prompted me to feel was inadequate.  As I’ve written on my blog, there are aspects of the conversation around Curry’s likability as an individual celebrity superstar and the Warriors astonishing success that I see as echoing some of the earlier myths that I describe in the book (such as the Myth of the Greatest of All Time in Chapter 6).  So that might have been a Chapter 10.  But, in fact, it’s just as well that I couldn’t do that since the phenomena has instead inspired a new book project on the culture of quantification, statistical reasoning, and analytics in hoops.  I’m thinking of calling it Numbers Don’t Lie!

BH: While reading your chapter on the 1970 New York Knicks and the Myth of the Garden, I couldn’t help thinking about the Warriors, but the 2014 San Antonio Spurs and 2011 Dallas Mavericks (both of whom defeated LeBron’s Miami Heat in the Finals) also came to mind. Do these teams feed off that Madison Square Garden genealogy of teamwork and unselfishness or is each team inspiring a myth more uniquely its own? Or: does every franchise have its own Garden?

YC: The challenge here is to see at one and the same time that there are a few, very basic impulses underlying all these myths and that they manifest in different ways given the franchise location and history, and the specifics of the broader social, political, and cultural context in which they arise.  So, yes, the teams you mention do seem to me to benefit from the fact that we citizens of basketball are predisposed to accept certain narrative patterns and values (unselfishness, teamwork, for example).  But at the same time, there are elements that are specific to each franchise and to their contemporary historical moment that probably make that play out differently (for example: the central use of foreign players by the Spurs and that Mavs team; or the strong association of the Dubs as an analytics franchise).

BH: Are the Dubs the franchise about which the analytics myth will be written, as opposed to maybe Morey and the Rockets?

YC: I’m not really a great predictor, but I would guess yes. Of course, since myths convey the beliefs of those who adhere to them, it depends a bit on what the purveyors of the myth of analytics believe.  In the current NBA climate, though, it seems to me that the dominant belief is that analytics is an all-around good for everyone involved in the game.  If that’s the belief, then the Dubs obviously will function much more effectively as the protagonists than the Rockets.

BH: Admittedly, I’m a Spurs fan, so I probably noticed this more than those with other loyalties, but Duncan was mentioned maybe only a couple times in passing, and I think the same was true with Kobe. Who were the toughest players, coaches, and personalities to omit, knowing you had to cover certain players such as Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, and Magic Johnson for the project to possess both mass and substance?

YC:Certainly the two you mention.  Probably after those two, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson were important.  And then there’s a whole lineage of players thrust into the role of Great White Hope from Jerry West to Bill Bradley to Maravich to Bird etc. that might have been interesting to track.

BH: You mention Great White Hopes. How much are Dirk and Nash, or even Porzingis, part of that lineage, considering all their origins as international players?

YC: Interesting question.  In some ways that I talk about in Chapter 8, I do believe that the influx of especially light skinned foreign players helped shore up the myth of the Right Way at a pivotal moment in the NBA’s cultural history (i.e. post-Palace brawl).  To that degree, I would say that such players could occupy a slot for great white hopes that the white basketball unconscious is always craving to fill.  In fact, in Chapter 8, I argue Manu Ginobili, in particular,appeared to serve that purpose in both popular and academic narratives by combining unorthodox “flashy” individual style with team success.  In that way, he could be framed as having resolved pseudo-tensions between “black” and “white” basketball.  That this resolution could be claimed (falsely) to have been managed by a light skinned body made him, in some narratives anyway, the greatest white hope imaginable because, by solving this “problem,” he ends the perpetual deficiency that creates the desire for the great white hope in the first place.

BH: When discussing Wilt and Russell, you describe the Myth of the Rivalry. Do you think a similar myth informs how the basketball world reacts to the dynamics between Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, even as they share the same locker room?

YC: I don’t really think there is or will ever be anything quite like the Myth of the Rivalry because both the moment of desegregation, the revolution on the court, and the stature of the players involved are so unique.  That said, the cultural theorist Glyn Hughes talks about a “choreography of proximity and distance” that the “white historical imaginary” subjects African Americans (whether in the limelight or not) to whereby they are cast into the role of “good” or “bad” blacks depending on the degree to which they conform to the norms and mores of mainstream white majority culture.  I suppose there’s some of that with Westbrook and KD; though I personally see it more in the juxtaposition of Curry (in the Russell role) and LeBron (in the Wilt role).  But really, even that is just not the same. 

BH: The book obviously gravitates towards the imagination and creativity of the game’s players and their bodies, but are there any coaches you believe to have acted not so much as patriarchs but as inventors in their own right, or is that Hermetic spirit limited to those moving within the court’s boundaries?

YC: I guess for me (with my fundamentally unproductive anarchist aesthetic inclinations) the closest a coach can come to that inventive spirit would be by approaching the point of departure for his or her job as learning from what the players do, being inspired by their innovation to then propose new combinations, configurations, and arrangements.  I don’t follow what goes on behind the scenes in the coaching world well enough, however, to say whether any particular coaches really embody that or not.

BH: What’s next for you, basketball, the omniverse?

YC: Well, I have one essay I’m working on for a special sports documentary issue of the Journal of Sport and Social Issues in which I’m going to study the historical imagination of ESPN’s 30 for 30 basketball documentaries.  But beyond that, as I mentioned, I want to write a companion volume for Ball Don’t Lie! Called Numbers Don’t Lie!.  And, in fact, I’ve fantasized about a quintet of basketball books so that following these two, there would be Pictures Don’t Lie! About the visual dimensions of basketball culture, Ball is Life! About the philosophical and ethical dimensions of various aspects of game play (i.e. what are the ethical and philosophical implications of running a high ball screen, or taking a charge), and then My Life as a Point Guard, which would conclude the series, perhaps 10 years from now, when I’m around 60, with my own reminiscences of my life in basketball.

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