Introduction: “Ball Don’t Lie!” December 12, 2012 (Taste)
“It’s kind of like a slave and master or father and son. You’ve got your little son and (you say) don’t say nothing back to me—and to me, that’s totally wrong.” — Rasheed Wallace
Late in the first quarter of a 2012 NBA game between the New York Knicks and the Phoenix Suns, Suns guard Goran Dragic stepped to the free throw line and bricked his foul shot off the back of the rim. As the errant free throw caromed off the iron, veteran Knicks forward Rasheed (“Sheed”) Wallace called out “Ball don’t lie!” and was immediately assessed a technical foul and ejected from the contest. This was neither the first time that Wallace had received a T nor that he was ejected from a game. In fact, he had received one just moments before and these two together were numbers 316 and 317 of his career and the ejection his thirtieth (both figures top the NBA’s list of all-time career leaders in these categories).
However, this was the quickest ejection of his career and the first time he’d been ejected for saying “Ball don’t lie!”—the phrase he’d made famous as a slogan of protest against bad calls. For years, when an opposing player missed a free throw, Wallace would call out “Ball don’t lie!” He wouldn’t shout this every time, only when he felt the free throw had resulted from a bad call; though it is true that Sheed seemed often to have felt that way. In any event, the opposing free throw shooter might clang a brick off the iron and there was Sheed, shaking his head and laughing, or raising his innocently aggrieved face to heaven: “Ball don’t lie!” picked up by courtside microphones and broadcast to viewers everywhere. But this time, for some reason, though early in a meaningless game played early in the season, hearing “Ball don’t lie!” prompted the game’s referee to assess the second T and eject Wallace from the game.
Most observers view “Ball don’t lie!” as Sheed’s way of asserting that higher powers govern the outcome of basketball plays, express their will through the ball, validate his complaint, and, in effect, overturn the decision of a referee. “Ball don’t lie!” renders the hapless free-throw shooter a mere pawn in a cosmic tribunal which pits the referee, discredited mundane authority figure, against Sheed, maligned mouthpiece speaking truth to that earthly power in the name of a justice that has not been done. Sheed is a warrior for truth and justice, a soldier for the basketball gods, and “Ball don’t lie!” is his battle cry. In that case, maybe the ref who “T’d” Sheed up for saying “Ball don’t lie!” hoped to regain the authority whose emptiness Sheed exposed. And perhaps, to those inclined to believe he ever had it, he succeeded. But for the rest of us, his petty, vain attempt amounted to a humiliating clutch at empty air and only served to lay bare all the more nakedly the despicable true dynamics of power at work in the situation. “Ball don’t lie!” indeed![i]
I feel this. I can even get excited about it. But this excitement runs aground on the reefs of my agnosticism when it comes to the existence of basketball gods and my pragmatism when it comes to issues of truth and justice. “Ball don’t lie!”—at least when interpreted in this usual way—appeals to those transcendent basketball gods and fixed ideals of truth and justice in which I just don’t want to believe. No matter how exciting it may be whenever Rasheed invokes them, transcendent gods and fixed ideals carry too much force in the imagination. I worry about them falling into less judicious hands than Sheed’s. Curiously, when I set aside this conventional interpretation, “Ball don’t lie!” stirs me all the more.
[. . .]