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Ball Don’t Lie

Sports metaphors, as a rule, are silly and rarely accurate. Football is not really like war, regardless of what its legion of ex-players and commentators will tell you. Baseball does not provide a window into America—the gentle tension between laconic, quasi-agrarian pacing and the game’s values of grit and meditative cunning feels nostalgic to the point of absurdity now. There was a time when every salaried sportswriter would anthropomorphize every three-year-old filly into Joan of Arc, but those stories read like kitsch today. They may evoke some past, but no one under the age of sixty is sure if that past actually existed.

Hank Willis Thomas/Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
Hank Willis Thomas: Basketball and Chain, 2003

Basketball has always generated a different set of metaphors than football and baseball. Part of the distinction comes from the sport itself, which, like boxing, presents the athlete as both ordinary person and superhuman. Because it is played without caps or helmets and in a relatively small space, basketball allows us to see not only the emotions a player experiences during the game but also the beauty and extraordinary skill that goes into every minute of action. It’s possible that you or I might close our eyes and picture ourselves playing second base for the Mets, but only the most delusional person would ever think they could play alongside seven-footers with forty-inch vertical leaps.

The closeness of the camera lens also invites the fan to reckon with who, exactly, the athletes are. The superstars, around whom the sport has always revolved, each has an interpretation of the game, epitomized by Michael Jordan’s singular intensity, or LeBron James’s patience and perfection, or Stephen Curry’s joy. Basketball, as a result, becomes “like jazz” or “like hip-hop” or “the heartbeat of the city.” The “soul” of the game, to borrow another coded cliché, is Black, somewhat, though not entirely, in the way that boxing was Black. Both sports have been dominated by Black athletes who take on a god-like status and become among the most famous people in the world. Both carry a vague, seemingly political weight, wherein every argument about Black people will also be freighted onto the Black athlete.

Boxing and basketball are both Black sports, but their myths—at least the ones that endure, whether Norman Mailer’s writing about Muhammad Ali in Zaire or Steve James, Peter Gilbert, and Frederick Marx’s footage of William Gates and Arthur Agee in Hoop Dreams—are created by white men who are earnestly, and often clumsily, trying to understand their subjects. The reports always read a bit anxious—there is no one more self-conscious than the white boxing or basketball writer who has to address race. Even the objections to the dominance of Black athletes in these two sports exist in an anxious state. You can cheer for the Great White Hope all you want, but you…

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