Basketball Urban Legends Revealed #13

This is the thirteenth in a series of examinations of basketball-related legends and whether they are true or false. This week, did Manute Bol coin the phrase “My bad”? Did the United States vote AGAINST sending NBA players to the Olympics in 1992? And what is the deal with Dan Gilbert and Lebron’s Fathead?

Click here to view an archive of all the previous basketball legends.

Let’s begin!

BASKETBALL LEGEND: Manute Bol coined the term “my bad.”

STATUS: False

When Manute Bol passed away last year at the far too young age of 47, he left behind an impressive legacy. Besides a ten-year career in the National Basketball Association (NBA), where the seven foot seven center (one of the very the first African-born players to be drafted in the NBA) was a dominant shot blocker (he is currently second all-time in career blocks per game), Bol had an even larger impact off of the court as a charity worker. Bol ended up effectively donating all the money he made during his NBA career to charity organizations, specifically those involving his home country Sudan. Bol was a tireless advocate for Sudanese refugees, choosing to do pretty much anything to raise money for his Ring True Foundation (which was a fund-raising organization to bring relief to Christians within Sudan), even competing in Fox’s Celebrity Boxing in 2002 in exchange for publicity for the Ring True Foundation.

Bol was a great man and when he passed away in 2010 due to acute kidney failure, he was honored all over the world, by both the basketball world and the world of international charity. He even received a salute on the floor of the United States Senate.

As noted above, Bol was second all-time in career blocks per game. However, on a per minute basis, Bol was even better. On a per minute basis, he was by far the most prolific shot-blocker in the history of the NBA. The problem was that Bol, who never played basketball until he was 16, was not particularly skilled in the other areas of basketball. He was an awful shooter, a mediocre rebounder for hie height (average overall) and he turned the ball over at a prodigious rate. Therefore, he never played a lot of minutes in the NBA, only averaging over 20 minutes a game twice (not surprisingly, the only two years he led the NBA in blocks per game). In addition to not playing basketball until he was 16, Bol did not start learning English until he was 21, when he was invited to Cleveland by the coach of Cleveland State University (Bol could not actually play for Cleveland State, as their basketball program was put on probation for giving improper financial assistance to Bol and a couple other African players). When you combine his rough basketball skills, his rough grasp on the English language and his general good natured attitude, you possibly get the creation of a new phrase.

The great Bill Plaschke had this to say on ESPN’s Around the Horn following Bol’s death last year:

Also, you might not know this, he coined the phrase ‘my bad’ back in the late 1980s. Language experts have pretty much proven this. When he made a pass, instead of saying ‘my fault,’ he would say ‘my bad,’ because he didn’t understand the language. That is the absolute truth.

Is it? Let’s find out!

Almost certainly, Plaschke was referring to a great article Dan Steinberg wrote for the Washington post soon after Bol’s death about the possibility that Bol coined the term “my bad.” Steinberg, in turn, used as its main source a blog article by Geoffrey K. Pullum from a few years earlier. Pullum cited two notable quotes from the late 1980s referring to Bol and the term “my bad.” From the Washington Post, in early 1989, “The best thing about him is he keeps the Warriors loose. When he throws a bad pass, he’ll say, ‘My bad’ instead of ‘My fault,’ and now all the other players say the same thing.” and from USA Today, also in early 1989, “After making a bad pass, instead of saying ‘my fault,’ Manute Bol says, ‘my bad.’ Now all the other Warriors say it too.”

Now do note that Pullum only throws Bol out there as a possible originator of the phrase. He never states it to any certainty. Nor did Steinberg in his article from 2010 (heck, Steinberg makes a specific point of doubting that Bol coined it), but for whatever reason, it was quickly picked up as a definitive fact, both by Plaschke on Around the Horn and also in the aforementioned Senate salute Bol received after his passing. There was another 1989 source that gave the support for the term coming from Bol’s poor English, Martin Manley’s Basketball Heaven, which states “[w]hen Manute makes a mistake, his Sudanese dialect leads him to say, ‘my bad,’ and he does have to say it occasionally.”

However, in his 1994 biography on Bol, Leigh Montville had a different take on Bol’s use of the phrase, noting that Bol “didn’t know English, but he sure liked to talk. He quickly used all the phrases of the practice game, saying, ‘Let’s get busy,’ or ‘I’m kicking it,’ or ‘My bad.’” Montville therefore suggests that Bol picked up the phrase from other players, and there are numerous citations of the term being used in 1985, 1986 and 1987, well before Bol came to play for Golden State, so that theory sounds so much more likely that I think it is fair to say that it is, indeed, the true origin of the term. Yes, Bol did play in the United States as early as 1983, but there are no citations about Bol’s usage of the term until the late 1980s, plus the term was being cited all over the country, so it is almost certainly true that the term originated in playground basketball all over the United States and then slowly made its way into the popular vernacular. This is not to say that perhaps Bol greatly aided in the proliferation of the phrase, but he does not appear to be the one who coined it.

Thanks so much to Dan Steinberg, Geoffrey K. Pullum, Ben Zimmer (who wrote a great blog article on the topic here) and Bill Plaschke!

BASKETBALL LEGEND: The United States voted against sending National Basketball Association players to the 1992 Olympics.

STATUS: True

From the first Men’s Basketball tournament in the Summer Olympics in 1936, where the United States won a thrilling, high-scoring 18-9 victory over Canada (okay, maybe not thrilling or high scoring) to claim the Gold Medal, the United States has dominated the sport of Men’s Basketball. From 1936 through 1984, a span of eleven Olympic Games, the United States only failed to win the Gold Medal twice. Once in the highly controversial (I mean highly controversial) 1972 Gold Medal Game against the Soviet Union and once in 1980 (when the United States boycotted the Moscow Summer Olympics). So really, in the first eleven Olympic Men’s Basketball tournaments, the United States did not suffer a single clean loss. They were the dominant force in men’s basketball in the world. That changed in 1988, when the amateur-led team from the United States (featuring future NBA Hall of Famer David Robinson and future NBA All-Stars Dan Majerle, Danny Manning and Mitch Richmond) lost to the Soviet Union basketball team, which consisted of professional basketball players, including future NBA players Šarūnas Marčiulionis and Arvydas Sabonis. The 24-year-old Sabonis was one of the best players in the world at the time (and had already been named European Player of the Year three times by the time the 1988 Olympics rolled around).

Before the tournament even finished (but after the United States had been eliminated from Gold Medal contention), the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) had decided to hold a vote in early 1989 to re-visit the subject of whether players from the National Basketball Association (NBA) should be allowed to participate in future international games. Obviously, the vote passed and the “Dream Team” was born, and they dominated the next three Olympics (plus the 1994 FIBA World Championships) before they, too, fell short at the 2004 Olympics and the 2002 and 2006 World Championships (the 1998 team lost, too, but it had no professional players on it due to the then-current NBA labor dispute). A re-vamped USA Basketball team dominated both the 2008 Olympics and the 2010 World Championships. We shall see what will happen in 2012. Clearly, though, the rest of the world has closed whatever gap existed in 1992.

History remembers the situation as the United States being angered/embarrassed over losing the 1988 Olympics and deciding to fix the situation by sending their best to take care of things in 1992. But is that actually what happened?

As it turns out, the biggest advocate behind the involvement of NBA players was not the United States at all, but rather Borislav Stanković, Secretary General of FIBA from 1976 through 2002. If you were to sum up Stanković’s personal view on sports, I believe it would be “the best should compete against the best.” This is why he pushed for professional players to be allowed to play in FIBA international tournaments, and by 1986 the NBA was the only professional league where its players could not play in FIBA international tournaments. Similarly, Stanković was an early advocate of European players playing in the NBA. The Serbian Stanković pushed his fellow countrymen to try to make it in the NBA.

But his main goal (his “white whale,” if you would) was getting NBA players into FIBA international competitions.

Awhile back, he reflected on his main two reasons for pushing for the idea so much:

Our competition was closed to the NBA players, but no one else. That seems immoral. The second is very simple. Our feeling is that only by playing with the best players in the world can everyone else make progress. If you are from another country and you can run a race against Carl Lewis, maybe you don’t have a chance. But you still want to run.

Surprisingly enough, the first vote on such a change happened before the 1988 Olympics! You see, the U.S. amateur teams were already having a little trouble in the years leading up to the 1988 Olympics. No basketball observers felt that the United States would just roll over their competition (especially as the 1984 Olympic victory was at least somewhat a by-product of the Soviets boycotting the Los Angeles Olympics- although, to be honest, the 1984 team was pretty stacked with Patrick Ewing, Michael Jordan, Chris Mullin and Sam Perkins, so it might very well have defeated a team of professionals from the Soviet Union). In any event, Stanković nearly pushed his plan through in 1986, but the final vote was 31-27 against the idea (with 18 or 19 countries abstaining). Interestingly enough, though, one of the votes against the idea was from the United States!

Stanković was not deterred. At the time, he noted:

It is nonsense to have 200 million players in the world as FIBA members but not the 300 best players. Today it is a fact the U.S. professionals are much stronger, but only by playing with stronger teams can the rest of the world improve.

So, with the 1988 U.S. loss as his rallying cry, Stanković tried again in 1989 and this time, he succeeded (despite the Soviet Union, who also voted against the plan in 1986, trying to work in a stipulation that only two NBA players could play on any one team – imagine the competition if such a rule passed? Who would the U.S. have sent in each of the past five Olympics?). The NBA would join FIBA and NBA players would compete in the 1992 Olympics. Once again, though, the United States voted against the idea!!

So when history says that the United States was so irked over losing the 1988 Olympics that they had the rules changed to allow them to send players to the 1992 Olympics, it is mistaken. Well, at least they did not vote for the measure (for all I know they secretly did hope that the measure would pass but did not wish to publicly support it).

Thanks to Phil Hersh and the official USA Basketball website for the information!

BASKETBALL LEGEND: Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert specially priced a Lebron James Fathead to make a statement against his former player.

STATUS: True

As many fans of the NBA know, the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Dan Gilbert, is not exactly a fan of his former star player, Lebron James. As soon as James made it known that he was “taking his talents to South Beach” to play for the Miami Heat, Gilbert began regularly ripping James in the press and on Gilbert’s Twitter page. It continued all the way to this year’s NBA Finals, where Gilbert celebrated the victory of the Dallas Mavericks over the Miami Heat. It certainly helped that one of the first things Gilbert said about James’ departure was that karma would not allow the Heat to win another championship before the Cavaliers.

In any event, Gilbert found another avenue to express his displeasure with James – his Fathead!

You see, after making his fortune in the mortgage business as the founder of Quicken Loans, Gilbert began to spread his wealth around to a number of different companies. Among them are ePrize (an interaction promotions company), Xenith (a company that develops advanced helmets), Veritix (a company that specializes in paperless tickets), Stylecaster (an online fashion and beauty company), Quizzle (an online personal finance site) and, of course, Fathead.

Fathead sells large vinyl cut-outs of athletes for people (presumably mostly kids) to hang on their wall. If you name a league, Fathead sells vinyl cut-outs of players/participants from that league.

So when Lebron James left Cleveland, Gilbert was left in the odd position of having all of James’ old Cavaliers Fatheads. Now, you would think that these things would have to be discounted no matter what (because they are now out of date), but Gilbert took an interesting tact with James’ Fathead.

The largest James cut-out sold for $99.99. Gilbert reduced the price to $17.41.

Why such a specific price?

1741 was the year that Benedict Arnold, famed traitor of the American Revolution, was born.

I think Dan Gilbert might not like Lebron James very much.

All three of the Lebron James Fatheads have long sold out and they have not made one for James as a member of the Miami Heat.

Okay, that’s it for this week!

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com

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