Sports Legend Revealed: Did Manute Bol coin the phrase 'my bad'?
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 his 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.
Times columnist 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!
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Photo: Manute Bol in 2008. Credit: Ed Zurga / AP