on the shelf
Black Ball: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Spencer Haywood and the generation that saved the soul of the NBA
By Theresa Runstedtler
Bold Type: 368 pages, $29
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Young black men on drugs! Let the battles begin! Want to pay! This was the NBA’s collective boogeyman of the 1970s and early ’80s, a time of transition in professional basketball and society. Embracing a predominantly black style of play and reflecting the gains of the civil rights movement and Black Power, the NBA entered a new era of visibility. They expected stars to be compensated and taken seriously as human beings. Unsurprisingly, the backlash was significant: between management unwilling to give up total control and these new players shelling out huge sums of money (which by today’s standards would appear to be poor among the mostly white fans).
Oscar Robertson, who fought to remove buyout clauses from NBA contracts, as fans searched his luggage at the Milwaukee airport in 1971.
(Paul Shane/Associated Press)
This is the world of “Black Ball: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Spencer Haywood, and the Generation That Saved the NBA’s Soul,” Theresa Runstedtler’s erudite, compelling, and honestly delayed survey of a defining moment in the sport’s history. This is a story of work and race and America, mostly told through the prism of a league that is approaching but has not yet reached its current level of carefully produced popularity. It’s a story about anti-drug hysteria, set in the Me Decade of rampant cocaine use and a product close to the streets. And it’s a study of institutionalized racism in a culture changing so rapidly that its old white guard could hardly keep up.
“It’s the same time the Bronx was burning, and quote-unquote downtowns were recovering from all the uprisings that happened in the mid-’60s,” Runstedtler says from his home office in Baltimore. “There’s this concern that if young black men are given too much freedom, that will probably lead to some kind of violence … or criminal activity.”
Runstedtler, a professor and historian of race and sports at American University, took a perverse but enlightening path to his latest topic. Born in Ontario, he was a member of the Toronto Raptors Dance Pak in the 90s. A new expansion team, the Raptors started with a youth-first approach under Black founder, CEO and former NBA star Isiah Thomas.
“We didn’t look like the typical NBA dance team,” Runstedtler writes. “We were more urban athletic than sexy glamour. There was no fixation on weight. Paying homage to African-American hip-hop culture, we donned robes, bandanas and sequined jerseys, and danced to the latest rap and R&B hits.’
But then the team was sold to the more corporate Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment. The group of dancers changed: “skinnier, whiter, blonder”. Hip-hop was replaced by Motown. As Runstedtler writes, “it appeared that we were favoring the wealthy white season ticket holders on the floor rather than the average (often non-white) fans who were nosebleeds. In some ways, this book has been more than two decades in the making to make sense of what I attended in the late 1990s. one.
After studying history and African-American studies at Yale, Runstedtler began thinking about and researching the so-called “dark ages” of the NBA. The arguments are many.
There’s the legal battle against superstar Oscar Robertson over the NBA’s option (or reserve) clause, which bound a player to a team for life at the team’s discretion. There’s the arrival of the fledgling and fascinating ABA, which briefly gave players more options — freedom the NBA feared so much it forced a merger in 1976.
There’s also Abdul-Jabbar, the cerebral UCLA and Lakers great who confused the media with his feigned politeness and refusal to play canned responses. There’s the hysteria about players using cocaine, a drug popular with many people with disposable income in the 70s and 80s, when it was rich black people who somehow horrified and outraged the league and the media. (An article in the Los Angeles Times helped fuel the panic).
‘Black Ball’ author Theresa Runstedrler is a historian of race and sports.
(Photo by Britt Ecker-Olsen)
Runstedtler is clear that he knows the NBA was not an angel in the 70s. “I’m not saying in the book that no one was doing coke, but we have to think of that as a racialized narrative, this dominant story about black basketball players becoming a moral panic in the years leading up to what eventually becomes the crack cocaine crisis,” he says. “Everybody’s falling in lockstep and saying, ‘Yeah, we’ve got to punish these guys. We’ve got to control them. We’ve got to control them using the police.'” It’s the same kind of rhetoric used in the increasingly draconian war on drugs.
The stroke of honesty that drives “Black Ball” is its emphasis on how we view the game and how our perceptions of race can’t be divorced from the eras in which sports are played and whose audiences they belong to. play again Today’s NBA has mastered the art of having it both ways, taking advantage of the league’s freshness and its Black style without ruffling too many feathers. (This is largely the subject of another fine basketball book, “From Hang Time to Prime Time” by Pete Crootto).
“Black Ball” is a timely read, at a time when professional athletes are more prominent than ever in social issues, and when it is clear that sport and society are inextricably linked. Without the progress recounted here, it’s hard to imagine, for example, the NFL committing $250 million to address systemic racism (basically because of Colin Kaepernick’s silent protests against police brutality).
Members of the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics kneel around a Black Lives Matter logo before the start of a 2020 NBA basketball game in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
(Ashley Landis/Pool/Getty Images)
It’s also important to note that NBA players have been told to “shut up and dribble” for decades. Runstedtler represents a school of sports writing and scholarship that recognizes that the most important action happens off the court.
Chris Vognar is a freelance writer living in Houston.