On the shelf
Black Ball: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Spencer Haywood, and the generation that saved the NBA’s soul
By Theresa Runstedtler
Bold Text: 368 pages, $29
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Young black men on drugs! Battles begin! Looking to get paid! This was the collective NBA boogeyman of the 1970s and early 1980s, a transitional period in professional basketball and society. As a majority-black league that embraced a flashy style of play and reflected the achievements of the civil rights movement and Black Power, the NBA entered a new era of visibility. The stars are expected to be compensated and taken seriously as human beings. Not surprisingly, the backlash was significant – among management hesitant to relinquish absolute control and among a largely white fan base resentful of these new players raking in big piles of money (which, by today’s standards, is a looks like).
This is the world ofBlack ball: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Spencer Haywood, and the Generation that Saved the Soul of the NBA,” Theresa Runstedtler’s wise, engaging, and frankly overdue overview of a pivotal moment in sports history. This is primarily a story about labor and race and America, told through the prism of a league approaching but not yet reaching its current level of mass-produced, carefully packaged popularity. It’s a story of anti-drug hysteria set in the Me-decade of rampant cocaine use and of a product struggling with proximity to the street. And it is a study of institutionalized racism in a culture that is changing so fast that the old white guard could barely keep up.
“This is the same period when the Bronx was on fire and the uncited inner cities were recovering from all the uprisings that happened in the mid-1960s,” Runstedtler says from her home office in Baltimore. “There’s a fear that young black men are being given too much freedom — that it’s likely to lead to some form of violence… or criminal activity.”
Runstedtler, a professor and historian of race and sports at American University, took a circuitous but illustrative route to her latest topic. Born in Ontario, she was a member of the Toronto Raptors Dance Pak in the 1990s. A new expansion team, the Raptors, started with a youthful startup approach under Black co-founder, general manager 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 weight fixation. In homage to African-American hip-hop culture, we wore overalls, bandanas and sequined sweaters 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 dance crew changed: “skinnier, whiter, blonder.” Hip-hop was replaced by Motown. As Runstedtler writes, “It became clear that we were performing for the wealthy white season ticket holders on the floor rather than the mainstream (often non-white) fans in the nosebleeds. In some ways, this book has been worked on for over two decades—a way for me to understand what I became a part of in the late 1990s.”
After studying history and African-American studies at Yale, Runstedtler began thinking about and researching what is sometimes referred to as the NBA’s “Dark Ages.” The storylines are many.
There’s superstar Oscar Robertson’s legal battle against the NBA’s option (or reserve) clause, which tied a player to one team for life, at the discretion of the team. There’s the arrival of the upstart, dazzling ABA, which briefly gave players more choices—a freedom the NBA feared so much it forced a merger in 1976.
There’s also Abdul-Jabbar, the cerebral UCLA and Lakers great, who stunned the media by refusing to play along with his game of feigned politeness and canned answers. There’s the hysteria over players’ use of cocaine, a drug that was popular with many people on disposable incomes in the ’70s and ’80s, that somehow terrified and enraged the league and the media when rich black guys surrendered. (An insinuation driven Article in the Los Angeles Times helped sow the panic).
Runstedtler makes it clear she knows the NBA wasn’t angelic in the ’70s. “I’m not saying in the book that no one was on coke, but that we should see that as a racial narrative, a moral panic that became this big story about black basketball players in the years leading up to what ended up being a crack cocaine crisis,” she says. “Everyone just falls into line and says, ‘Yeah, we have to punish these guys. We have to control them. We have to keep an eye on them with the help of the police.’” It’s the same kind of rhetoric that was used in the increasingly increasingly draconian War on Drugs.
The line of fairness that guides “Black Ball” is the insistence that our perceptions of race influence how we view the game, and that you just can’t separate sports from the time they are played in – and the audience for who they’re played. Today’s NBA has mastered the art of having it both ways, leveraging the league’s cool and black style without ruffling too many feathers. (This is largely the subject of another fine basketball book, Pete Croatto’s “From Hang Time to Prime Time”).
“Black Ball” is a topical book at a time when top athletes are more outspoken than ever about social themes and it is clear that sport and society are inextricably linked. Without the advancements detailed here, it’s hard to imagine the NFL committing $250 million, say, to combat systemic racism (after essentially blacklisting Colin Kaepernick for his silent sideline protests against police brutality).
It’s also important to note that NBA players have been told for decades to “shut up and dribble,” or some equivalent. Runstedtler represents a school of sports writing and science that recognizes that the most important action takes place off the field.
Chris Vognar is a freelance writer based in Houston.