New book shows how 1970s players reshaped relationships with team owners
A sportswriter once wrote that the NBA was out of control and no longer what James Naismith envisioned the sport of basketball to be when he invented it. This treatise came during the 1970s, when two leagues were battling for players—the older more established NBA, and the younger, hipper upstart league, the ABA (American Basketball Association).
But in starker terms, the White writer was speaking for White fans. The NBA had gotten too Black.
A similar sentiment was suspected to be among the reasons why the then-owner of the Detroit Pistons moved the team 60 miles away from downtown Detroit. We Black fans who largely supported the then-hapless NBA club were too many, and White fans coming to games were too few and supposedly too scared to come into Motown.
Now, decades later, NBA arenas are packed with Whites of all ages. LeBron James and other Black players are hugely popular, a far cry from those days when Black players were mostly seen as thugs, drug addicts and worse.
Theresa Runstedtler’s new book “Black Ball” is a must-read for today’s NBA fans. It is “a vital narrative history of 1970s pro basketball and the Black players who shaped the NBA,” according to the book’s press release.
The 350-plus-page book released last month by Bold Type Books is full of archival photos from the period covered by Runstedtler, a professor at American University who teaches Black history and whose research examines Black popular culture, focusing on the intersection of race, masculinity, labor and sport.
Her previous book was “Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner” on the first Black world heavyweight champion. It won the 2013 Phillis Wheatley Book Prize. The professor recently talked to the MSR about her latest effort.
“I know that basketball in the ’70s was an important moment,” explained the professor. “When I started looking at the history, there’s always reference to Kermit Washington’s punch in 1977 and the cocaine, quote-unquote, epidemic in the late ’70s and early ’80s in the NBA. Is that really all in the ’70s?
“I knew that Julius Erving coming out of the ABA and going into the NBA, and Earl “The Pearl” Monroe had just transformed the game in ways that White fans were not accustomed to, so I knew it was this moment of transformation.
“So, I wanted to go back and really try and marry this story in a way that paid homage to the guys who really reshaped the relationship between the players and the owners, and fought back against the racial status quo in professional sports, and made the NBA into the kind of league that it is today.”
Spencer Haywood, Connie Hawkins and Oscar Robertson, who was the NBA players union president, are among those Runstedtler talks about in “Black Ball.” She also talks about how some NBA teams such as Detroit followed the White flight from urban areas to the suburbs.
“Black Ball” is more than a nostalgic look back at the NBA bygone days. It also reaffirms the notion that as some things change, some things remain the same.
“I think one of the things that happened with [the late commissioner David Stern] and others is to come to terms with the fact that the NBA was going to be essentially a Black game…and they can no longer dictate to the player like they used to,” said Runstedtler.
“But of course it’s always an ongoing tension about who gets to define Blackness. Is it the players? Is it the team owners, league officials? But certainly the players have much more power than they did back in the 1970s.”