A vital narrative history of 1970s pro basketball, and the Black players who shaped the NBA
Against a backdrop of ongoing resistance to racial desegregation and strident calls for Black Power, the NBA in the 1970s embodied the nation’s imagined descent into disorder. A new generation of Black players entered the league then, among them Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Spencer Haywood, and the press and public were quick to blame this cohort for the supposed decline of pro basketball, citing drugs, violence, and greed. Basketball became a symbol for post-civil rights America: the rules had changed, allowing more Black people onto the playing field, and now they were ruining everything.
Enter Black Ball, a gripping history and corrective in which scholar Theresa Runstedtler expertly rewrites basketball’s “Dark Ages.” Weaving together a deep knowledge of the game with incisive social analysis, Runstedtler argues that this much-maligned period was pivotal to the rise of the modern-day NBA. Black players introduced an improvisational style derived from the playground courts of their neighborhoods. They also challenged the team owners’ autocratic power, garnering higher salaries and increased agency. Their skills, style, and savvy laid the foundation for the global popularity and profitability of the league we know today.
In this illuminating study, African American history professor Runstedtler (Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner: Boxing in the Shadow of the Global Color Line) analyzes 1970s professional basketball through the lens of race. In 1980, an L.A. Times article reported that there was an epidemic of cocaine use among NBA players, 75% of whom were Black. That exposé, Runstedtler notes, fed into a narrative that the league's decline was due to the rise of Black athletes. The truth, Runstedtler argues, is that Black players "ultimately transformed basketball in this neglected yet crucial period." Among the pivotal figures who ushered in change were Cornelius "Connie" Hawkins and Spencer Haywood, who both argued that the league was blocking their right to make a living and won antitrust lawsuits against the NBA. As well, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar "embodied the complexity of African American politics in the post-civil rights era" and toured Africa, changed his birth name to a Muslim name, and spoke out against sports media's derogatory depiction of Black players. Runstedtler's superior storytelling, buoyed by expert research, casts a new light on the league's complex history. This savvy reappraisal of the NBA's tumultuous evolution soars.