Dunk Days: On Theresa Runstedtler’s “Black Ball”
By Joseph DardaMarch 19, 2023
Black Ball: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Spencer Haywood, and the Generation that Saved the Soul of the NBA by Theresa Runstedtler
League commissioner Larry O’Brien took action. In 1977, he issued a memo warning teams that on-court violence would be met “with stern measures from the commissioner’s office” and raised the maximum fine for rules violations from $500 to $10,000. (The maximum fine for fighting in MLB and the NHL remained $500 into the 1980s.) O’Brien, the former chair of the Democratic National Committee, didn’t have to wait long to dole out his first maximum fine. At a December 1977 game at the Forum in Los Angeles, a scuffle broke out at midcourt between the Lakers and the Houston Rockets, during which Kermit Washington of the Lakers, a Black forward from working-class Washington, DC, decked Rudy Tomjanovich of the Rockets, a white forward from working-class Michigan. Tomjanovich suffered a fractured skull and concussion that sidelined him for the rest of the season, and The Punch made national headlines, with Washington serving as a stand-in for all that had gone wrong with the NBA (and the mild-mannered, blue-collar Tomjanovich for all that had been lost).
David Stern, then the league’s outside counsel, later described that time as the NBA’s “dark days.” “We were looked upon as a league that was too black, too violent, and too drug-involved during the late seventies,” he told the sportswriter John Feinstein, who wrote an entire book about the Washington-Tomjanovich incident. “The violence was without question a major issue, something that had to be dealt with.” Stern, who succeeded O’Brien as commissioner in 1984, would deal with it, transforming the NBA into a celebrated global brand—the home of Magic and Bird, of Michael Jordan, of the Dream Team.
Or did he? A new book from the historian Theresa Runstedtler asks us to reconsider the NBA’s dark days. The pros of that era, she argues in Black Ball: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Spencer Haywood, and the Generation that Saved the Soul of the NBA, carried forward the athletic revolt of the 1960s—Muhammad Ali refusing conscription, Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising black-gloved fists, Wyomia Tyus dancing the “Tighten Up”—organizing to secure better salaries and benefits and wrest control of their careers from team owners. “Though sometimes disparaged and often disregarded,” Runstedtler writes, “this earlier generation helped pave the way for the growth of the NBA as a global profit machine and cultural force.”
The stories of addicts and criminals that we remember arose from a backlash against the demands of organized athletic labor and Black advancement in other industries and institutions. When the Los Angeles Times ran “The NBA: Where It’s Legal to Mug a Fellow Worker,” Connie Hawkins, Spencer Haywood, Oscar Robertson, Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, Julius “Dr. J” Erving, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wouldn’t have missed the racial undertones. But they agreed with, and organized themselves around, at least one word in that title: worker.
In reading Runstedtler’s authoritative history of the personalities and politics of post-civil-rights professional basketball, I couldn’t help but wish that Adam McKay and company had optioned it rather than Jeff Pearlman’s Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s (2014), the source material for the current HBO docudrama series Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty.
In the pilot episode, which premiered last March, we meet Lakers owner-to-be Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly) as he wakes beside a topless woman at the Playboy Mansion and, breaking the fourth wall, explains the NBA of 1979 to the camera: “The National Basketball Association. The NBA. You’ve heard of it, right? Of course, you have. Who hasn’t? I’ll tell you who.” He points to a tangle of sleeping young white people sprawled naked around Hugh Hefner’s gaudy home. “Them. Young people, hip people, fashionable people.”
The NBA, he says, has an image problem. It’s “too dark.” Over 10 episodes, Buss drafts the charismatic Magic Johnson, opens the Forum Club, adds floor seats (welcome, Jack Nicholson), introduces the sexed-up Lakers Girls, and finds an ally in the league’s new executive vice president, Dave Stern. Goodbye, dark days. Hello, Showtime. On his Substack, Abdul-Jabbar accused the show of replacing facts with “flimsy cardboard fictions.”
Runstedtler, who combines an academic historian’s depth of knowledge with a novelist’s sense of story and character, cuts through McKay’s cardboard. When Abdul-Jabbar graduated from UCLA in 1969, after leading the Bruins to three consecutive NCAA titles, he had options. The NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks drafted him first overall, as did the New York Nets of the upstart American Basketball Association. Founded in 1967 by businessmen who hoped to force a merger with the NBA, as the American Football League had with the NFL, the ABA pioneered the three-point shot and the high-flying style of play embodied by its biggest star, Erving, and showcased in another league innovation, the slam dunk contest. The “Black ball” of Runstedtler’s title was born not in the NBA, which maintained an informal quota system into the late 1960s, but in the ABA, which recruited prospects from Black colleges and universities whom NBA scouts had routinely overlooked.
The ABA gave a generation of pros a lever of power that few professional athletes have enjoyed since. Players didn’t have to bend to whatever one league required of them; they could take their talents to the other. Salaries went up, and players challenged league offices without fear of exile from the sport. In 1966, Hawkins filed a lawsuit against the NBA, alleging that it had conspired to deprive him of the opportunity to make a living for his alleged (and unsubstantiated) involvement in a collegiate point-shaving scandal. He won a $1.3 million settlement and joined the Phoenix Suns. In 1970, Haywood fought a league rule that required players to be four years removed from high school. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court. Haywood won and joined the Seattle SuperSonics. That same year, Robertson, the president of the National Basketball Players Association, spearheaded an antitrust suit against the NBA. The suit temporarily blocked an NBA-ABA merger and led, in 1976, to the end of the reserve system, which had effectively bound a player to a team for the duration of his career, and the introduction of free agency. Their rebellion against the NBA’s rigid status quo, Runstedtler writes, “heralded the rise of a new generation of Black ballplayers whose legal and labor challenges would shake the racial and economic structure of pro sports.”
With the settlement of the Robertson case, the ABA, down to just six teams at the end of 1975–76 season, merged with the NBA, taking away the players’ most formidable weapon: competition for their labor. By the time of the merger, the NBA had transformed from a majority-white to a majority-Black league, making it, for owners, media, and fans, a shorthand for Black America—a way of talking about race without talking about race—and sometimes a laboratory for racial policy.
In 1972, the NBA hired ex–FBI agent Jack Joyce as its first in-house security chief, directing him to set up “bureaus” in each of the league’s 17 cities. “We aren’t trying to catch these guys,” Joyce told Newsday. “We’re trying to protect them. The owners have a huge investment in the ballplayers. The blue chips are worth a million dollars or more. If they lose the ballplayers, they lose money.” As the 1970s wore on, Joyce’s office increasingly policed drug use among players—young Black men making good money in a bad economy—and reported back to the commissioner’s office, which continued to raise fines and lengthen suspensions for rules infractions. The NBA had an image and the owners’ bodily investments to protect. The league’s surveillance of its Black workforce did not merely reflect the racial politics of the 1970s; it introduced and normalized many of the paternalistic racial practices of the next chapter in the war on drugs.
Runstedtler—whose previous book, Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner: Boxing in the Shadow of the Global Color Line (2012), situates the heavyweight champion at the leading edge of an emerging Black diasporic culture—belongs to a cohort of sports historians that has deprovincialized the study of athletics. A newly minted PhD in sports history told me recently that her Johnson biography served as a kind of north star for his dissertation on the international lives of Black baseball players in the Jim Crow era.
That doesn’t mean that Runstedtler ignores the basketball accomplishments—the stats, the titles, the iconic plays—of Earl the Pearl and Dr. J. But hers is more than a basketball book, just as her subjects were more than basketball players. The reason we don’t see more titles like Black Ball published by trade presses is perhaps obvious: there is a reliable audience for books that replay the greatest hits of a sport, a team, a player. The business of popular sports history is driven by nostalgia. Runstedtler’s book is not nostalgic.
One of the book’s most important sources is the magazine Black Sports, which ran from 1971 until 1978 and offered a perspective that frequently ran counter to that of the white-dominated national sports media. The founder, a Black former RCA executive named Allan P. Barron, sought to highlight what he called “the plight of the black sports writer.” “Where is he?” he asked in a 1973 interview. “When you go in that press box in spring training, look around you. See how many are there.” When, in the wake of The Punch, white sportswriters declared that violence in professional basketball had reached crisis levels, Black Sports asked why no one at Sports Illustrated or The Sporting News worried about violence in the predominantly white NHL, where tickets “might as well be stamped ‘At Least One Fight Guaranteed Each Game.’”
It would be difficult to write a book like Black Ball without the archive of Black Sports, which raises the question of whether we have access to such independent sports reporting today. The magazine achieved unique insight by creating a place for Black sportswriters, as Barron intended, but also by reporting on a league without being, formally or informally, its business partner. National sports media has gotten more diverse since the 1970s but also, as the sports industry has swelled and attracted massive corporate investment, less independent. ESPN reporting on the NFL is like Lockheed Martin auditing the US military.
The anthem protests of Colin Kaepernick and other prominent athletes since the mid-2010s have often drawn comparisons to Smith and Carlos’s Black Power salute at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. With Black Ball, Runstedtler fills in a historical gap that may give us some indication of what comes next, of how a powerful symbolic gesture can lead to, but also overshadow, an on-the-ground struggle for fair compensation and autonomy. Prior to her academic career, Runstedtler worked as a member of the Toronto Raptors Dance Pak, an unsalaried position that left her, along with arena employees, without an urgently needed paycheck during the NBA lockout of the 1998–99 season. Looking back on that experience, she writes, “The sports industry as a whole is ripe for a more expansive vision of racial and labor politics,” one that recognizes the labor on the court and the vast working class beyond it.
Joseph Darda is an associate professor of literature at Texas Christian University and the author of three books, including, most recently, The Strange Career of Racial Liberalism (Stanford, 2022). With the historian Amira Rose Davis, he is co-editing a forthcoming special issue of American Quarterly titled “The Body Issue: Sports and the Politics of Embodiment.”
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