The LARB Ball NBA Roundtable

The LARB Ball NBA Roundtable
With the NBA season in full swing, I reached out to Theresa Runstedtler (Associate Professor of History at American University) and Yago Colás (Professor of English at Oberlin College), sports scholars with expertise (and books in progress) about the pro game, to discuss the state of the league today and its history. Moving between on- and off-court issues, and from the 1970s to our expectations for the new season, the conversation takes up topics including LeBron’s move west, NBA vs. NFL politics, race and power, the basketball version of “moneyball,” the league’s embrace of gambling, and the past and future of business-minded player-celebrities. How long can Golden State’s stranglehold on the league last? Will big data analytics sap the game of its pleasing uncertainty? Can a new generation of players, coaches, and owners steer the league to a more politically progressive place? And for those interested as much in reading about the sport as watching the games, stick around to the end for book recommendations. Enjoy! - BRJ

Brian Jacobson: Let’s start broadly: what story lines—on or off the court—most interest you as the NBA season kicks off?

Theresa Runstedtler: I’m interested to see what happens as LeBron James makes his transition from the Cavaliers to the Lakers. Will he continue to be vilified for his lack of loyalty and individual career ambitions? I’m also interested to see what happens with Vince Carter’s year with the Hawks. I was part of the Raptors organization during his first season in 1998. To hear him talked about as the “old guy” at 41 years of age is amusing to me (and tells me I’m getting old too). I guess even though I haven’t lived in Toronto for 17 years, I’m still a Raptors fan at heart. I’m curious to see whether the addition of Kawhi Leonard will improve or hurt the team’s chemistry on the court. #WetheNorth

Yago Colás: I share Theresa’s interest in LeBron’s move to the West, but for slightly different reasons. I’ve lived half an hour from Cleveland for the last seven years, and my sense is that, at least in this region, fans wish LeBron well.  They are grateful for the 2016 championship, and recognize all he does (and will surely continue to do) for the area. As the mother of one of the youngsters participating in the LeBron James Family Foundation educational initiative told Howard Bryant on the radio program Only a Game, “I don’t care where he works.”

I am interested, however, to see how LeBron responds to his changed competitive circumstances. He now has a young team around him and will be facing the much deeper Western Conference.  Will the Lakers make the playoffs? If they struggle early (they are 2-3 as I write), will they add a superstar? What will Kobe’s legendary legion of insane fans do to LeBron if LA is horrible? On the other hand, if they do make the playoffs, how deep a run can they make? And, as a massive LeBron fan, OH MY GOD, what if they beat the Thunder, Rockets and Warriors to get to the finals and then beat the Celtics or the Raptors?!! LeBron will have become, as Obi Wan once said, “more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”

The other interesting story emerging from LeBron’s move to the Lakers is what will happen in the East now that the roadblock to the Finals named LeBron James has been removed. Toronto or Boston should be ready to come out of the East, but will they?  Will the young Sixers continue their ascent? As I write, Toronto is undefeated (congrats Theresa!), but the other unbeaten teams in the East are Milwaukee and Detroit! Of course, it’s early, but with so many exciting and talented young players distributed on different teams, I think the Eastern conference could be very exciting.

A week or so into the season, the one league-wide trend that has caught my eye is the marked uptick in both scoring and pace (meaning: possessions per game) this season.  Though it’s early in the season, both figures are on pace to easily set historic high marks and observers have attributed this to the convergence of a number of factors, one of which is NBA officials calling defensive fouls away from the ball more closely, which obviously works to the offense’s advantage, especially given the penchant in today’s NBA for Warriors-esque action away from the ball.  It’ll be interesting to see if this early offensive explosion prompts any effective defensive adjustments, provokes any kind of backlash among fans and, if so, any kind of adjustments from the League.

Finally, at a personal level, I’m always interested to see how my former University of Michigan students fare as they adjust to the demands of pro ball.  As the season opened, former students of mine were playing for Brooklyn (Caris LeVert), the Knicks (Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr.), the Pistons (Glenn Robinson III),  the Trailblazers (Nik Stauskas), and the Lakers (Moe Wagner). Having gotten to know these hard-working players when they were just 18 year old freshman with big NBA dreams, I’m happy to see that they have all stuck with it and are beginning, each in their own way, to make a mark.

BRJ: I too am interested in Lebron’s move and how a single player can shape so many storylines. Here in Boston, where I spend part of my time, the Celtics still appear to be built for long-term success, but the reintegration of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward hasn’t been as seamless as fans might have hoped. Will that allow Toronto, finally, to get to the finals (and perhaps even keep Kawhi from packing his bags for LA next summer)? Or will this be the year the 76ers move from process to product? (*paging Markelle Fultz’s jump shot*)

I guess we’d be remiss if we didn’t also mention the Jimmy Butler situation (fiasco?) in Minnesota, which represents fairly well, I think, the internal and individual tensions—among players, coaches, and management—that PR-minded teams and agents usually do so well to keep out of the spotlight—but that sports journalists, when given the opportunity, just can’t seem to get enough of.

But in the interest of other stories, I want to shift directions now to talk about the politics of the NBA, especially in comparison to the NFL, which was covered in the column last month. The NFL, and especially its owners and commissioner, have (rightly, I think) been denounced for their conservative politics and failure to respond to Donald Trump’s comments about and implicit threats against players kneeling during the anthem. In contrast, some critics see the NBA as a progressive league, with younger, more liberal owners and both players and coaches who have spoken out against Trump, racial injustice, and other political issues without receiving the kind of backlash as Colin Kaepernick or Eric Reid. Is this a fair contrast? If so, how do we account for the NBA’s comparative progressive politics—or at least the impression of it?

TR: When I tell people I’m working on a project about race and professional basketball in the 1970s, they often take the opportunity to tell me that the NBA is “so much more progressive” than any other professional sports league. I think that there is some truth to this statement when you compare the NBA to the NFL. However, something about this idea that the NBA is racially progressive doesn’t sit well with me--and it doesn’t really hold water when I look at the demonization and disciplining of both black players and black style over the decades. I think that if the NBA is progressive at all, it is because they have to be. In other words, since the 1970s the majority of the players have been black, and the NBPA has had many black leaders. The global audience of basketball has become increasingly multicultural and multiracial. It is not good business to be overtly racist. That said, the NBA has been very clever about how to depoliticize and aestheticize blackness for the sake of profitability, while also containing and managing its mix of danger and respectability for its corporate partners and white fans.

YC: I absolutely agree with Theresa’s more sober view of the NBA’s much-celebrated political progressiveness.  Sure, it looks great compared to the NFL, but that’s not saying much. The NBA’s racial containment strategies (e.g. the dress code), especially under former commissioner David Stern, from the late 70s through the 2000s were real and must be kept in mind.  (Readers might be interested in Todd Boyd’s Young, Black, Rich & Famous, David Leonard’s After Artest and Jeffrey Lane’s Under the Boards for accounts of these dynamics.)

At the same time, I wouldn’t underestimate the power of NBA players.  The NBA is a much smaller league than the NFL, and one in which individual stars have a much greater impact (not just on competitive outcomes, but on financial outcomes, and on the culture surrounding the league).  I sense that over the past eight years, the players have begun to experiment with exercising the power they have. Some of these experiments have involved internal power differentials within the league (like LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh “usurping” team formation powers that had always resided with GM’s and owners) or the NBPA resisting the use of biometric devices in game play, others have involved the manifestations of racism within the NBA (the Chris Paul-led reaction to the Donald Sterling case in 2015), and of course many have involved players acting or speaking out against police lethality against black men, transphobia, Donald Trump, or just racism more generally.  

I also think it’s important to note that 1) there is nothing politically retrograde in the NBA that is not also to be found in American society and 2) I’m wary of the general expectation that professional athletes have some sort of unique responsibility, different than any of the rest of us, to make the world more free and more just.

BRJ: As your answers make clear, even if the NBA is comparatively more progressive than the NFL today—which, as Yago says, is hardly a rousing endorsement—no doubt it remains an institution with a history of racism and front offices dominated by just as many white men as the NFL. Last year, Draymond Green accused one of these men, New York Knicks owner James Dolan, of having a “slave master mentality.” Meanwhile, a recent investigation into sexual harassment by former Dallas Mavericks president and CEO Terdema Ussery revealed “a corporate culture rife with misogyny and predatory sexual behavior,” followed just weeks ago by another report about sexual harassment by a Mavericks team photographer. What do these kinds of reports tell us about the league’s progressive claims?

TR: These incidents are hardly surprising to me. Racism and sexism are very much alive and well in professional basketball. All we need to do is look at someone like the LA Clippers’ former owner Donald Sterling to see that team owners (behind closed doors) still view their majority-black players as mere pawns (if not property) who are there to earn them money. Also, I was a dancer for the Toronto Raptors back in the late 1990s and can attest that aspects of toxic masculinity pervaded the league from bottom to top. That said, I don’t think there is anything exceptional about the NBA in this regard. Big-time sports leagues are all complicit in the production of anti-blackness and toxic masculinity. At the same time, they also reflect and reinforce the racism and sexism of society at large.

YC: Of course, I agree.  But what do we mean by “the League” when we talk about its politics. Are we talking about the Commissioner? The various owners? The legal corporation? The players? The superstar players? The NBPA?  I think we get different answers depending on who we are talking about. And, as I say, for me personally the most interesting political phenomenon over the past decade has been the increasing autonomy players are showing.  I’m very curious to see what the immediate and long-term effects of this will be.

The work I did to write Ball Don’t Lie! taught me that the whatever the League administrators and owners and their corporate partners, and even some more conservative fans may want, the players make the game and it is a game that is at its most essential level on the court about getting free.  I wouldn’t underestimate the cultural and political power of a group of young wealth, influential black men with a strong sense of shared interests and collective responsibility who have spent most of their lives dedicated to the embodied practice of getting free.

BRJ: It has become a common refrain that the NBA is a year-round league, with fans just as, if not more, interested in what’s happening off the court as on it—whether in free agency or the constant rumor mill about which player wants to play on which team, not to mention off-court politics and the players’ various entanglements in non-sports work. For those who love the game itself, this might seem like a sad state of affairs, but it also brings into focus something critics of course know: that the game itself is just the beginning. My question is this: is there actually anything new about the “year-round” nature of the league, or are we just more attentive to what happens beyond the games? If it is different, what has prompted the change?

TR: I don’t think there is anything particularly new about year-round reporting on the NBA and its players; however, the volume of reporting has definitely increased. I think there are a number of reasons for the uptick in coverage. Firstly, before the advent of the ABA and the players’ victory in removing the option clause as a condition of the ABA-NBA merger in 1976, there simply wasn’t as much player movement to report. (The option clause meant that a team retained the rights to a player even after the expiration of his contract. Thus, the team had full control over when a player could be re-signed, traded, or released.) Free agency has added another storyline to the sports news cycle. Since the expansion of professional basketball in the 1970s, publications have reported on players’ non-sports work—particularly the charitable, mentorship kind—because the league wanted to improve its public image. On the flipside, the press also has covered basketball players’ misdeeds, crimes, etc.—especially those of black players. However, changes to the media industry landscape have ramped up this coverage. With the move to a segmented marketplace of growing numbers of niche publications/networks, on both traditional and internet media, there is now a constant demand for more and more content. I suppose this kind of coverage might be dismaying to basketball “purists,” but it has long been part of the game.

YC:  I agree with everything Theresa has said here: it’s not new, though factors like free agency and transformations in the mediascape around the game have definitely fueled an expansion in the volume of coverage and interest around both off-court and off-season happenings.  My own current research (see below) is on the effect of quantification and big data analytics on the sport (i.e. the hoops version of “moneyball”) and I’ve found that this issue of year-round coverage is one of the areas of the sport’s culture impacted by the phenomenon.  As in other areas of American society, big data analytics in the NBA has the explicit aim of maximizing competitive and financial efficiency. I suspect that fans and journalists know a great deal more about the financial side of the sport than they previously did and that, together with the player assessment data available to fans through the media today, it’s easier to generate (and publish) opinions about off-seasons transactions.  

BRJ: It seems to me that part of the reason the league garners so much coverage beyond the games has to do with the celebrity power of today’s NBA stars, and probably no more so than LeBron. This summer, his foundation launched the “I Promise” school in Akron. Meanwhile, as many journalists have noted, his move to Los Angeles to join the Lakers seems to have as much to do with media production ambitions and life after basketball as NBA ambitions. And of course LeBron isn’t alone: we could say something similar about Kevin Durant’s move to Golden State and his ties with the Bay area startup scene, or about Russell Westbrook’s turns through the fashion world, or about Dwayne Wade’s wine business. What can we expect of the new NBA celebrities who have their sights set on personal brands and long-term non-basketball franchises? NBA players have long been spokesmen and some have gone into politics. Is the new generation—with its enormous salaries and business acumen—any different?

TR: I think the scale of their wealth and fame is certainly different. However, I was doing some reading in a 1970s-era publication called Black Sports a couple of weeks ago, which suggests that this idea of player-businessman is not so new. (Black Sports was the first major sporting publication to specifically target black readers from 1971 to 1978.) There was a monthly feature called “Taking Care of Business” that featured former professional athletes who translated their success in sports to success in the corporate world or as entrepreneurs. I think there has long been the expectation, particularly among black athletes, that they should parlay their sporting achievements into wealth and an elevated socio-economic status. When I was part of the Raptors organization back in the late 1990s, I also recall many of the players talking about side-hustles/hobbies that they hoped to turn into full-fledged businesses upon retirement. However, I do think that the players nowadays have much more access to contacts and capital to launch their own companies. What’s also interesting is the emergence of second-generation NBA stars such as Steph Curry (father Dell Curry played in the league from 1986-2002). They have an even better sense of how to work the business of basketball to their own advantage.

BRJ: Can you imagine any of today’s players going into politics? Is Lebron gearing up for a presidential run?

TR: Perhaps. Hey, if Donald Trump managed to become president, a former basketball player certainly can.

BRJ: Let’s talk more about the game itself. Even readers who don’t follow sports are likely to be familiar with the “moneyball” phenomenon that hit baseball with the publication of Michael Lewis’s book fifteen years ago in July. Has the “analytics revolution” shaped the NBA in similar ways?

TR: Obviously, some aspects of data analysis have contributed to the success of teams like the Golden State Warriors. How can one deny that the strategy of taking more three-point shots has been a good one for the Curry and the Warriors? However, I want to think about the analytics revolution in light of the ongoing negotiation of power between team owners and the players. I know that proponents of the data analytics revolution have tended to scoff at naysayers like Charles Barkley, casting them as less-evolved luddites who are simply suspicious of change. I’m no Barkley fan, but I’m wondering if part of this critique has to do with fears about the players losing control over the game. It seems as if the rise of data analytics has the potential to shift the balance of power more so in favor of the team owners, potentially taking away the autonomy and creativity of the players in practicing their craft. As Yago asks in Ball Don't Lie, who makes the game? The league and the team owners or the players?  Also, what about the invasiveness of the statistics garnered from trackers that some players now have to wear? What is the bodily autonomy of the athlete in this case? Data can be used as a means for increased surveillance, discipline, and punishment. I also wonder if the data analytics revolution may change the character of the game. What is the end goal of the game? Is it the efficiency of scoring? Is it creative, entertaining play? Are these incompatible? I’m not sure, but they’re definitely things to think about. Basketball, much like soccer, is one of the few professional team sports that encourages free-flowing play. How will data analytics impact this aspect of the game? It suggests a potential move away from the ethics and aesthetics of black streetball that have come to define modern basketball. I’m not sure this is a good thing.

YC: As I said above, I’m writing a book called Numbers Don’t Lie! Counting and What Counts in the Culture of Basketball (forthcoming from University of Nebraska Press) to explore the question of the impact of basketball analytics on NBA play and culture.  It’s played out a little differently than in baseball simply because in the NBA, the use of advanced statistical methods, enabled in part by computing power, to discern hidden patterns (which was what baseball’s moneyball was about) has coincided with the use of very sophisticated digital data production technologies (such as Second Spectrum’s optical tracking cameras, installed in every NBA arena, and which capture the movement of the ball and all ten players 25 times per second, thus delivering 800,000 data points to each franchise every game) so that basketball analytics is, at this point, essentially big data analytics.  

The most obvious and frequently noted impact is the continued rise of the three-point shot in response to the statistical insight that it’s greater point value, given the skills and patterns of play prevailing in the league, make it a more efficient scoring play than many two-point shots.  Another major trend that is still unfolding involves the use of wearables and other kinds of biometric technologies. Currently these can only be used in training and practice. Players understandably may want to know all they can about their bodies, their tendencies, and their futures. But the use of these devices should occasion serious discussion about the ethical and political implications related to quantification, surveillance, and the use of predictive algorithms in situations (like the NBA) where power differential exists.

However, as fascinating and powerful as basketball analytics are, and as important as the political and ethical questions raised by them are, I find myself personally even more compelled by a possibly more esoteric question raised by these techniques and technologies.  Let me put it to your readers this way. Nobody argues that the purpose of analytics is to minimize risk by maximizing the capacity to forecast future outcomes. In other words, when owners and GMs use the data to project career arcs for players and correlate those with financial cost-benefit analyses, when coaches use the data to make decisions about matchups and rotations, and when players use the data to make tactical and technical decisions, they are all hoping that they will not be surprised.  

Now, speaking for myself, most (not all, but most) of the delight I derive from watching basketball comes from being surprised.  The wonder and awe, the beauty and grace and power, that I experience when I watch basketball play depends, at least in part, on players and teams doing unexpected (and even probabilistically unadvisable) things.  I feel pretty sure that chance, randomness and surprise will continue to play a role in the NBA, but I wonder how that role will change with the continued expansion and advance of various kinds of predictive technologies.  The predictability of the Warriors’ dominance of the league over the past four seasons (2016 is the exception that proves this rule) may be interpreted as a sign of this.

To wit, here is a slide from a lecture I recently gave to members of International Association for the Philosophy of Sport.

Just sayin.

BRJ: The risk that probability and big data could take some of the fun out of the game by limiting surprise rings true to me. To wit, the conventional wisdom about Golden State seems to be that they can only lose in the unlikely event that one of their stars gets injured. That’s hardly the kind of surprise eagerly awaited by most fans. At the same time, one might rightly argue that the pleasure also comes from watching the game at its finest, and what could be finer than the Warriors offense? This, at least, was the argument many of Kevin Durant’s supporters made about his decision to boost this juggernaut by joining the already great team he couldn’t quite defeat.

The other argument might be that enough chance will always remain, especially for the casual fan. After all, even the best shooting teams—currently the New Orleans Pelicans(?!)—only make 50% of their shots, and so, one might argue, any play could always go either way (if you’re wondering, Pelicans star Anthony Davis is shooting over 59% after 3 games). And perhaps part of the fun is simply the work of calculating the odds—and betting on them. Earlier this month the Mavericks, following something of this logic, hired a former professional gambler as “director of quantitative research and development.” This follows the announcement, back in September, that the NBA had entered an agreement with sportsbook provider MGM Resorts, now the league’s “official gaming partner.” What does this official sanctioning of gambling signal about the league’s future ambitions? Can you see any long-term consequences for the game itself?

YC: The NBA, in its earliest years, benefited enormously from the disrepute that befell college basketball in the early 1950s as a result of the CCNY game-fixing scandal.  So I certainly expect that the League will do everything possible to avoid anything like that occurring.  But as my comment above suggests, everybody involved in the NBA (from owners, to GMs, to coaches, to players) are all already essentially gamblers and already using quantitative data to inform their bets.  Because of this, I see the official sanctioning of gambling more like the simple addition of another revenue stream rather than some sea change in the nature of the sport.

TR: I agree with Yago. It seems like a move to create another revenue stream. Nevertheless, this discussion makes me think back to the blackballing of Connie Hawkins for nearly a decade for his suspected ties to gambling ring leader, Jack Molinas. (Molinas ran a game-fixing operation.) Because of these unsubstantiated claims, Hawkins’ was first blackballed from the NCAA and then from the NBA, which nearly destroyed his chances of playing professional basketball. Forced to play in the ABL, ABA, and for the Harlem Globetrotters, Hawkins finally sued and won a settlement from the NBA in 1969. However, by then, his best playing days were over. Against the backdrop of this move to incorporate gambling, Hawkins’ story is all the more tragic.

BRJ: Thinking more about the NBA’s future and its relationship with college athletics, last week the New York Times reported that top high school recruit Darius Bazley, having already decommitted from Syracuse to sign with the NBA’s development league (the “G League”) has now opted instead to sign a deal with New Balance that will pay him $1 million to be an intern next year while he waits to meet the minimum age requirement (19) to enter the league. This is just the latest in a long struggle over when players should be allowed to enter the league—and what role the scandal-prone NCAA should play in the development of amateur athletes. Where do you see this debate going? Is the NBA headed for a system more like Major League Baseball’s minor league? This gets us away from the NBA, but what might this mean for the college game?

TR: At face value, the age minimum strikes me as paternalistic and unjust. Moreover, I can’t help but see the age minimum rule as part of the gentlemen’s agreement between the NBA and the NCAA to preserve the interests of both leagues. For a long time, the NBA needed the NCAA and its stars and player rivalries in order to capture their fans as college players moved on to the professional game. At the same time, the NCAA relies on being the proven path to the NBA in order to replenish its talent pools and suppress labor costs. In the course of doing research covering from the 1970s to the present, I’ve found that the critiques of the NCAA acting as the NBA’s defacto farm system have been very consistent over the decades. (i.e. the academics for NCAA basketball players are a sham, the “student-athletes” involved in Division I basketball are amateur only in name, the players are being exploited, the punishments of the players are draconian while the NCAA and its teams wash their hands of any culpability of rule violations, etc.) I don’t think it would be bad thing to disrupt this gentlemen’s agreement between two organizations that act as monopolies (Taylor Branch even called the NCAA a cartel). This is what happened back in the late 1960s and early 1970s with the advent of the ABA (the NBA’s rival league from 1967-1976) and then with Spencer Haywood v. NBA (1971), which struck down the league rule that a team could not draft a player until four years after his high school graduation. Thanks to these and other disruptions of the monopolistic control of the NCAA and NBA, the players were eventually able to use their position of increased power to end the option clause. I’m not really much of a prognosticator, but rules violations are endemic to the NCAA system, so I’m not terribly sentimental about it losing some of its control over the fates of players. I think that the fact that it has survived the way it has for so long has something to with the racial makeup of the players. People don’t care; they just want to be entertained regardless of what it is doing to the players.

YC: Theresa, again, is right on the mark as far as my experience (personal and scholarly) with these issues goes.  She’s also wiser than I in refraining from prognostication. But what the hell: there are so many leaks in the NCAA boat right now that I have a hard time imagining its current D1 basketball model functioning too much longer into the future.  On the one hand, college athletes seem to me to be growing in their awareness of their economic power and in their willingness to exercise that power as leverage (e.g. Missouri football), while on the other hand, the recurrent scandals and generally unsavory air of corruption and racialized exploitation surrounding the NCAA I think is already spurring (and is likely to continue to prompt) various individuals and organizations (even simply entrepreneurially motivated) to imagine and attempt to implement competitive models of sub-NBA caliber basketball play.  One of the most interesting of these to me is the HB league, an initiative to create a national college basketball league that would compensate the college students who played in it beyond simply covering the costs of attendance .  I like it because it addresses the racist dimensions of the current situation, acknowledges the importance of the financial piece (not only to players but to investors in any viable alternative to the NCAA), and seems to be trying to value education.  

BRJ: We’ll have much more to say about the NCAA in future LARB Ball pieces, but I share your sense that D1 basketball needs to change.

Thanks to both of you for taking the time to talk with me. A couple of quick questions to end: Yago’s inevitability slide aside, can anyone unseat the Warriors—or, put another way, when and how does this reign end? And for those interested in tracing some of the issues we’ve discussed in more depth, what basketball books—aside from your own, of course—should we be reading, or anticipating, this fall?

YC: I don’t see anyone knocking off the Warriors this season (barring, as you mentioned, Brian, a major injury to a member of the core).  But after this season, KD is a free agent, and there’s already lots of talk of him moving on to new challenges. But even if that doesn’t happen, time, eventually catches up with every great team (such as the Spurs currently). Players age, their skills diminish even if only slightly, they become more vulnerable to minor injuries and fatigue, and in the meantime, a new cadre of young players is on the rise who are themselves exhibiting new combinations of size, athletic ability and skill that may, eventually, make the on-court innovations of Curry & Co. seem routine.

As for book recommendations, my gosh, there are so many great, thoughtful books inspired by by basketball.  One of my favorites is Aram Goudsouzian’s riveting biography of Bill Russell, King of the Court, which gives a superb account not only of Russell himself, but of the overlapping contexts of sport, American society, and race that shaped Russell and that he also helped to transform in the 50s and 60s. In a different vein, the pioneering works by the FreeDarko blogging collective (The Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac and The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History) are great introductions both to basketball and to the innovative creative writing that has emerged around the game in the past 15 years.  I’m looking forward to Theresa’s work on the 70s, but in the meantime, I think that historian Adam Criblez’ Tall Tales and Short Shorts: Dr. J, Pistol Pete, and the Birth of the Modern NBA gives an excellent account of that pivotal decade, perhaps paired with Halberstam’s The Breaks of the Game.  Boyd’s and Lane’s books that I mentioned above do an excellent job tracing the complicated intersections of race, class, and culture converging on hoops in the 80s and 90s.  Among the most recent works, I think that Jonathan Abrams Boys Among Men (on the prep-to-pro generation) is not only thoroughly reported, but very beautifully written.  It may in some ways be a bit outdated, but your readers might appreciate this more extensive list of my favorite basketball books that I posted a few summers ago on my blog.

TR: There is always a human element to the game, so you never know what is going to happen. As I said before, I’m not much of a fortune teller, but bodies fail, minds get side-tracked, and unforeseen circumstances are always in the wings.

As for books, I agree with Yago’s selections. A few that I would add are Sam Smith’s book on the Oscar Robertson et al v. NBA suit, Hard Labor: The Battle that Birthed the Billion-Dollar NBA, John Feinstein’s, The Punch: One Night, Two Lives, And the Fight that Changed Basketball Forever, and David J. Leonard’s After Artest: The NBA and the Assault on Blackness. My own book, tentatively titled, Black Ball: Rethinking the “Dark Ages” of Professional Basketball, is still very much a work in progress. According to popular memory, the NBA struggled during the seventies because it was too black, too violent, and too drug-infested for its majority-white audience. Black Ball critiques this declension story. It explores how professional basketball emerged as a site for public debates over black politics and culture in the late twentieth-century United States, as African American athletes not only became the demographic majority (approximately 75 percent of the players), but fought for more control over their labor. I also explore how black players changed the aesthetics and rules of the game, infusing it with the style and ethics of urban black streetball. This underlying tension played out in the form of numerous “crises” throughout the decade—over not just on-court violence and drug abuse, but also the league’s monopoly status, the option clause, and the slam dunk—as NBA league executives and team owners tried to figure out how best to market and monetize a sport now dominated by African American players. It promises to shed light on this relatively understudied era that gave rise to the modern NBA.

LARB Contributors

Yago Colás teaches and writes about sports, culture, and society in the English Department at Oberlin College, where he also volunteers as assistant coach for the men’s varsity basketball team. He maintains the blog Between the Lines, has appeared on NPR, Slate, Politico and and is the author of Ball Don’t Lie! Myth, Genealogy, and Invention in the Cultures of Basketball (Temple University Press, 2016) and is currently writing Numbers Don’t Lie! Counting and What Counts in Basketball (forthcoming, University of Nebraska Press, 2020).
Theresa Runstedtler is Associate Professor of History at American University. She is the author of Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner: Boxing in the Shadow of the Global Color Line (University of California Press, 2012), a book that examines the first African American world heavyweight champion’s legacy as a black sporting hero and anticolonial icon in the early 1900s. Her second book project in progress explores questions of blackness, masculinity, labor, and criminalization through the lens of professional basketball's so-called Dark Ages of the 1970s. In another life, she was a member of the Toronto Raptors Dance Pak in the late 1990s.
Brian R. Jacobson is author of Studios Before the System (Columbia University Press, 2015) and professor of visual culture at Caltech.


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