Black Ball: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Spencer Haywood, and the Generation That Saved the Soul of the NBA. By Theresa Runstedtler
Young Black men on drugs! Starting fights! Looking to get paid! This was the collective NBA boogeyman of the 1970s and early ‘80s, a transitional period in professional basketball and in society. As a majority-Black league embracing a flashy style of play and reflecting the gains of the civil rights movement and Black Power, the NBA entered a new era of visibility. The stars expected to be compensated and taken seriously as human beings. Not surprisingly, the backlash was considerable — among management reluctant to give up absolute control and among a largely white fan base resentful of these new players pulling in big piles of cash (which, by today’s standards, would appear to be a pittance).
This is the world of “Black Ball: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Spencer Haywood, and the Generation that Saved the Soul of the NBA,” Theresa Runstedtler’s wise, engaging and frankly overdue survey of a crucial moment in sports history. This is primarily a story of labor and race and America, told through the prism of a league approaching but not yet arriving at 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 its close proximity to the streets. And it’s a study of institutionalized racism in a culture changing so fast that its old, white guard could scarcely keep up.
“This is the same period in which the Bronx was burning, and the quote-unquote inner cities were recovering from all of the uprisings that happened in the mid-’60s forward,” Runstedtler says from her home office in Baltimore. “There is this anxiety about young Black men being given too much freedom — that this probably is going to lead to some kind of violence … or criminal activity.”
Runstedtler, a professor and historian of race and sport at American University, took a circuitous but illustrative path to her latest subject. An Ontario native, she was a member of the Toronto Raptors Dance Pak in the ‘90s. A new expansion team, the Raptors began 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 fixation on weight. Paying homage to African American hip-hop culture, we wore coveralls, bandannas, and sequined jerseys, and we danced to the latest rap and R&B hits.”
But then the team was sold to the more corporate-minded Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment. The dance crew changed: “skinnier, whiter, blonder.” The hip-hop was replaced by Motown. As Runstedtler writes, “It became apparent that we were performing for the wealthy white season-ticket holders on the floor rather than the regular (often nonwhite) fans in the nosebleeds. In some respects this book has been more than two decades in the making — a way for me to make sense of what I became a part of in the late 1990s.”