Spanning players from the Big O to Dr. J, from the Hawk to the Pearl, Theresa Runstedtler’s “Black Ball” is a scholarly look at 1970s pro basketball and how the NBA became synonymous with being a Black league. For Runstedtler, labeling the NBA as Black means significantly more than just pointing out the numerical majority of Black players that made up the league; it signals the fact that the players’ politics and play were rooted in Black life. From lawsuits, to afros, to 360 spin moves, Black players brought soul to the game.
The NBA became Black just as the civil rights movement morphed into a Black Power movement. Although the politics of Black Power is primarily known as an urban rebellion for social reforms, its equally important labor component is often overlooked; the new Black assertiveness included the fight for unionization, quality jobs, and access to capital. Black players brought this demand for economic justice to the league.
In the first three chapters, Runstedtler examines, respectively, Connie Hawkins’s legal suit against the NBA’s monopoly; Spencer Haywood’s battle against the NBA’s age restriction; and Oscar Robertson’s fight for free agency as continuations of the Black freedom struggle. Although she could have provided more historical background on Black labor movements, Runstedtler makes a convincing argument that Black players’ successful labor battles should be considered part of the long freedom struggle of Black Americans.
Robertson’s rebellion, for example, grew out of a larger effort on the part of other players to fight a proposed merger between the ABA and NBA. Before the upstart ABA’s founding in 1967, basketball players lacked true free agency, laboring — like baseball players — under a reserve clause in which a team that held a player’s contract rights held them in perpetuity. An organization might trade a player, but the player himself could not switch teams at his own will — a lack of mobility which restricted salaries. But with two leagues, competition ensued, and athletes saw immense salary increases.
The merger threatened to take all those gains away. Prior to it, the players had selected all-star point guard Robertson to lead their union specifically because they realized that they needed strong Black representation against the demands of white ownership. In 1971, Robertson stood his ground in arguing the players’ case against the merger in front of Congress, pointedly asserting his right as a Black athlete to earn a lucrative living, despite the team owners and fans, whose growing frustration amounted to blatant racism. As one white basketball writer complained, “Many blacks feel hatred against whites, and many feel that being black is more important than anything else.” Although the leagues eventually did merge, a strong, Black-led union ensured that the players won their free agency rights.
In the 1970s, Black players brought a new cultural awareness to pro ball. Simply put, Black players wanted the freedom to be their whole selves. No longer willing to be policed by old, stuffy, white-driven perceptions of how they should behave, players like Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, who wowed crowds with moves developed on Philadelphia playgrounds, and Julius “Dr. J” Erving, who soared through the air for rim-rattling dunks, brought style to the game. Others, like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wali Jones, brought a Black consciousness that demanded that as Black men they would be treated with dignity and respect.
Eventually, however, the demand to be fully free came with a white backlash, which resulted in, among other things, a focus on Black players’ “bad” behavior rather than their spectacular moves or magic on the court. Runstedtler’s book doesn’t escape this entirely. “Black Ball” is deeply researched, and grounded in Black thought from the period, relying in particular on Black Sports magazine as an essential resource. Conceived in the early 1970s as a sports magazine for Black people, about Black people, and by Black people, Black Sports is filled with candid interviews with Black athletes like Robertson and Monroe, which Runstedtler uses with precision to shape and support her narrative in ways that material from more mainstream publications — Sport, Sports Illustrated, and Basketball Weekly — would not.
But the book ends with a couple of chapters focused on fighting — Kermit Washington infamously punching Rudy Tomjanovich on the court — and the substance abuse problems of young stars like Bernard King. While these and other controversies are important to our understanding of NBA history, their connection to the “soul of the NBA game” is less developed.
Overall, “Black Ball” is an intriguing look at professional basketball in the 1970s, one that changes our thinking about why the NBA is considered a Black league, and — for readers who love basketball and Black history — offers a sports-centered perspective on race relations in post-civil rights America through the lens of the NBA.
BLACK BALL: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Spencer Haywood, and the Generation that Saved the Soul of the NBA
By Theresa Runstedtler
Bold Type Books, 368 pages, $29
Louis Moore is a history professor and Grand Valley State University, and the author of “We Will Win the Day: The Civil Rights Movement, the Black Athlete, and the Quest for Equality.”