Insights and Impact

Power Forward 


Spencer Haywood

Sandwiched between the dynastic Boston Celtics, who won nine championships in the 1960s, and the rise of Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan in the ’80s, the 1970s were a time of tumult and transition for the National Basketball Association—the youngest and then least popular of the American sports leagues. 
TV ratings and ticket sales were down, with attendance hovering around 8,000 per game. Newspaper columnists, who often functioned as mouthpieces for White team owners, spun salacious narratives that cast players, 75 percent of whom were Black, as violent, criminal, and greedy. Players fought for free agency and a share of the profits. And purists balked as the game adopted the flash, aggressiveness, and individualism of playground ball—which the majority White fan base associated with urban Blackness. 
In her new book, Black Ball: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Spencer Haywood, and the Generation That Saved the Soul of the NBA, Theresa Runstedtler, a history professor in AU’s College of Arts and Sciences, sheds new light on what she has termed the “dark ages” of the league. She argues that the much-maligned era “when pro basketball was becoming both demographically and stylistically Black” was pivotal to the emergence of the “dazzling, star-laden NBA we know today.”
“African American players who challenged the status quo . . . rejected the rigidity of the professional game, bringing with them masculine bravado, broken backboards, and Black joy personified,” Runstedtler writes in the book. 
“For African Americans in professional basketball, this was hardly a bleak decade: their growing prominence helped to usher in some of the first Black coaches, general managers, and even league executives. They took advantage of their increasing visibility in the media to express new forms of Black masculine identity and to weigh in on current affairs. In doing so, they demonstrated Black economic and cultural possibilities in the post–civil rights era.”
Runstedtler’s book opens with the Los Angeles Times headline that long defined the league’s so-called descent into disorder, even decades after its publication: NBA and Cocaine: Nothing to Snort At. “There are no reliable figures on the use of cocaine by players,” Chris Cobbs wrote, “but estimates by people in the game range from 40 to 75 percent.” 
The NBA appeared to be a league in crisis, Runstedtler says, and it was a Black crisis.
While most historians and journalists reproduced (and continue to reproduce) Cobbs’s narrative without criticism or critique, it sparked myriad questions for the AU professor about “where the [portrait] of this supposedly lazy, selfish, drug-addicted, and even criminal Black ballplayer as the source of all the NBA’s troubles came from.”
“I’m not saying that the NBA was drug-free, but it was clearly a racialized narrative and part of wider backlash in the late ’70s against the growing dominance of African American players in the league—and the growing freedom and power of African Americans in society writ large. After all, this was the first decade after the passage of civil rights legislation. This was the moment where racial integration became part of the practice of trying to make those deferred dreams a reality. People were talking about that process through Black ballplayers because they were so visible, so highly paid, and easy to target,” says Runstedtler, who served as the inaugural chair of AU’s Department of Critical Race, Gender, and Culture Studies from 2015 to 2018.
The New Yorker, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times (which referenced its “innuendo-driven article [that] helped [fuel] the panic”—now with a more sanitized headline) have lauded Black Ball as a sweeping history not just of the NBA, but of race and labor in America, as told through the lens of basketball. The book details the league’s 1976 merger with the razzle-dazzle American Basketball Association and how players leveraged anti-trust law and harnessed the union to challenge team owners’ autocratic power, garner higher salaries and better benefits, and demonstrate their agency. 
Runstedtler—whose first book, the award-winning Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner, chronicled the life of the first Black world heavyweight champion—says her most recent title had been percolating in her head since the mid-’90s, when she worked for three seasons as a Toronto Raptors Dance Pak member and saw firsthand the racial politics at play on the hardwood. “I was a quiet person, a university student, and I liked to observe. Even from the vantage point of a dancer, I could see how we were managed and made to fit a mold,” says the Ontario native.
“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 when the team was sold in 1998 to Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, the dancers became “skinnier, whiter, blonder.” Busta Rhymes and Notorious B.I.G. gave way to Will Smith and Motown. “We were there to entertain the folks on the floor and in the boxes—not to appeal to the people [of color] in the nosebleeds.”

Black Ball comes at a moment when athletes are more outspoken than ever on social justice issues, from the murder of George Floyd to the wrongful detainment of Brittney Griner in Russia. But Runstedtler warns against conflating the activism of players like Lebron James, Kevin Durant, and Steph Curry with the politics of the league.
“When I first started this project, people would always say, ‘But the NBA is the most progressive league,’” Runstedtler says. “And I would say, ‘Well, it is, but how low is the bar?’” She says the NBA realized, through the growing success of the Women’s National Basketball Association, that it’s possible to leverage being progressive into a successful branding strategy and that it needs to “toe a more careful line” because of its past struggles with the players, who have unmediated access to fans through social media. 
“If the NBA has become more progressive in the way it treats its players in terms of their pensions and guaranteed contracts, it’s because the players made it so,” she says. “I don’t think Commissioner [Adam] Silver would be as quick to declare that he supports players’ rights to free speech around the [Black Lives Matter] protests if the players’ union wasn’t as strong as it is.” 
Both NBA and WNBA players are closely associated with African American politics and culture—and the fans have followed them there, Runstedtler says. “The league can no longer clamp down on someone like Ja Morant [the Memphis Grizzlies point guard who was suspended after flashing a gun at a Colorado nightclub] and say, ‘This guy is a thug.’ That can’t be the narrative anymore. It just shows how far the players have pushed the league, how much power the players have, and how the fan base has shifted since the 1970s.
“There has been a truce, but those politics are never that far from the surface. They can activate at any time.”