Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Review: Black Ball (2023)

By Theresa Runstedtler

History books sometimes can be broken into two distinct classes. There are those that are researched from the start without preconceptions, and then conclusions are drawn from the available information. Then there are those where the author has a preconceived notion going into the research, and goes about the business of trying to prove that point.

"Black Ball" seems to fit better into the latter category.

Theresa Runstedtler is the author in question here, and her book, "Black Ball," is about the rise of African Americans in the NBA and their efforts to make the league and the sport more equitable. This is a somewhat underexamined area, so the publication is welcome. Runstedtler has a distinguished academic background, since she has a PhD and teaches at American University after a stint at the University at Buffalo. She is on target enough with her assessments to make her efforts worthwhile. Still, there are issues with the book and its contents that are somewhat troubling. I found myself frequently stopping to ponder the implications of what I had just read. 

Race and basketball over the years have had a complicated relationship. The first Black to play in the NBA arrived in 1950 - three years after Jackie Robinson debuted for baseball's Brooklyn Dodgers. The numbers slowly increased from there to the point where Blacks were in the majority on the team's rosters. But even so, while the stars were disproportionately Black, the reserves often were disproportionately white. The Boston Celtics were the first NBA team ever to start an all-Black team (1964). That era where the league's teams were located in the East, Midwest and West Coast; no one even tried to put a franchise in the Deep South until the St. Louis Hawks moved to Atlanta in 1968.

Along the way, there were growing pains. Runstedtler explores some of them in the cases of Connie Hawkins, Spencer Haywood, and Oscar Robertson. Hawkins, a legendary player from New York City, was slightly touched by a gambling scandal while in college in the early 1960s. He was blackballed from the NBA without any sort of due process for several years. It was a clear injustice, and it took until the end of the decade for Hawkins to land with the Phoenix Suns.

Haywood was a member of the 1968 U.S. Olympic basketball team who decided to turn pro well before he was scheduled to graduate from the University of Detroit - which was against the rules at the time. It seems he wanted to help his mother, who picked cotton in Mississippi while raising 10 children. The NBA wasn't interested at the time, but the rival American Basketball Association was.  Haywood jumped to Denver of that league in 1969 before trying to move to Seattle of the NBA in the 1970-71 season. That led to a lawsuit that went all the way to the Supreme Court before Haywood won the right to play in the NBA whenever he was able to do so. The book offers good summations of both cases.

Both Hawkins and Haywood deserve credit for winning those battles. It's important to note that similar cases were going on in baseball and football at the same time. As the money involved in pro sports grew in the 1960s and 1970s, players no longer felt forced to take whatever the owners would give them. The particulars and success rate varied by sport, but the players slowly inched forward.

Several of those inches came in 1976. Robertson's name was at the top of a lawsuit that delayed a proposed merger between the NBA and ABA for several years during the 1970s. The argument was that having two teams/leagues bid for players' services had increased their salaries, and it should be illegal. Once the two leagues had worked out the particulars of the merger, they had to have the players sign off on the deal before everything could be wrapped up. That essentially led to the beginning of free agency and the salary system we know today. 

After covering the rise of the black player's influence on the style of the game (frequently in the air and always flamboyant) and the curious case of deputy NBA commissioner Simon Gourdine (who found that a Black man could only rise so far in NBA management), Runstedtler concludes with a couple of chapters on what could be called supplemental discipline. In other words, what happens when a player gets into trouble on and off the court? That covers measures taken by the league when fights break out during games, and when players are caught by authorities in cases involving drugs. 

This is an area that has caused headaches for all of the pro sports over the years. However, the NBA's issues might have been more visible - particularly when a majority of its players are Blacks and thus giving the league some image problems with some sponsors. The extra discipline imposed by the league concerning fines and suspensions usually could be only appealed by going back to management to reconsider - not a winning formula for the players, and one that was duplicated by other sports. Racism may have played a role in some of those decisions, but in spite of Runstedtler's efforts it's tough to measure its degree of influence. 

As you may have guessed at this point, the framework for the book sounds like it goes down an interesting path. But Runstedtler takes a number of odd little turns along the way that left me wondering about where a particular viewpoint came from. For example ...

* The author attacks NBA writers for not picking a Black coach as the NBA coach of the year in 1975 for the second straight year (Ray Scott of the Pistons won the award in 1974), even though both coaches of the NBA's Finalists were African American. Phil Johnson of the Kansas City-Omaha Kings, a white man, won the award in '75. Coaching trophies often go to the leader of a team that exceeded expectations by the greatest margin, which is how Scott won it in '74. It seems like the same standard was in play in '75 for Johnson.

* Runstedtler is critical of references to the NBA's toughest players as "enforcers," while similar descriptions of counterpoints in the National Hockey League are "policemen." That has certain implications in a majority-Black league and a majority-white league. The problem is that anyone who has been around hockey knows that the tough guys in the NHL are called "enforcers" far more often than "policemen." 

* Runstedtler seems still angry that Robertson wasn't offered some sort of coaching job once his playing days were over in the NBA. A problem with that argument is that those days ended right in the middle of the players' lawsuit over the ABA merger. "The Big O" probably was considered radioactive to many owners after the expensive settlement came in 1976, and we don't know if he even wanted to go down that road of coaching. Besides, success as a player doesn't always correlate to success as a coach.

* Speaking of the merger, Runstedtler still seems to be upset that it took place because of the effect on player salaries. The catch there is that if the two leagues hadn't come together through that agreement, the ABA might not have been around at all in the fall of 1976. The league was down to six teams at that point, and it might not have been worth it to stay in the basketball business.

One other area of concern concerns the treatment of the media along the way in the book. Admittedly, the columnists and sports editors of newspapers and magazines in the 1960s and 1970s were mostly old, conservative white men. Their viewpoints usually reflected that fact, backing up the status quo on a frequent basis. In hindsight, it was not their finest hour. 

However, throughout the book the author chooses to paint everyone in that group with a wide brush, without even quoting a few major columnists of the day to back it up. We have to take her word for it. There are a few disturbing quotes from Basketball Times, a weekly newspaper that started in the late 1970s, but that's about it. If viewpoints about the dangers of allowing college basketball players to leave school early for the pros, it should have been easy to print a few. 

The most quoted media source from the era is Black Sports magazine, which lasted for most of the 1970s and probably was more influential than popular. It is certainly good to hear reporting and commentary from a group of writers that were far more diverse than those from the mainstream media at the time. Runstedtler adds to that with some comments from writers from Black newspapers. Those reflections have their place in the story. Even so, it would have been nice to hear more from other viewpoints. I'd guess that by the Seventies it would have been far easier to find sports writers who wrote about the changing relationship between league and its players without having a pro-league bias. (By the way, I would guess that most sports media members of today definitely lean toward the side of the players in a majority of labor disputes.)

Runstedtler was smart enough to include part of a column by the late Leonard Koppett, who in his professional life proved that "intellectual sportswriter" was not a complete contradiction in terms. He wrote about what a new economic system might look like. It's also odd that no one from the present is asked to look back on past events here in an attempt to add to the perspective that time provides. In other words, it would have been great to hear from someone like basketball writer Peter Vecsey.    

"Black Ball" has received some very good reviews from the usual outlets so far. If it has helped prompt talk of race and basketball in an open setting, it ranks as a positive development. But some of Runstedtler's viewpoints and techniques lead to conclusions that are sometimes difficult to accept, and that takes the book down a notch.

Three stars

Learn more about this book from Amazon.com. (As an Amazon affiliate, I earn money from qualified purchases.)    

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