Reviews for Black ball : Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Spencer Haywood, and the generation that saved the soul of the NBA

Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Engrossing account of professional basketball’s decades of transformation, focused on complex labor and racial politics and the roles of many compelling figures. Runstedtler, a professor of African American history at American University and a former member of the Toronto Raptors’ dance team, is well acquainted with the massively popular sport’s “unspoken racial politics,” and she has the ambition to look beyond the palatable victory narratives of recent years. Beginning with how maverick players endured segregation and harassment in the 1950s, she captures a disturbing long-term narrative of Black players being exploited for decades by (White) team owners. “As Black players became even more numerous and more dominant in the NBA,” writes the author, “they came under heightened scrutiny.” The author goes on to examine the multidecade tumult of American racial politics amid urban and industrial decline, especially in the 1970s. Yet she also captures an intricate legal drama, as the increasingly powerful NBA sought a merger with the outlier ABA despite obvious antitrust issues and also to protect the exploitative and stingy draft system against players’ organization attempts. The book’s three sections follow a rough chronology. The author points out how antitrust fights coincided with the burgeoning political consciousness of an increasingly Black workforce—and the prominence of transformational figures such as Julius Irving, Spencer Haywood, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: “This fight,” writes Runstedtler, “was about the players’ dignity as workers.” In the epilogue, the author shows that while the NBA as a whole “began to fashion itself as a space of both colorblindness and multiculturalism,” the owners (still overwhelmingly White) continued to overlook “their own pattern of greed and mismanagement” during long-term attacks on the labor rights gained by athletes in the ’70s, in tandem with overblown accusations of violence and drug abuse among players. The writing is crisp and detailed, and the author skillfully manages social panorama, legal issues, and racial history to produce a compelling and well-researched tale. A strong, engaging look at a poignant, neglected aspect of pro sports. Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Library Journal
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The 1970s proved to be an era of impactful professional basketball that gave rise to the modern-day NBA. That's the story that scholar of African American history Runstedtler (American Univ.; Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner: Boxing in the Shadow of the Global Color Line) recounts. The author describes pro basketball in the 1970s as the time when Black players challenged team owners, led the fight for free agency, gained higher salaries, and introduced a new style of playing that incorporated the skills many learned on neighborhood and playground courts. That's also when legends Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Spencer Haywood joined the league. Utilizing meticulous research, Runstedtler describes key events that occurred then, such as the antitrust lawsuits of Connie Hawkins, Spencer Haywood, Oscar Robertson, and the players association; the introduction of the dazzling new style of Earl "The Pearl" Monroe; and the advocacy for players by Black pioneers, such as Wayne Embry and Simon Gourdine, who challenged the NBA from within the front office. The book demonstrates that major advances during the 1970s paved the way for basketball greats, such as Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Allen Iverson, and Steph Curry, to name just a few. VERDICT This is an intriguing and insightful look at pro basketball's critical historical moments and players during the 1970s. It is highly recommended for all collections and should be considered a top purchase.—Lucy Heckman

Library Journal
(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Runstedtler (African American history, American Univ.; Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner) offers a detailed look at basketball in the 1970s, focusing on the influx of Black athletes to the NBA and ABA and their dominance. Many view the 1970s as a low point in basketball history because of the cocaine crisis, on-court fighting, and players demanding better contracts. Runstedtler disagrees, making the case that this was the decade that shaped the NBA into the empowered and exciting league that it is today. Runstedtler outlines the rise of Black superstars during an era of widespread resistance to racial desegregation, when the mainly white coaches, team owners, media, and fans were more critical than ever. At the time, many Black players learned to play on their neighborhood courts, with uneven surfaces, bent rims, and other conditions that gave them an improvisational, razzle-dazzle style. Now considered a hallmark of the sport, this style was viewed with suspicion by many. This book, which also dives deep into labor rights, the war on drugs, and masculinity, is flawlessly narrated by Xenia Willacey, who imbues every syllable with excitement and enthusiasm. VERDICT Sports writing at its finest. A winner for fans or anyone interested in basketball's complex history.—Erin Cataldi

Publishers Weekly
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In this illuminating study, African American history professor Runstedtler (Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner: Boxing in the Shadow of the Global Color Line) analyzes 1970s professional basketball through the lens of race. In 1980, an L.A. Times article reported that there was an epidemic of cocaine use among NBA players, 75% of whom were Black. That exposť, Runstedtler notes, fed into a narrative that the league’s decline was due to the rise of Black athletes. The truth, Runstedtler argues, is that Black players “ultimately transformed basketball in this neglected yet crucial period.” Among the pivotal figures who ushered in change were Cornelius “Connie” Hawkins and Spencer Haywood, who both argued that the league was blocking their right to make a living and won antitrust lawsuits against the NBA. As well, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar “embodied the complexity of African American politics in the post-civil rights era” and toured Africa, changed his birth name to a Muslim name, and spoke out against sports media’s derogatory depiction of Black players. Runstedtler’s superior storytelling, buoyed by expert research, casts a new light on the league’s complex history. This savvy reappraisal of the NBA’s tumultuous evolution soars. Agent: Deirdre Mullane, Mullane Literary. (Mar.)

Book list
From Booklist, Copyright © American Library Association. Used with permission.

Runstedtler, who teaches African American history at American University and who in 2012 authored a thoughtful take on legendary boxer Jack Johnson, here pays respect to several key NBA players—Connie Hawkins, Spencer Haywood, Oscar Robertson, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar among them—who, in the supposedly apolitical 1970s, laid the essential economic and political groundwork upon which the modern, hugely successful NBA was built. For example, Haywood, flouting NBA rules requiring players to wait four years after high-school graduation before joining a team, would leave the University of Detroit after his sophomore year to play with the upstart ABA Denver Rockets for the 1969–70 season. The NBA Seattle SuperSonics signed him for the next season, leading to an antitrust suit the team would win against the league, thus not only knocking down the NBA’s four-year requirement but also leading to the dismantling of other serious antitrust practices. This low-key but important title fills some glaring gaps in the history of American sports, economics, race relations, and politics.