One of the many valuable things about Theresa Runstedtler’s Black Ball: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Spencer Haywood, and the Generation That Saved the Soul of the NBA is that it serves as a reminder of many forgotten or never known facts about the sport, among them that basketball players were not always known for the ability to jump.
The title and cover of the book are slightly misleading, suggesting that the reader will be brought into close contact with the game as it was played during its magical transformation in the 1960s and especially the 1970s, when the players, and the game, took flight. The style, grace, and bravado for which the N.B.A. is still known was formed in this era. An era, not coincidentally, when Black players became a majority.
But the action on the court is not the book’s focus, or even interest. Black Ball is a book about the legal and financial arrangements of the league; the players’ lives, not as sports fans perceive them but as they were lived; and how a mostly white media covered the sport. Runstedtler is not following the game; she is following the money.
Black Ball looks at a series of high-profile scandals and court cases involving N.B.A. players from the 1960s through the early 1980s. The one involving Bernard King was the most piercing and vivid for me, in part, I am sure, because he was the first basketball star I idolized. King, who had been slumped against the wheel of his Corvette, was awakened by the tap of a police officer’s flashlight on his car window at five a.m. on a Monday morning. The police found alcohol and a small amount of cocaine in the car, which was still running. In his memoir, Game Face, King writes of this arrest: “I was humiliated, deeply ashamed, and numb with self-disgust.” Runstedtler adds the heartbreaking detail that King had double-parked his car near the Fort Greene Houses projects, where he had grown up but where he no longer lived.
Runstedtler is not following the game; she is following the money.
“Sports is filled with problem children who like to tell us that they are misunderstood and really quite sensitive,” wrote Mike Lupica of the Chicago Tribune, adding, “A troubled childhood in a poor neighborhood is not a credit card for life.” Lupica’s use of “credit card” is either a dog whistle or a Freudian slip, depending on how you look at it: either way, it centers the idea that these Black players are making too much money.
The core of the book is the deep dives Runstedtler makes into several confrontations between the players and the owners involving “the option clause” and “the reserve clause,” both of which concern the subject of free agency and the players’ ability to negotiate their salaries. (Forgive me for not summarizing the matter succinctly. I am still struggling to grasp the legal complexities.)
These legal imbroglios played out through the lives of Connie Hawkins and Spencer Haywood in the 60s, and in the legal wrangling in the 1970s between the players’ union and the owners concerning the proposed merger of the A.B.A. and the N.B.A.
The union president was Oscar Robertson, a star on the court and also in his dealings with team ownership, who were trying to pay him far less than he was worth. During his 1967 contract negotiations, Robertson remarked to his team’s general manager, “If I am greedy, I learned from you.” (One of the ironies of the current N.B.A. landscape is that while some players earn more than their play on the court deserves, the game’s biggest stars, such as LeBron James and Stephen Curry, are vastly underpaid if you consider the money they make for the team owners).
The question of how players should be paid was adjudicated in courtrooms and then in a 1971 Senate hearing whose star was, I was amazed to learn, Senator Sam Ervin, who would become a household name for chairing the Watergate hearings two years later. “Ervin had opposed almost all of the civil rights legislation brought to the Senate floor, arguing that such laws restricted the individual rights of citizens,” writes Runstedtler. “Ervin was also not a fan of labor unions.” And yet his sympathies were with the players’ union. Ervin became “an unlikely yet staunch supporter of their cause” because “he believed in the freedom of the individual above all.” Robertson and the players’ union prevailed.
It is a thrilling moment in a dry and academic book. But Black Ball’s density has its rewards. I was struck, for example, by the author’s attention to how some of the league’s first Black coaches, K. C. Jones and Al Attles, carried themselves. “They both epitomized a crisp and polished sense of black masculine cool,” Runstedtler writes. “They both sported thick, well-groomed afros and wore the latest fashions: brightly colored leisure suits, and bold wide collared shirts.”
I wanted to get closer to the game as it was played, to the players as players, to the incredible sense of style they brought to the game, which still resonates today. But it was interesting to get the view from the sidelines alongside Attles and Jones, keeping cool against “a backdrop of rising calls for a return to harsh discipline and law and order in pro basketball and beyond.”
Early in Black Ball, Runstedtler mentions that she spent three seasons in the late 1990s as a cheerleader for the Toronto Raptors. This is the only bit of autobiography in this otherwise rigorously researched and sourced book, but it was a kind of ghost in the machine. I kept wondering why she wasn’t drawing on the experience more, and then I realized that the sense of indignation that underpins the book must surely have its source in what she observed of N.B.A. life during that time.
Meanwhile, I was amazed to hear, in the current discussion around Ja Morant, a player for the Memphis Grizzlies taking a leave of absence to deal with some “mental-health issues”—he punched a teenager and waved a gun in a nightclub—references to the $250 million that, at age 23, he has already earned from his basketball team and his many corporate sponsors. Amazed to hear the suggestion that maybe it was too much. Pondering the “mental health” implications of enormous success on a young person is a valid exercise. Questioning that person’s value is laughable. As Oscar Robertson said in the Senate hearings of 1971, “No owner will pay you more than he thinks you are worth.”
Thomas Beller is the author of several books, including Seduction Theory, The Sleep-Over Artist, and J. D. Salinger: The Escape Artist. His latest book, Lost in the Game: A Book About Basketball, is out now