In Black Ball (Bold Type, Mar.), historian Runstedtler explores the turbulent atmosphere of 1970s pro basketball.
What inspired you to write this book?
I originally started researching Len Bias, who was drafted in 1986 by the Boston Celtics, and less than two days later he died from a cocaine overdose. I thought it was significant that a Black basketball player became the symbol of the war on drugs. I needed to understand why that was, so I went back to the 1970s and looked at how Black players were being covered by largely white journalists. What were some of the narratives that kept coming up, particularly with respect to their behavior on and off the court?
What was significant about the 1970s in terms of Black basketball players?
They were part of the first generation of Black athletes who were entering the pro leagues in the post–civil rights era. They made the NBA and its fledgling rival, the ABA, shift from being mostly white spaces with a few Black players into being largely Black-dominated spaces. And so they became, much like Len Bias in the mid-’80s, symbols of both the promises and the pitfalls of racial integration, and what it meant to give young men all of this power and the ability to make a lot of money.
What do you hope readers take away from this book?
I’m hoping that this book can help players be aware that they’re standing on some very big shoulders, and that a lot of labor fights that happened in an earlier generation allowed them to be much more outspoken about social issues off the court, and allowed them to play and not fear injury being the complete financial disaster that it can be when you don’t have guaranteed contracts.
How do those struggles relate to current player activism?
Black players have a long history of activism; they have labor protections and the organization to make it possible for them to speak out. For example, LeBron James, who’s often on Twitter and in other spaces on social media, speaks candidly about what he thinks about social issues, both on and off the basketball court. He’s able to do that in part because he’s LeBron, but also because he has certain protections as a basketball player and has a strong union that will back him. And that comes out of the activism of the earlier moments covered in the book.