“NBA and Cocaine: Nothing to Snort At,” declared the Los Angeles Times headline wryly. “There are no reliable figures on the use of cocaine by players,” writer Chris Cobbs admitted, “but estimates by people in the game range from 40 to 75%, with perhaps as many as 10% getting high with freebase.”
When that story ran in August 1980, the NBA appeared to be a league in crisis. And given that around 75% of the league’s players were African American, it appeared to be a Black crisis. Cobbs’s exposé came in the wake of the well-publicized drug-related arrests of Bernard King (New Jersey Nets) and Eddie Johnson (Atlanta Hawks). Not only had game attendance and television ratings dipped, but now professional basketball seemed to be on the verge of a cocaine epidemic. This was a public relations nightmare for a majority-Black league that white sports fans already perceived as being violent, criminal, and out of control.
Yet, rather than revealing the truth of the NBA’s so-called Dark Ages, Cobbs’s sensationalistic story throws into relief the fault lines of a decade-long struggle in the NBA over the future of the sport—one that intersected with broader racial politics. As Black ball became a referendum on Black freedom, the professional game emerged as a kind of morality play about the shifting place of African Americans in U.S. society—a site where the contours of Black citizenship and belonging in the post–civil-rights era were rehashed and reshaped. The white-controlled business of professional basketball, much like the nation at large, had to reckon with rising Black demands for not just equality of opportunity, but also equality of results. The supposed decline of professional basketball became a metaphor for the first decades of racial integration in America: The rules of the game had changed, allowing more Black people onto a formerly white playing field, and now they were ruining everything.
However, in reality, this was hardly the case. As they challenged the status quo on and off the court, African American players from the 1970s laid the groundwork for the rise of the dazzling, star-laden NBA we know today.
With Afros waving in the breeze, players such as Earl “the Pearl” Monroe and Julius “Dr. J” Erving remade the professional game by infusing it with the aesthetics and ethics of Black streetball. Nurtured on the playground courts of African American neighborhoods, this aggressive, aerial, and fast-paced brand of basketball emphasized feats of individual athleticism, creative deception, and stylish improvisation, from trash talking and in-your-face shot blocking, to behind-the-back or no-look passes, to nimble jump shots and sometimes backboard-shattering slam dunks. Although we now celebrate these moves, in the ’70s, basketball traditionalists blamed “selfish” Black players for the decline of a once honorable and disciplined white game of teamwork and fundamentals.
Off the court, outspoken and unapologetically Black players such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wali Jones took advantage of their increasing visibility in the media to express new forms of Black masculine identity and to weigh in on current affairs. Jabbar, in many respects, embodied the complexity of African American politics in the post‒civil rights era. His favorite book was the Autobiography of Malcolm X. He listened to the jazz music of Miles Davis, converted to Islam, and studied African languages. Meanwhile, Wali Jones, who was known for his tall, bushy Afro and Black liberation wrist bands, openly critiqued the hyper-policing of Black youth and the deepening cuts to social welfare programs in Black neighborhoods. While playing for the Philadelphia 76ers, Jones founded a service group called Concerned Athletes in Action (CAIA) that ran youth camps and drug-prevention clinics in urban Black communities. In their own unique ways, both Jabbar and Jones pushed back against the typical rules of racial etiquette that white Americans expected of Black athletes—more specifically, the expectation to be humble, be grateful, be cheerful, be accessible, and, above all, be apolitical.
Black players also leveraged the existence of the NBA’s competing league, the American Basketball Association (ABA, 1967‒1976), and turned to legal strategies and union organizing to push for better salaries and benefits, as well as more control over who they played for and under what conditions. Antitrust lawsuits involving Connie Hawkins, Spencer Haywood, and Oscar Robertson challenged the NBA’s monopolistic business practices, from blacklisting to the four-year rule to the reserve clause. This labor struggle was about far more than just money. In Robertson’s 1971 testimony before a Senate Subcommittee tasked with deciding the legality of an NBA-ABA merger, he conveyed the players’ principled opposition to the proposed consolidation. “I do not stand to benefit financially by having the leagues continue to compete for my services,” the veteran superstar said, “but I do stand to benefit as a man. I do stand to benefit by seeing that the 300 some-odd ball players in professional basketball have an opportunity to be treated as other people in American life; that they can truly negotiate for their services.” They were fighting for their dignity as workers, their desire to be recognized as men, not boys, and their right to have the same economic freedoms as other U.S. citizens. (In contrast, women ballplayers weren’t even on the radar at this point, especially because the passage of Title IX was still a year away and the WNBA was founded in 1996.) Although the merger eventually went through in 1976, the players had managed to elicit key concessions, including the elimination of the reserve clause. Free agency and the power of today’s players to determine the trajectory of their careers came out of this earlier moment of activism.
What’s more, the growing prominence of African American men in professional basketball helped usher in some of the first Black coaches, general managers, and even league executives, from Wayne Embry to Simon Gourdine, who sought to change the NBA from within. When Gourdine became the NBA’s deputy commissioner in 1974, he was the highest-ranking Black executive in all of U.S. professional sports. However, when the league bypassed him for its top position when Commissioner Walter Kennedy retired, African American fans were outraged. New York state senator Carl McCall even called for a boycott of the league by Black players and ticket buyers: “The N.B.A. became a multimillion-dollar super-agency because Black athletes, who make up the majority of the association’s superstars used their talent to make money for the N.B.A. and themselves,” said McCall. “However, when it comes around to selecting the people responsible for directing the N.B.A. the picture changes and the administration, at the highest level, remains lily white.” Although no boycott materialized, Gourdine’s struggle helped to open the door for Black NBA executives and team owners in subsequent decades.
Unfortunately, these rapid developments bred racial resentments: white fans, league officials, and sportswriters blamed Black players’ supposed pathologies for the NBA’s declining fortunes, whether embodied by Kermit Washington’s infamous punch of Rudy Tomjanovich and the uptick in on-court violence or the overlapping “cocaine crisis” of the late 1970s and early ‘80s involving the likes of Bernard King, Terry Furlow, and Eddie Johnson.
Although this earlier generation of African American ballplayers won numerous battles, many of the issues they faced, both on and off the court, remain unresolved. In 2010, when LeBron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat, he faced intense criticism for being greedy, disloyal, and ungrateful—a racialized narrative that continues to plague star players who choose to exercise their right to free agency. In the following year, during a heated labor dispute with the NBPA, the league pulled straight from the ‘70s playbook by blaming the players for their woes. With team owners crying financial hardship, the NBA locked the players out, hoping to force them to give back some of their share of the profits.
Meanwhile, on social media and in other public forums, many players voiced their support for the broader #BlackLivesMatter movement. In 2012, LeBron James and the Miami Heat took a pregame photo wearing hoodies in support of Trayvon Martin, the Black teenager gunned down by vigilante George Zimmerman in Florida. In 2014, after a New York City police officer choked African American Eric Garner to death, Black NBA players wore “I Can’t Breathe” shirts on their warm-ups, demanding justice for Garner. More recently, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in summer 2020, NBA players used the unprecedented opportunity of playing in the league’s “bubble” at Walt Disney World to organize in support of racial justice. They donned uniforms emblazoned with political messages and the Milwaukee Bucks and Orlando Magic even engaged in a wildcat strike to protest the police shooting of Black Wisconsinite Jacob Blake.
In many respects, Black players’ hard-won battles for higher compensation and labor protections in the ‘70s opened up the space for this vibrant critique decades later. Their battles against the interlocking monopolies of the white basketball establishment deserve recognition as a significant part of the enduring Black freedom struggle. Though sometimes disparaged and often disregarded, this earlier generation helped pave the way for the growth of the NBA as a global profit machine and cultural force.
This article has been adapted from Black Ball: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Spencer Haywood, and the Generation that Saved the Soul of the NBA by Theresa Runstedtler. Copyright © 2023. Available from Bold Type Books an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.