Sports Biblio

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The Underrated History of the 1970s NBA: Sports Biblio Digest 5.28.17

I fell in love with basketball watching the NBA in the 1970s.

Tall Tales and Short Shorts, Adam Criblez, 1970s NBA Long before I preferred to watch and write about college basketball, the professional game quickly rivaled baseball, my first love, and nearly eclipsed my passions for American football.

Walt Frazier and the New York Knicks, to be exact, triggered this hoops hysteria for me, along with Pete Maravich and the red, white and blue basketball of the American Basketball Association.


News, Views and Reviews About Sports Books, History and Culture

Also In This Issue: The Art of (American) Football; The Secret Life of Pitchers; The Sports Immortals Collection; Sports Books For Young Girls; Remembering Jim Bunning and Cortez Kennedy

For more contemporary fans, especially those of a younger age, the 1970s NBA must seem like the dark ages. Compared to Major League Baseball and the NFL, the NBA was vastly overshadowed. Not many games were on television, crowds were scant outside any venue not named “Garden” and the style of play, while blending stout athleticism and sound fundamentals, wasn’t always consistently entertaining.

As an old-school purist, however, I didn’t care. The Knicks embodied everything that’s great about the sport, and that has been memorably recounted in Pete Axthelm’s “The City Game” and Harvey Araton’s “When the Garden Was Eden.”

At the same time, the NBA was trying to stave off the upstart ABA, which deprived it of players like Julius Erving and George Gervin, individual showstoppers who dazzled on even more fledgling hardwood.When the Garden Was Eden, Harvey Araton, 1970s NBA

But as Southeast Missouri State University professor Adam Criblez argues in his new book, “Tall Tales and Short Shorts,” the NBA as we know it today planted its roots in the 1970s. It’s the years right before Larry Bird and Magic Johnson came into the league, and David Stern became commissioner, that haven’t always gotten their proper historical examination.

Criblez, who calls his exploration (excerpt here) “a little slice of Americana from the Me Decade,” teaches American history, and his book generously details the cultural and political backdrop of the country coming out of the 1960s.

He was inspired by “Big Hair and Plastic Grass,” Dan Epstein’s 2010 baseball romp through the same decade. While all of this has me giddy with nostalgia, coming of age as I did in the 1970s, reading these interpretations is instructive in making connections to the present-day world of sports.

When the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors meet in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday—the third consecutive year they have played for the championship—the series will come with a ridiculous amount of hype, very late prime start tip times and plenty of pop culture excess.

Truth be told, these things were starting to crystallize  in the 1970s NBA, especially after Dr. J, Gervin and others joined in following the demise of the ABA.

Big Hair and Plastic GrassThe Boston Celtics’ dynasty was waning, as they won only two NBA titles in the 1970s. This was the decade of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Lakers, Nate Thurmond and the Warriors and Bill Walton and the Trail Blazers (the subject of David Halberstam’s masterful “The Breaks of the Game.”)

At the end of the decade, even the Washington Bullets and Seattle SuperSonics hoisted NBA title trophies. The league marketed not only tremendous individual players, but the suspense of a variety of champions.

Bird and Johnson changed some of that in the 1980s with the revival of the great Celtics-Lakers rivalry. Yet the Detroit Pistons and Houston Rockets earned championships before Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls carved out another epic slice of NBA history throughout the 1990s.

We’ll be watching more of the same in the coming week or so, as LeBron James and Steph Curry and their respective teams follow in some time-honored footsteps.The Breaks of the Game, David Halberstam, 1970s NBA

While I really do miss the short shorts of my NBA-watching youth, what’s unfolding these days is just as special as what was brewing four decades ago, when not many people were taking notice. Thanks to Criblez’ work, we can better appreciate that continuum.

American Football Book News

I’m not watching much NFL football these days (and still regret not turning off the Super Bowl with my Atlanta Falcons leading by 25 points), but this season is shaping up to be a very good one for new American football books. Here are a few titles worth noting:

  • Paul Zimmerman, the acclaimed NFL writer for Sports Illustrated, has been in poor health in recent years due to several strokes, but he’s recovered enough to put together “Dr. Z: The Lost Memoir of An Irreverent Football Writer,” that publishes on Sept. 1. It’s chock full of his larger-than-life encounters with Ernest Hemingway, Hunter Thompson, Donald Trump and many others;
  • I’m looking forward to this as much as anything I’ve seen related to fall sports book releases: former NFL player, professor and author Michael Oriard’s latest, “The Art of Football,” a history of how a host of artists, including Homer Winslow and George Bellows, depicted the early game of college football. It should serve as an excellent companion to Oriard’s 1998 book, “Reading Football,” a look at how American newspapers presented the sport in its formative era;The Art of Football, Michael Oriard
  • A couple more forthcoming titles about football history: “Ice Bowl ‘67,” by Chuck Carlson, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Packers-Cowboys classic, and “Thursday Night Lights,” by Michael Hurd, about black high school football in Jim Crow Texas;
  • From the very good Good Seats Still Available podcast, an interview with Jim Sulecki, author of a 2016 book about the Cleveland Rams;
  • The continuing ugly story about sexual assault and the Baylor University football program is the subject of “Violated,” by my former Atlanta J-C colleague Mark Schlabach, and Paula Lavigne, both investigative reporters at ESPN.

A Few Good ReadsSports Immortals, Jim Platt

  • Sports collector extraordinaire Joel Platt has been amassing some of the most iconic memorabilia in the world, and housing it at his Sports Immortals Museum in Boca Raton, Fla. Now he and his son Jim, who published a 2002 book about the collection, are getting ready to put many of the artifacts up for auction. Now 78, Joel Platt wants to sell to an entity that could put everything in his collection—a million or so pieces—on display, something he has doesn’t have enough space to do. One appraiser has estimated the collection is worth around $250 million;
  • Monday is Memorial Day in the United States, and Hardball Times remembers Eddie Grant, who played for Cleveland, the Phillies, Reds and Giants before becoming the first of five major leaguers to die in World War I. Grant was part of the Lost Battalion, killed by a shell burst a month before the armistice, and is buried at the exquisite Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery;The Phenomenon, Rick Ankiel
  • Will Leitch goes long at The Atlantic on “The Secret Life of Pitchers” and focuses on Rick Ankiel and the mind troubles that prompted him to become a field player before he retired in 2014. In his new memoir, “The Phenomenon,” Ankiel details not only the yips, but a troubled background of family violence, as he recently explained on public radio;
  • At Vice Sports, my friend Ray Glier delves into a new kind of Tommy John surgery that might cut down on the recovery time for pitchers to get back on the mound and prevent multiple blowouts;
  • A lament that Hollywood has fallen out of love with baseball movies (or perhaps the other way around) misses the fact that younger filmmakers these days didn’t grow up with, or revere, baseball as previous generations have, and that the movies being mourned are of a certain type;
  • Yet baseball movies are a permanent component of the baseball research field, and their historical significance is deepening. Richard Sandomir’s “The Pride of the Yankees,” published in January, is one of the first full-length books explaining how a sports movie was made. In this case, it’s a film that spawned a mini-industry about an American pastime that remains in good health, on the screen as well as on the field;
  • A couple of links for sports photography lovers: German shutterbug Robert Goetzfried, who has a great eye for patterns and architecture, took these shots of—get this—palatial bowling alleys, mostly in Europe, and they are geometrically rather cool;The Pride of the Yankees, Richard Sandomir
  • At Victory Journal, Andrew Dolgin, a former prep sprinter, traveled across the U.S. to capture abandoned high school tracks that were the training grounds for Olympic champions Florence Griffith Joyner, Jesse Owens and others;
  • Australian writer Catriona Menzies-Pike has published a recent memoir, “The Long Run,” about how she worked through the grief of losing her parents by becoming a marathoner;
  • From espnW, school-level recommendations for sports books for young girls, the kind of collection that didn’t exist when I was a kid and that includes a rousing biography of Alice Coachman, the first black woman to win an Olympic track and field gold medal;Queen of the Track, Alice Coachman
  • Bryan Curtis writes about the supposed schadenfreude over ESPN’s troubles, part of his larger meme about sports and politics and how it rolls into media topics. It wasn’t that long ago that Curtis was doing some of the best work about sports media, writing about the people who made it interesting (my favorite is his profile of Bob Ryan), and I don’t understand why that has changed. Is it the difference between Grantland and The Ringer, or in a time of media and pop culture anxiety stemming from the elections, just another journalistic slip down the rabbit hole of seeing politics in everything?
  • Author and journalist Joel Kotkin, riffing off a recent piece in Politico on “the media bubble,” thinks the news media are in grave danger of continuing to miss the plot about what’s transpiring in America between coastal enclaves. I don’t agree with everything in his argument, but these are some points well worth pondering and they do apply to topical trends in sports media.


  • Jim Bunning, 85, won 100 games in both major leagues and pitched no-hitters in each of them as well and became the first member of the Baseball Hall of Fame to serve in Congress. The staunch Kentucky Roman Catholic conservative was as unrepentant in his political views as he was about his 15-year, hard-throwing baseball career. Earning a basketball scholarship to the Jesuit Xavier University in Cincinnati, Bunning never wavered in his deeply pro-life views, and as a former legislative aide remembers, he was unconditionally loyal to those who stood by him. Bunning’s 1998 biography detailed his key role in the hiring of Marvin Miller to head the baseball players union;Jim Bunning, Frank Dolson
  • Before Cortez Kennedy, 48, fully embarked on a Pro Football Hall of Fame career, he was noted for wearing jersey No. 99 one season to honor the late Jerome Brown, his former University of Miami teammate. The cause of Kennedy’s death has not been announced; in 1992, Jill Lieber of Sports Illustrated profiled Kennedy as he was inspired by Brown’s memory to leave an unforgettable legacy not just in Seattle, where he elevated the Seahawks to civic popularity, but throughout the NFL;
  • Celeste Williams, 65, was a rare female sports editor for a big-city American newspaper, serving for nearly two decades in that capacity at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and earning deep respect from colleagues in and out of her newsroom. The Association for Women in Sports Media, on whose board Williams served for many years, has created a scholarship in her memory.

The Sports Biblio Digest is an e-mail newsletter delivered each Sunday. It contains commentary and links about sports books and history. You can subscribe here and search the archives. This is Digest issue No. 84, published May 28, 2017. The Digest is a companion to the Sports Biblio website.

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1 Comment

  1. Yet another enjoyable post. More books to add to the list.

    Will be checking out the Good Seats Still Available podcast as well.

    Thanks you.

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