Dr. Theresa Runstedtler, Author of Black Ball: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Spencer Haywood, and the Generation That Saved the Soul of the NBA



Today on Legends Of Sport, Andy welcomes historian and writer Dr. Theresa Runstedtler to discuss her most recent book, Black Ball: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Spencer Haywood, and the Generation that Saved the Soul of the NBA! Theresa combines studies of race, power, labor, masculinity, and sport as an associate professor at American University, and is a leading voice in the history of athletics, especially NBA basketball. 

Theresa boldly states in Black Ball, “If the NBA now has a reputation for being not only the coolest but most progressive of all the U.S. professional leagues, it’s because the players made it so by fighting against the paternalistic and profit driven practices of the white basketball establishment. Both on and off the court, generations of Black players work to make the modern NBA into what fans from across the globe cheer for today.”

Hear Andy and Theresa talk about the NBA landscape in the late 1970s, perhaps the most pivotal decade in the history of basketball, and the ripple effects created by some of the NBA’s most respected names. They discuss the impact Spencer Haywood’s legal battles had on future generations of players, Oscar Robertson’s battle for player rights during the NBA/ABA merger, the Territorial Draft, the paradigm shift in the 1980’s, the social justice protests during the NBA Bubble, the impact of social media, Black Sports Magazine as well as Theresa’s time with the Toronto Raptors organization!

A true lover of sports in all of its fashions, Theresa is from Ontario, Canada and started her career as a professional dancer with the Toronto Raptors Dance Pak and then worked in public relations for a national sports network. In 2012, she published her first book, Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner: Boxing in the Shadow of the Global Color Line, an award-winning biography that traces the first African American world heavyweight champion’s legacy as a Black sporting hero and anticolonial icon in places as far-flung as Sydney, London, Cape Town, Manila, Paris, Havana, and Mexico City. 

Other Topics Discussed in this Episode:

5:33    Theresa describes the basketball landscape back in the 1970s: NBA vs ABA, how the ABA found talent from HBCUs and Europe, and the NBA’s first years of true racial integration

11:35    Spencer Haywood and his lawsuits challenging the NBA’s four-year rule and the ABA’s Denver Rockets for a fraudulent contract

“Multiple times along the way, this is a guy who just said “No, I’m not just going to take it,” and he ends up putting another crack in the monopoly that the NBA had over the movement of players and their ability to come into the league when and where they desired.”

19:58    The decade-long legal battle for NBA player’s rights during the NBA and ABA merger, led by Oscar Robertson and the National Basketball Players Association, which resulted in the end of the Reserve Clause.

“Anyone who now follows free agency, all of that movement, all of that ability to shop your talents in a free market, came out of that struggle.”

27:49    The 1980s grassroots revolution of basketball, from the fast-paced street game and youth popularity to monetization with Michael Jordan and David Stern.

32:02    Theresa reflects on history of athlete activism in the NBA – from the Bucks in the early 1970s with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson, and Wally Jones to current players in the NBA Bubble

35:29    How social media has allowed athletes to regain control of their narratives

38:17   Joining the Toronto Raptors organization in its second year as a member of the Dance Pak, basketball culture rising in Toronto

“As much as I take the league to task for its racial politics, the individuals who are part of the organization are pretty incredible… I was really interested in unpacking those larger dynamics. But you know, the love of the game is still there, so I hope that comes through (in the book)…This was really about a generational shift…there were so many folks involved in transforming the game in so many different ways.”

Other episodes