In the wake of Bill Russell’s retirement and as the precursor to the Bird-Magic 80s, the 1970s are perhaps the NBA’s forgotten decade.
“It was a period of transition,” reflects Adam Criblez, an assistant professor of history at Southeast Missouri State University.
Drug use, fist-fights and tape delayed games alienated fans, while an upstart renegade league pilfered some of the biggest names in the sport – opening new discussions on player rights and free agency. It was the decade that introduced the three-ball and the dunk contest and brought basketball a new type of cool with players like ‘Bad News’, the ‘Pistol’, the ‘Doctor’, and the ‘Skywalker.’
Criblez, whose new book Tall Tales and Short Shorts: Dr. J., Pistol Pete, and the Birth of the Modern NBA comes out on May 26, took some time to sit down with PopGates:
Noah Perkins: Why did you want to write Tall Tales and Short Shorts? How did the project come about?
Adam Criblez: I went to Purdue University to get my doctorate. I went there very focused on 19th century America and worked with a couple of excellent scholars in that field. I wrote a dissertation on Fourth of July Celebrations in the Midwest during the 19th century.
It was fun – was great – it helped me get a job here at Southeast Missouri State.
While I was there I was introduced to a very well-known sports historian named Dr. Randy Roberts. I always had that in the back of mine that I enjoyed his work.
I came here to Southeast and started teaching a class about sports history – there was no one else here teaching sports history. My specific focus was teaching student athletes. I had proposed and was kind of laughed at by colleagues the idea of having a class made up exclusively of student athletes – that we looked at American history specifically through the lens of sports history. And, so, my colleagues again kind of laughed at me because there’s this perception that student athletes aren’t very dedicated students. I started teaching that class, and found that when I was teaching I really got into the topic and loved the idea of sports history. I ran across a book written by Dan Epstein that covers baseball in the 1970s – it’s fantastic; it’s a light read that’s very well researched. I wished something like that had been written about basketball because I prefer basketball to baseball – and looked into it and there really hadn’t been anything written.
What went from researching the topic to add to my lectures went to ‘hey I should write that book.’
NP: How did you research Tall Tales and Short Shorts?
AC: At our university, we have a pretty good library – but we also have extensive access to any book in the state of Missouri. So, I started ordering books about topics from the 1970s NBA. A good example would be Harvey Araton’s When the Garden was Eden; biographies of Pete Maravich and Julius Erving; a book about the 1972 Los Angeles Lakers. I kind of started at that level and then went through as extensive a list as I could’ve about books that covered aspects of the 1970s NBA. Then I started using eBay to put together a collection of basketball digest magazines. After I had a handle on the bigger themes and I had a good understanding of the decade – then I made a couple research trips. I went to South Bend – Notre Dame has a really good sports research center. I made a trip out to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts.
I had several hundred pages of research – maybe even a thousand – about a year of research between books and magazines and the Internet.
NP: There is a lot of nostalgia for basketball in the ‘70s. It’s interesting, it’s almost like that Wilt Chamberlain anecdote about his 100-point game: a million people over the years told him they saw the game, but there was only like 4,000 people there. With the fighting, the tape delays, the drug use, the narrative of the ‘70s is the league was in bad shape. How bad were things in the ‘70s for the NBA?
AC: One thing I do think is overblown is the idea that Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, and Michael Jordan to an extent, came in and saved this league and kept if from bankruptcy. That’s an overblown narrative, that in large part has been perpetrated by scholars and historians and journalists – and even David Stern himself who very famously called the 1970’s ‘the dark days of the NBA.’
There were several people turned off by the product: you have of course, encore violence is a problem, especially in the late ‘70s. Drug use among players is certainly escalating. One big thing you didn’t mention which was influential is the fact that you have salaries increasing. In the early ‘70s you have players who have offseason jobs – the fans can kind of relate to them; they might actually live in the same neighborhood. I’m just throwing out names here: John Havlicek in Boston. They might run into Dave DeBusschere down at the deli in New York City. These players seem relatable, and are not necessarily in a different social class. By the late ‘70s, you have players making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, and they are no longer ‘one of us’ for fans.
At the same time the demographic of the league is changing. In the early 70s the league is almost overwhelmingly college graduates. The league is about 50 percent white, 50 percent black, give or take. By the end of the decade it’s overwhelmingly black. You have players, many of them have come from more poor upbringings. A larger number don’t have college degrees.
The late ‘70s are a transition period.
I talk about this in my book a little bit – is the idea that Larry Bird and Magic Johnson didn’t save this league, that it is in fact the merger between the ABA and NBA in 1976, that was really the catalyst in turning it around. It took a couple years for those things the ABA brought to really take hold, but that was the birth of the modern NBA.
NP: What were you most surprised about in researching the NBA in the ‘70s?
AC: I think what I was most surprised to find out, is there is really two 1970s: in the early years of the decade you have the very celebrated New York Knicks championship teams; you’ve got the Lakers who have this 30-game win streak in 1971-72. The star players are Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Willis Reed, Walt Frazier and John Havlicek. Then, again, you have a period of transition. At the end of the 70s you don’t have those powerhouse teams that were emblematic of the league. So, it’s easy to forget who won the 1978 NBA title, the 1979 title. I mean, if I asked who won a title in the 60s, the Celtics are an easy choice – in the 80s, probably the Celtics or the Lakers; in the 90s, you can guess the Bulls. But, the 70s, there was so much parity.
So, at the beginning of the 70s you have several big market powerhouse teams. But, by 1973, really those teams are gone, and to me you have the more interesting 70s – which are, any team could win it – from the middle 70s on, the basketball was fluid.
NP: You touched on changing demographics – how did the change in racial demographics impact the teams themselves?
AC: There was a tendency in the ‘70s to equate white players with being heady, smart, intelligent – playing team basketball. And the perception that African Americans played a playground style. That’s unfair for a lot of reasons; I could point to a dozen white players that played in a way that would have been considered “black” because they were flashy or showy. I could similarly point to a dozen African Americans who played a “white” style game because they were very fundamentally sound.
I think rather than racial dynamics, it was a style of play that was becoming popular because it was entertainment – and again, I think a lot of that has to do with the ABA. The NBA is clearly the dominant brand, but the ABA’s growing popularity kind of forced a revaluation – if players wanted a big money contract, they had to put on a show.
NP: Most people are familiar with the Kareem’s, the Dr. J’s, the Pistol Pete’s, is there anybody from the ‘70s who was particularly important to the development of the league who history has largely forgotten?
AC: I think that there are a lot of players. One big-one, and this is more a team than a player per se is the Golden State Warriors of the mid-70s, and in particular Rick Barry. We remember Rick Barry for granny-free-throws, and his kids. But he was an exceptional player. He was what would become the prototypical small forward: the do-everything; the LeBron before LeBron – obviously not the physical characteristics of LeBron James – but the idea a forward could create on offense, could score, pass and rebound. I think that Barry — we look at his later career: He has a pretty bad combover, he shoots the granny-free-throws, that’s kind of the legacy of a guy who was phenomenal athlete.
But, not only that, here’s why I think he is really overlooked: the way he became a lightning rod for this issue of free agency. When he jumps to the ABA, this creates all kinds of problems – a firestorm about players’ rights. He along with Spencer Haywood belong in the same category, as being these tremendous players that we forget about. Not only are they tremendously talented on the court, but their contributions off the court really changed the game in the 70s.
NP: Forget about as a player, to me, Pete Maravich as a person, given his relationship with his father and his far-out ideas, is the most interesting story in the history of the league. What’s your takeaway on Pete Maravich after writing Tall Tales?
AC: I think that he was under such tremendous pressure since childhood to be the best basketball player the world had ever seen. Obviously, his father who he definitely looks up to, and at times butts heads with a lot, put on a lot of that. But, I think a lot of it is just driven – he is an incredibly driven person – and, at the same time, he is very psychologically fragile. When he doesn’t succeed; when he doesn’t come into the NBA and make the Atlanta Hawks NBA champions; and people begin doubting him – he gets very upset about it and starts taking things personally. You almost see every season, he comes back as a new Pete Maravich – one year he’ll come back and he has a mustache and long hair, and he has the word Pistol on the back of his jersey. Then, the next year, he loses the floppy socks, he’s clean shaven – he’s been doing karate all offseason. He just kind of is floundering. I think it’s interesting, his playing career is almost over and we see him find in religion something that he can find peace in.
He was also constantly dealing with physical issues. We could argue about what his greatest season was, but in 1977 – give or take – he is having this amazing season, and then hurts himself: blows out his knee, I believe it was. He was in the midst of the greatest season of his professional career, and now, all of sudden he is out for a couple of months – and he has a downturn.
He faced incredible obstacles, but also had this incredibly interesting psychological profile.
NP: To close, I’d like to run down a list of a few names, starting with Kareem Abdul Jabbar?
AC: Kareem was the single most dominant player of the 1970s. He was able to affect the game on both ends, and anybody whose memories of Kareem are limited to him sitting down low and shooting the skyhook on those Showtime Lakers teams needs to go back and learn about Kareem in the 70s. He was a dominant physical force.
NP: Julius Erving?
AC: Dr. J brought a style to the game that had never been seen – a flair for the dramatic. He was able to do things on a basketball court that had never been done before. He influenced a generation of players who grew up watching him.
NP: Earl Monroe?
AC: Pearl had the best spin move ever. He was amazing at getting into the lane and scoring in such a way that the defense thought they had him contained, but he would always find whatever little hole was in the defense.
NP: Marvin Barnes?
AC: Bad News never had much of a shot in the NBA. He landed in a really bad situation. Despite his talent, by the time he got to the Pistons, he was already a lost project. He maybe had more potential than anybody in the ‘70s outside of Kareem – but by the time he got to the NBA he was already at the end of his rope.
NP: How did writing Tall Tales impact your view of the NBA in 2017?
AC: I’m really interested in historical research and how people remember the past. And so, to me, I’ve always found it intriguing when former players talk about the good old days – and they belittle the modern product. Not because I necessarily think that their arguments are valid, but because I think that if you watch – having talked to players from the 70s – the modern game through their eyes, it’s incredibly inefficient. It doesn’t make sense why you would shoot a 30-footer when you could shoot a 12-footer – and that players today can’t shoot 12-footers.
To me, I look now at the game in the ‘70s as almost a different version of basketball – with no three-point line, no emphasis on the dunks; different rule sets. I enjoy both the modern game and the ‘70s, I think I can do that because I separate out, the 1970s was this way, and the modern game is this way. And like I said, it’s really interesting to get takes from the players of different eras on how the game has evolved.