Nelson, Murray R. Big Ten Basketball, 1943-1972. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2017. Pp. 256. Appendix, notes, bibliography, and index. $39.95 softcover.
Reviewed by Andrew McGregor
March has arrived, much to the glee of basketball fans. Conference tournaments are in full swing across the country, helping solidify the fates of those teams living on the bubble before the madness begins next week. The Big Ten Men’s Basketball Tournament in Washington, D.C., is among those being contested this weekend. It is the twentieth edition of the tournament, which began in 1998, adding to the lore of the Big Ten Conference’s long history. This history is the subject of Murray R. Nelson’s new book Big Ten Basketball, 1943-1972.
As I watched my Boilermakers take the Big Ten regular season conference crown this winter, I eagerly dived into Nelson’s new book. As someone raised on the plains of Kansas and now inhabiting the Hoosier State, it appealed to my inner college basketball junkie. Moreover, having read J. Samuel Walker’s excellent book ACC Basketball, I was excited that there was finally a book to catch me up speed on the Big Ten’s basketball history since my Purdue loyalties didn’t begin until starting my PhD in 2011. My reading got off to an inauspicious start when I noticed a factual error on the book’s back cover (it identifies John Wooden as the national player of year in 1935 not 1932). The error is repeated in the first chapter. Unfortunately, Nelson’s book deviates in style and scope from Walker’s, and left me wanting more.
Big Ten fans will appreciate Nelson’s thorough research, which compiles and recounts the conference’s seasons. The book outlines the Big Ten’s history in opposition to views of the conference as football centric. Nelson notes that throughout its history, the league has fared better than many of its rivals in the NCAA tournament and has consistently produced an exciting brand of basketball, which has recently been denigrated as defensive basketball. Pointing to prolific scorers like Purdue’s Rick Mount, Nelson describes the late-1960s and early 1970s as an era of high scoring “Run and Gun” offenses. In its quest to detail three decades of basketball, however, the book lacks a cohesive argument. This shortcoming will matter little to its primary audience: basketball fans eager to read season recaps and soak in the nuts and bolts facts of the conference’s past.
Big Ten Basketball begins with an introductory chapter on the conference’s early history, from 1908-1942, a period Nelson suggests, “flew under the radar” because of basketball’s limited popularity and the lack of a national tournament. Minnesota, Purdue, and Wisconsin dominated these early years with Wooden sticking out as one of the most memorable players. The bulk of the book is situated between the Second World War and 1972, a time frame means that Nelson focuses solely on male athletes. He argues that 1972 was a turning point because of changing NCAA eligibility and scholarship rules, and the emergence of Bobby Knight, who became an outsized figure in the conference, prodding it into a new era.
With the exception of a chapter profiling coaches, the majority of the book’s chapters provide encyclopedic-like detail of the Big Ten’s history, describing the on-the-court play. Such a style is aimed at general readers, who like Nelson, grew up in Big Ten country and wish to revisit their youthful memories. It also allows the book to serve as a reference manual for journalists and scholars. Nelson concedes that one pre-publication reviewer described the book as merely “just annals” rather than historical analysis (p. 1). He acknowledges and reluctantly agrees with this assessment, but proceeds anyway, hoping that the book will serve as the first of a multivolume work outlining the league’s history. Despite the book’s relatively short length, the “annals” critique rings true and is quite evident in its format. It is organized chronologically with each chapter consisting of synopses of a handful of seasons, highlighting key games, players, and various other changes. From early on, it is clear that this is a sports book about the past, rather than a history book about sports. The descriptions include information about coaching turnover, returning players, impressive statistical performances, and so forth. They sometimes extend to discuss the non-conference schedule and postseason NCAA tournament. At the end of each seasonal overview, Nelson includes the conference’s final standings along with a list of each team’s MVP, offering a numerical summary. Peppered throughout each chapter are references to larger historical events, such as the Second World War, the Cold War, Brown v. Board of Education, Vietnam, the political climate, and so on, that frame the seasons. Yet, instead of connecting this history to the world of Big Ten basketball it falls to the wayside in the book’s formulaic format.
Nelson’s week-to-week and game-by-game approach to telling the Big Ten’s history offers fans the chance to relive past seasons, recall familiar names and performances, and see how the drama of the conference race played out. It is the kind of book that die-hard Big Ten loyalists will enjoy, especially because the period covered cannot be found easily on Internet, making it the only resources on the league’s early years. Although Big Ten Basketball does not contain an index of every game played, its inclusion of conference standings, MVPs, coach’s names, and a list of champions provide important reference material. Methodical research into published newspaper and magazine accounts of the conference’s games make this possible. The Chicago Tribune dominates the book’s citations, which Nelson refers to as a “mouthpiece” of the Big Ten, rather campus newspapers and yearbooks (p. 1). This gives the book an impersonal and dry feel, and conceals the voices of student journalists and campus cultures. As a result, deeper explorations of the humanity of the individuals involved in the history of Big Ten basketball are missing. Readers encounter names, statistics, and awards ascribed to players without learning much about their personalities or tendencies, or what fans thought of them. For example, Nelson identities black players and a few incidences of prejudice and the book includes an appendix listing the first African American players at each Big Ten member school, but there is little in-depth discussion of race or its impact on the conference or the sport. General readers may not miss these details or analyses, but scholars will certainly notice their omission.
Big Ten Basketball is an important first step in outlining the contours of the league’s history. Although the book operates as a form of historical recording rather than a critical sport history, it remains valuable. Nelson concisely highlights the central figures and narratives from each Big Ten season between 1943 and 1972, offering a foundation for scholars to build on as they wade deeper into the under-explored world of basketball history. Its contents may also help you win a bar bet in a Midwestern college town.