By Adam Criblez
Editor’s Note: For a brief excerpt from Tall Tales and Short Shorts, see this post from May 18, 2017.
On May 16, I celebrated the publication of Tall Tales and Short Shorts: Dr. J, Pistol Pete, and the Birth of the Modern NBA. It’s a book I never intended to write.
I am not a trained sports historian. Although I attended Purdue University, where I took classes with the legendary Dr. Randy Roberts and became friends with a half dozen of his students, my route to the field of sport history was more circuitous.
My first book, published in 2013, is titled Parading Patriotism and it explores issues of patriotic American nationalism though nineteenth-century urban Midwest Independence Day celebrations. It was my revised dissertation and, after it was published, I needed a break and started reading some non-fiction. After seven long years in grad school I remember that yes, it was possible to read for fun.
One of the first books I picked up, mostly due to the cool title and cover, was Dan Epstein’s Big Hair and Plastic Grass. Epstein uses baseball as a way to tell larger stories about history and pop culture in the 1970s and I was immediately hooked. But while reading about baseball is great, basketball has always been my favorite sport. So, being a diligent historian, I scoured the most reliable and scholarly sources available (Amazon and Google) for the basketball version of Big Hair and Plastic Grass.
No dice. Sure, there have been a handful of books written about the NBA in the 1970s, but most are either biographies or single-team retrospectives. There are plenty of books about the 1969-70 New York Knicks, the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers, and the late-seventies Portland Trail Blazers (including David Halberstam’s The Breaks of the Game — my choice for best-sports-book-ever). But what about the other teams in the league or less-known players? What was their story?
What basketball history needed, I concluded, was a book like Big Hair and Plastic Grass, but about *the NBA* in the 1970s. Since it didn’t exist, I decided to write it.
Starting this project was like being in grad school all over again, but without the fantastic comradery I’d experienced at Purdue. I was completely out of my element and engaging a brand new historiography. Beginning in the fall of 2013, I kept the Southeast Missouri State University library busy with requests for key sport history texts as I began researching basketball history. My first research trip was to South Bend, Indiana, and Notre Dame’s extensive “Joyce Sports Research Collection.” Thanks to the wonders of technology, I was able to scan dozens of complete magazines in just two days. Another modern miracle, the Sports Illustrated vault, provided thousands of pages of articles for me to pore over, as did the Sporting News database found on newspapers.com. By this point I had hundreds of PDF files from these sources and probably could have stopped researching. But I decided I wasn’t going to write a basketball history book without a pilgrimage to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
Now for those of you who’ve not been to the Basketball Hall of Fame, be warned. Located in a strip mall in Springfield, Massachusetts, the hoops hall might not have the majestic setting of its baseball counterpart in Cooperstown. But it was my private nirvana. In a few days working with their archivist, I found boxes of press releases and issues of Basketball Weekly and, most importantly, had great talks with their staff about my work. After returning home, and after making a few key eBay purchases (mostly Basketball Digest back-issues), I was off and running.
At some point in this process, I decided I needed to watch game film from the era. You know, to round out my research — not because I’m a hoops junkie. The NBA maintains an extensive film library, but it is closed to researchers. Searching YouTube provided some clips, but very few full games (and a lot of distractions thanks to that silly “Up Next” queue). Eventually I found a source of NBA games and received — straight from Poland — hours and hours of game film from the 1970s, much of it recorded from their original broadcast. Bingo. Now I could justify watching basketball late at night by calling it “research.” My wife and kids were thrilled.
A few more months spent reviewing what I’d uncovered and I was ready to write. Probably. Even while wrapping up research, I started outlining and putting together my notes into potential chapters, determining that I would have eleven chronological chapters (one per season from 1969-70 to 1979-80) and ten thematic chapters (one between each season recap). Thematic chapter topics were all over the map: some would cover specific players (probably one each for Julius Erving, Pete Maravich, Jerry West, Lew Alcindor/Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Bill Walton), while the others would look at the life of an NBA player, the 1979 NCAA championship game, the American Basketball Association, and the ABA/NBA merger. For those counting, that’s nine chapters. I had (and still have) no clue what the tenth would have been.
Never having been this excited to work on anything in my life, I sat down on Friday, September 26, 2014 (I checked my original Word file to verify the date) and began typing. The first words I wrote were amazing, outstanding, and certainly Pulitzer-worthy: “An article included in the April 1970 issue of TV Guide asked readers if professional basketball would become “the Game of the 1970s.” Football, spurred by the merger of the American and National Football Leagues in 1966, appeared to have been the sport of the sixties. Why not basketball in the seventies?”
None of this made the final draft.
My theory on writing is simple — and completely unoriginal. I just write. I don’t try to craft perfect sentences or even stick to my outline. When I sit down at the computer, notes fanned out around me, I force myself to write without revising anything. No matter which direction the story takes me, I stick with it. I write manically, sometimes churning out four or five single-spaced pages in an hour.
On this project, I decided to work chronologically, starting with the beginning of the decade and moving toward the end. Each chapter (remember, I had twenty — well, nineteen — at the time) took between two and three weeks to write in rough draft form and by the summer of 2015 I had a full draft. There was just one problem. At over 150,000 words (without the footnotes) no one was going to buy it — especially a publisher.
So I began to edit. Nineteen chapters became thirteen as I cut all the thematic chapters except those covering “Pistol” Pete Maravich, “Dr. J” Julius Erving, and the NBA/ABA Merger of 1976. 150,000 words became less than 100,000. It felt like slicing off a limb.
Once I’d trimmed down the draft to a more manageable size, I began researching potential publishers and read about a series being developed by Rowman & Littlefield: “Sports Icons and Issues in Popular Culture.” Perfect.
After a few phone calls with Dr. Bob Batchelor, the series editor, we agreed to a deal in which Rowman & Littlefield would publish my as-yet-untitled book. Woo hoo!
Good titles are hard to find. For my next project, I think I’ll start with the title and work backwards. But for this project, I needed to come up with a title. Something catchy, like Big Hair and Plastic Grass but with more alliteration. One rainy afternoon, I sat down with a piece of paper, a pen, and an adult beverage and started brainstorming. I made lots of lists: one of basketball terms, another of appropriately 1970s slang, and one describing key events and themes from American culture in the decade. Then I tried out combinations of them, working to find both a main title and subtitle that would describe the importance of the topic and provide a hook for readers. As I read my suggestions aloud, my daughters laughed. They were no help.
Some of my efforts *were* laughably bad and I’m pretty sure “Sport of the Seventies: Dunks, Dr. J, and Dy-no-mite!” made my top ten. In the end, I decided on Tall Tales and Short Shorts: Dr. J, Pistol Pete, and the Birth of the Modern NBA. It was both alliterative, descriptive, and catchy (at least I like to think so).
After signing my book contract in the spring of 2016, I continued to tinker with the manuscript, especially after reading feedback from my editors and readers, all of whom encouraged me to cut out stats and to increase the historical context, giving readers more of a taste of life in the NBA in the 1970s. So I wrote, and rewrote, printing out a complete draft and hand-editing in June 2016. After numerous writes and rewrites (one chapter is on its thirteenth draft), I submitted a final round of edits in early August.
Now, nearly eight months later, after jumping through all the hoops of the publishing process from securing image rights, indexing the manuscript, and approving typesets, the book is almost here. I hope readers will appreciate both the content and effort that went into Tall Tales and Short Shorts. For a book I never intended to write, it has been a wonderful journey.
Adam Criblez is an Assistant Professor of History at Southeast Missouri State University and the author of the new book Tall Tales and Short Shorts: Dr. J, Pistol Pete, and the Birth of the Modern NBA. Check out his website at https://www.adamcriblez.com/. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter at @AdamCriblez.