Review of Tall Tales and Short Shorts

Adam J. Criblez, Tall Tales and Short Shorts: Dr. J, Pistol Pete, and the Birth of the Modern NBA.  Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017. Pp. xii + 299. Photos, notes, select bibliography, and index. $38 hardback.

Reviewed by Christopher R. Davis

Tall Tales

Rowmman & Littlefield, 2107

In his monograph, Tall Tales and Short Shorts: Dr. J, Pistol Pete, and the Birth of the Modern NBA, historian Adam J. Criblez takes us back to the 1970s—a decade of mood rings, voluminous afros, and the disco craze—as he recounts the history of the NBA during what he labels a period of “great transformation” (p. xii).  Inspired by Dan Epstein’s 2010 Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging ‘70s, Criblez sets out to link the history of the game on the court to the colorful cultural history of a turbulent, transitional decade.  While the book does not always achieve this larger goal, it does succeed in recapturing the 1970s NBA, along with the players, personalities, legal and financial disputes, and battles on and off the court that defined a luminal period.  From the celebrated New York Knicks championship teams of 1970 and 1973, to the Washington Bullets and Seattle SuperSonics teams that split the decade’s final two championship series, Criblez chronicles the exploits of a colorful cast of characters—Walt “Clyde” Frazier, “the Big E” Elvin Hayes, “Downtown” Freddie Brown, Nate “Tiny” Archibald (also known as Nate “the Skate” this reviewer would add), Marvin “Bad News” Barnes, World B. Free, and David “Skywalker” Thompson, to name a few—during a decade almost as noteworthy for its outsized personalities and colorful nicknames as for its increasingly athletic and sophisticated brand of basketball.  The result is an entertaining book that adds to the nascent body of scholarship on the history of professional basketball.

Criblez thoroughly mined mainstream magazines, popular histories, and biographical and autobiographical accounts of this period to elaborately reconstruct the NBA of the 1970s.  Taking Bill Russell’s retirement following the 1969 NBA championship as his starting point, he organizes his narrative into ten numbered chapters, each covering one season during the ensuing decade.  Interspersed following chapters one, six, and seven are three unnumbered thematic chapters, labelled “Time-Out(s),” focusing on Pete Maravich, Julius Erving, and the 1976 ABA-NBA merger, respectively.  The numbered chapters quickly fall into a familiar pattern as the author recounts the key players, coaches, draft picks, trades, and games that shaped each team’s season.  He then discusses the campaign’s important playoff matchups and provides a detailed account of each championship series.  The 1970s NBA, Criblez emphasizes, lacked a dominant team.  Russell’s exit marked the end of the Celtic dynasty and eight different franchises won the league title in the next ten years, with no team repeating as champions in consecutive seasons.  Much of the drama in Criblez’s narrative revolves around his slow unveiling of which franchise’s management strategy and combination of players brought home the championship each season.  This pattern becomes a bit tedious as the book progresses, especially for readers who already know the outcomes.  Each chapter ends with a useful statistical section listing the final standings, playoff series results, All-NBA first and second teams, and statistical leaders for that campaign.

Criblez’s goal is to establish the importance of this decade—a period former commissioner David Stern once disparagingly referred to as the “dark days” of NBA history—as a critical turning point that witnessed “the birth of the modern NBA” (pp. xii, 259).  In his estimation, “none of the NBA’s growth in the eighties would have been possible without the efforts of basketball’s pioneers of the 1970s” who “transformed professional basketball in important ways” (p. 259-260).  It was indeed a period of significant change.  The players’ legal challenge to the reserve clause, beginning in 1970, opened the way to free agency by the middle of the decade.  Greater bargaining power for the players, in turn, produced a marked escalation in salaries by the late-1970s.  It also gave these athletes greater control over choosing who they would play for, and a larger voice in the league overall, at an earlier date than in other major team sports.  The mid-decade merger with the American Basketball Association brought the best talent in professional basketball under one organizational structure, setting the stage for future growth.  Just as importantly, it opened the talent of the ABA to a national television audience for the first time.  The upstart league also added the three-point shot (incorporated by the NBA in 1979) and the dunk contest to the professional game.  The decade also witnessed, Criblez asserts, the beginnings of an outlaw ethos among players as “a culture of violence and drugs pervaded pro basketball locker rooms” (p. xii).

Despite these important developments, Criblez’s argument seems a bit overstated.  The seventies certainly were an important period for the NBA, but it was hardly a “pioneer” era; a case could be made for the 1960s, the 1980s, or several other ten-year stretches of league history as being, at least, equally significant to the professional game’s development.  The critical weakness here, however, is not relevancy, it is lack of elaboration.  This is a history of the game on the court in the 1970s and very little time is spent developing and supporting the analytical portion of the argument.  Criblez presents his thesis in the final paragraph of his prologue and returns to it in the last paragraph of his epilogue, but in between focuses almost exclusively on the personnel decisions, athletes, and games that shaped each season.  The history of professional basketball in the 1970s certainly needs reassessment and development, but the ideas proposed here will be left to others to explore more fully.

The ubiquity of the nicknames from the period alone, and the deep in-roads they made into middle-class American culture, suggests that something more than a “dark ages” was afoot.   The 1970s NBA offers fertile ground for studying the changing dynamics of a new stage in the history of American race relations.  Criblez’s narrative touches on some of these changes, but stops short of analyzing their broader implications.  The achievements of the civil rights era produced a degree of racial desegregation in American society that opened professional team sports to black athletes on a wide scale during the 1960s.  By the mid-1970s, African Americans, with a few notable exceptions, dominated the highest levels of basketball.  As they achieved that ascendency, large numbers of Americans of all backgrounds, including whites in suburbia, embraced black players (like Dr. J), emulating their style on and off the court, even if they could not quite duplicate the athleticism or afro.  At the same time, deep-seated prejudices and structural inequalities endured.  African-American athletes, like other prominent minorities, were exposed to greater scrutiny and held to a higher standard than their white compatriots.  No more likely to use drugs or engage in violent behavior than other elite athletes, they nonetheless faced greater scrutiny and stiffer criticism for their actions.  The outlaw ethic, drugs, and violence that Criblez identifies speak more to broad cultural attitudes than the character of the players in this period.  One thing is certain—whatever conclusions historians ultimately reach about the NBA in the 1970s, they will be closely connected to the complex racial history of the late-twentieth century United States.

This monograph represents Criblez’s first foray into the field of sport history.  His previous work focused on the social and cultural history of the nineteenth-century Midwest and his first book was titled Parading Patriotism: Independence Day Celebrations in the Urban Midwest, 1826-1876.  An interest in sports and a love of basketball led him to a personally surprising shift in focus for his second book project.  Given his academic background, Criblez could have spent more time relating his topic to the broader social and cultural history of a complex decade.  While each chapter does contain a section or two where the narrative breaks away from basketball to consider larger events (for example: Kent State in 1970, the Boston busing controversies in 1974, and mood rings and pet rocks in 1975), for the most part, these brief segues are not connected to players, coaches, or events inside the NBA.  The reactions of pro basketball to the major cultural developments of the era go largely unrecorded.  Unlike Epstein’s Big Hair and Plastic Grass, which vividly brought to life links between the diamond and the broader cultural ferment of the period, Criblez keeps his focus principally within the confines of the hardwood.  Embedding his work in the growing historiography of the “‘Me’ Decade” would have enriched the story, strengthened its analysis, and made the book a more enduring work of scholarship.

Yet, the publication of this book highlights the potential of digital media to enhance scholarship by opening more of the creative process to a broader audience.  Criblez promoted the book on social media and his website.  In May and June 2017, the editors of this blog published an excerpt from the book as well as two articles by the author, one detailing his research and writing process for the project and the other discussing his thesis and the significance of the 1970s in professional basketball history.  Access to these materials gives his readership greater insight into the author’s selection of topic, the research methods he employed, the shaping of his ideas, and the general spirit of the project.  When publishing budgets limit authors to a particular page count, or specialized information and data seems inappropriate for a general audience—as well as for countless other potential reasons—digital platforms offer scholars a chance to supplement their projects and engage their readers in greater depth.

Readers can also embrace the resources of digital history to enhance their experience reading this book.  Video footage of the 1970s NBA readily available through internet platforms, such as Youtube, offers the opportunity to view highlights of many of the players, teams, and games that Criblez chronicles.  Especially for fans who did not experience the period first-hand, this video archive brings 1970s pro basketball to life in ways that the text of a book can only suggest.  At the same time, Criblez’s narrative connects the video images to the context and times that produced them.  Together, both make for an enriched reading experience.

Of all the major American team sports, basketball has received the least scholarly attention.  As Criblez points out, much of the secondary source material available on the pro game in the 1970s is written by journalists.  In the last few years, however, more serious works of scholarship have begun to emerge.  Important monographs, such as Todd Smith’s Young, Black, Rich, and Famous: The Rise of the NBA, the Hip Hop Invasion, and the Transformation of American Culture (2008), Aram Goudsouzian’s King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution (2010), and Yago Colás’s Ball Don’t Lie: Myth, Genealogy, and Invention in the Cultures of Basketball (2016), demonstrate the rich potential of the game and its past to highlight larger cultural and historical shifts.  Criblez takes the first step toward incorporating a previously dismissed decade, the 1970s, into this growing body of work.  He clearly demonstrates that the period was one of vibrancy and important change.  The merger with the ABA, escalating talent levels, competitive parity, improved labor relations, and the ascendance of the black athlete, all set the stage for the glory days of “Showtime,” Magic, Bird, and Jordan in the decades that followed.  Given basketball’s expanding popularity in the United States and abroad, as well as the youthful demographics of its fan base, it seems that interest in the professional game—both popular and scholarly—will continue to grow in the coming decades.

In all, Tall Tales and Short Shorts is an entertaining and engaging read.  Fans old enough to remember the 1970s will enjoy a trip down memory lane and a chance to re-live an era that seems increasingly distant almost two decades into the twenty-first century.  It was a period when professional basketball underwent important fundamental changes and cemented its place in the American athletic mainstream.  For younger fans, and the game’s growing urban, suburban, and international audiences, this book opens up the vivid story of a colorful time when players like Kareem, the Doctor, the Iceman, and Pistol Pete became household names as they battled for dominance on the court and pushed the athleticism, skill, and aesthetic beauty of their game to new heights.

Christopher R. Davis received his PhD in history from the University of Oklahoma.  His research focuses on the desegregation of college football in Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas between the end of World War II and the late-1970s.  He is currently working on a book project entitled Black Power on the Football Field: Race, Rivalry, and Manhood in Oklahoma and Texas.  Chris lives in McAllen, Texas where he teaches courses on U.S. history, African-American history, and sport history at South Texas College.

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