Stark, Douglas. Breaking Barriers: A History of Integration in Professional Basketball. Lanham, MD. Rowman & Littlefield, 2019. Notes, bibliography, index.
Reviewed by Murry Nelson
This is a book that sounds better than it really is and that was a disappointment since Stark is a good writer with a background of curation at the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. He draws heavily on a few books for a great deal of his material, notably Ron Thomas’s They Cleared the Lane, Art Rust’s Illustrated History of the Black Athlete, Nelson George’s Elevating the Game: Black Men and Basketball, Ben Green’s Spinning the Globe: The Rise, Fall and Return to Greatness of the Harlem Globetrotters and later, Jan Hubbard’s The Official NBA Encyclopedia. These are certainly excellent resources, as are many that he relies upon, but what he often ends up doing is compiling and restating what these works have already presented.
Stark also utilizes the Chicago Defender, the African-American newspaper with the greatest national distribution and respect, yet fails to also search and/or cite many pieces from the Amsterdam News or the Pittsburgh Courier, although there are citations for Wendell Smith, the great writer for the latter.
The first three chapters, focusing on early black professional basketball, the World Professional Basketball Tournament (drawing largely on John Schleppi’s 2008 book on that topic) and the National Basketball League are the strongest of the six chapters. Chapter four on early black NBA pioneers is uneven, but still enjoyable. Often, these forays into individuals lead to a break in temporal continuity, with both positive and negative results. The descriptions can stand on their own, but the flow of the book seems lost at times.
What often holds the book together is the attention given to the Harlem Globetrotters and the New York Renaissance (in its various incarnations), which is as it should be. These teams and individual players have been recognized in more recent years for their contributions with team and individual elections to the Hall of Fame.
There is a bit on the American Basketball League which existed for a very short time, but had a disproportionately large effect on pro basketball and African Americans in that milieu. However, some players from that league and the American Basketball Association are absent and should not be. These include Connie Hawkins and Lavern Tart, both of whom made the ABL as good as it was, and, of course, Hawkins made both the ABA and NBA even better in his Hall of Fame career that also included a brief time with the Harlem Globetrotters.
The last chapter, “The Shadow of Michael Jordan” seems a bit superfluous, considering the book focus on integration in the pro game, since this chapter covers the period 1989-the present, when over 75% of the players are African-American, rendering the need for integration a fait acompli. Most of this chapter is capsule summaries of the careers of Jordan, Ike Thomas, Magic Johnson, Shaq O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and Lebron James. This chapter seems more like filler requested by an editor or publisher, rather information necessary to Stark’s thesis.
Despite these concerns, the book is easy and fun to read and reminisce and will be useful to those not already familiar with those periods and teams that Stark focuses on, especially those of the pre-NBA period.
Murry Nelson is a Professor Emeritus of Education at the Pennsylvania State University. His research focuses on the history of basketball, and he is the author of The National Basketball League: A History, 1935–1949 (2009), Abe Saperstein and the American Basketball League (2013), and Big Ten Basketball, 1943-1972 (2016).