Aiello, Thomas. Dixieball: Race and Professional Basketball in the Deep South, 1947-1979. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2019. Pp. 182. $34.95 hardback and ebook.
Reviewed by Łukasz Muniowski
Atlanta and New Orleans do not exactly appear at the top of the rankings of basketball-obsessed cities. As shown by Thomas Aiello’s extraordinarily entertaining and fun book on the early years of basketball in the Deep South, Dixieball: Race and Professional Basketball in the Deep South, 1947-1979, the limited appeal of basketball in that region is rooted in its history with racism. According to Aiello, it was only after racial barriers were dismantled that professional basketball became even possible in that region. Just as the sport needed new territories to expand, so did the southern cities need basketball teams to prove to the rest of the country how they were progressing, both culturally and socially.
Basketball, as opposed to other sports, was a predominately Black sport, which limited its embrace in the southern United States. Convincing those suspicious of basketball’s racial connotations was crucial to establishing any sort of basketball culture in the Deep South.
The player that threaded the needle between tradition and progress was Pete Maravich. While the player himself was highly influential with his style of play, evidenced by his nomination to the NBA’s 50th and 75th Anniversary Teams, it was what he represented that became crucial for the development of professional basketball in the South. He was a Great White Hope.
Maravich entered the basketball scene in a complicated context, growing up in a segregated community where white and Black players were not allowed to share the court. In fact, a Black man could be arrested for playing basketball for recreational purposes in some southern communities. Likewise, many communities had no courts open to Black Americans. Despite the exclusion of Black players from the sport in the South, the idea that the sport was “too Black” was pervasive. For example, NBA star Wilt Chamberlain openly spoke out about the NBA having too many Black players to be marketable. The believed for need for a Great White Hope––a white player who could excel in a sport perceived to be Black––was not questioned. Enter, Maravich.
The LSU player arrived to the Hawks as the team relocated to Atlanta from St. Louis in 1968. Maravich, with his improvisational scoring and passing abilities, offered the excitement of “Black” basketball, albeit through a white southern player. He thus was seen as crucial in establishing professional basketball in the city. However, he was resented by the Black veterans on the team. Maravich was paid more than his Black teammates, while he also was signed endorsement deals that they could only dream of. With Maravich as their star player, the Hawks reached the playoffs in three of the four seasons he wore a Hawks uniform, yet the team never made it out of the first round. Maravich was a great ball handler, impressive passer, and high scorer, but his personal style stats rarely translated to team wins.
The limitations of Maravich became evident when he was traded to the New Orleans Jazz in 1974. An expansion franchise, the Jazz gave up a slew of draft picks for Maravich: 1974 and 1975 first round picks, 1975 and 1976 second round picks, and the second and third picks, and two pick swaps, in the expansion drafts of 1976 and 1977. Yet, the Jazz did not make the playoffs in the six years Maravich was a Jazzman, which included five years in New Orleans and one year in Utah. The draft picks the team sacrificed underscore how damaging going all in on Maravich was for the franchise. The two players selected with the first-round picks would turn out to be David Thompson and Alex English, both future Hall of Famers. The Jazz would also acquire the 33-year-old Laker Gail Goodrich in exchange for a draft pick that would turn out to be Magic Johnson.
The Jazz also faced financial peril. Only by winning could the Jazz earn enough money to cover the expansion fee, but each season instead brought more financial losses. Fans were not interested in seeing how the Maravich-led Jazz failed to win another game, regardless of their entertaining style of play and Maravich’s presumed white southern appeal. During the team’s last season in New Orleans, an average of only 4,000 fans attended home games. The ownership group blamed the city for the relocation to Utah, but it was undeniable that nothing contributed to the move more than the ramifications of the Maravich trade.
The way Aiello retraces the early years of professional basketball is both informative and entertaining. Present-day factors also enhance the entertainment factor for hoops fans. New Orleans’ current NBA team, the Pelicans, unfortunately resembles the Jazz, seemingly perpetually beset by financial, attendance, and roster issues. In Atlanta, the Hawks enjoyed a Cinderella run in the 2021 NBA Playoffs, making it to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Łukasz Muniowski recieved his Ph.D. in American Literature from the University of Warsaw. He is the author of Three-Pointer! A 40-Year NBA History (McFarland, 2020), Narrating the NBA: Representations of Leading Players after the Michael Jordan Era (Lexington, 2021), and The Sixth Man: A History of the NBA Off the Bench (McFarland, 2021).