Part II: Myths of the Basketball State (1949-1991)

In “Part II: Myths of the Modern Basketball State” I take up a forty-year period from the middle of the twentieth century to 1991. By the beginning of this period, the major contemporary institutions of American basketball (state high school associations, the NCAA, and the NBA) had emerged, consolidated regulatory power over basketball play and achieved relative stability, forming what I call—to indicate the arrogation of resources, rights and powers by these institutions—the “modern basketball state.”

During this period, whose beginning coincides roughly with the Civil Rights movement and desegregation in American society at large, basketball at its highest levels of play experienced first, desegregation (beginning at the professional level in 1950), then an influx of elite African-American players who transformed the techniques, tactics, and style of basketball and its attendant cultures until, by the late 1970s, roughly 80 % of the NBA’s players were African American. For this reason, the history of the modern basketball state necessarily centers on race. The culture of basketball—invented as an instrument of white Anglo-Saxon protestant social reform, institutionalized upon the foundation of segregation, and buttressed by complex myths correlating techniques and tactics with moral qualities and these, in turn, with class, gender and especially race and ethnicity—manifested its conflicting attitudes toward racial integration in a set of influential myths unfolding from the late 50s through the early 1980s.

The chapters in Part II address these myths as they crystallized around Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, the game’s first black superstars in the late 1950s (Chapter 3: The Myth of the Rivalry, November 7, 1959); the racially diverse NBA champion New York Knickerbockers, lauded for their unselfishness, cooperation, and defense, and celebrated as “the perfect team” in the early 1970s (Chapter 4: The Myth of the Garden, May 8, 1970); and the rookie superstars, Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Larry Bird, one black, one white, who supposedly saved the NBA from the perception that it was too black and too cynically professional with their emotionally expressive love of the game (Chapter 5: The Myth of the Amateurs, March 26, 1979).

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