Chapter 4: The Myth of the Garden, May 8, 1970 (Taste)
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“The Knicks are about the possibility of shared values even after the whole world seems to have broken wide open.” —Bethlehem Shoals
[. . .]
Julius Erving of the ABA’s New York Nets, known as “Dr. J,” won the contest in spectacular fashion. Just prior to his final turn in the contest, he stood at the free throw line facing the basket. Then, dramatically, palming the ball in one hand he turned and, in loping strides, measured his steps to the free-throw area at the opposite end of the court. Erving turned back to face upcourt, paused, and then, with the ball still held firmly in his right hand, sprinted toward the opposite basket. When his left foot hit the free throw line, Erving took off, soaring toward the hoop. Raising the ball up and back with his right arm, Erving jammed it down through the basket as flash bulbs popped and onlookers jumped to their feet in joy and wonder. Recalling the play, Erving imagined himself “palming the ball up over my head, outstretched, like Lady Liberty holding her torch.” The image is striking, especially when combined with what stands out in other observers’ memories: Erving’s high blowout Afro shifting slightly backward in the wind generated by his lift-off. This is Erving, native of New York’s playground circuit and star of New York’s other professional basketball team, as an African American Statue of Liberty, expressing the creative joy and power of freedom through this single dunk.
Not only striking, the image is also fitting since, in very real terms, the ABA created jobs (and, through the bidding war for talent, higher salaries) for black basketball players, including great players like Connie Hawkins, Moses Malone, Spencer Haywood who were, for various reasons, prohibited from entering the NBA. In this sense, the ABA challenged the hegemony of the modern basketball state. But beyond this, the ABA created a cultural space, free of the moralizing basketball conventions of the NBA and the NCAA, in which the creative, improvisational, fast and fluid style popular among African Americans on urban playgrounds—Erving drew inspiration for the dunk from Jumping Jackie Jackson, a friend and New York City playground legend—could enjoy at least some measure of the attention, and recompense, it deserved.
Erving’s dunk, which stands as a metonymy of his game overall, embodied the spirit, style, and unconventional and unconstrained talent of ABA players, playing (and experimenting and innovating freely) in the shadow of their more established, and conventional, NBA counterparts. Meanwhile, Hunter College Assistant Coach Robert Bownes shed light on the cultural stakes when he explained that the NCAA’s 1967 no-dunk rule was really not about stopping Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but rather to “stop the six-foot-two brothers who could dazzle the crowd and embarrass much bigger white kids by dunking. The white establishment has an uncomfortable feeling that blacks are dominating too many areas of sports. So they’re setting up all kinds of restrictions and barriers. Everyone knows that dunking is a trademark of great playground black athletes. And so they took it away. It’s as simple as that.” Bownes not only echoes Abdul-Jabbar’s own explanation for the rule (“this and other niggers were running away with the sport”), he elaborates upon it, reminding us that not everyone was equally welcome in the modern basketball state. While the Knicks might well stake a claim to embodying a liberal version of racial harmony, in terms of basketball style, morality, and politics they simultaneously suppressed more radical claims of African American autonomy, such as might have been voiced by the Black Panthers, or Bill Russell or exemplified by the City Game’s soaring other son, that Statue of Basketball Liberty: Julius Erving.