Magic and American Myth

Posted by Kevin Arnovitz

On its surface, David Halberstam's "The Breaks of the Game" tells the story of how the Portland Trail Blazers, just two years removed from an NBA championship and with all the makings of a dynasty, fell back to earth. But since its initial publication almost 30 years ago, Halberstam's book endures as much more: It's a fascinating portrait of the NBA at the most pivotal moment in the league's history.

At the start of the 1979-80 season, the NBA was an afterthought for most sports fans in North America. The networks treated the game like a stepchild. Sponsors were disinterested. There was talk that hockey and -- yes -- pro soccer could eclipse the NBA.

According to Halberstam -- but you don't need a journalist or cultural history of the league to tell you this -- much of that dynamic had to do with race. In the late 1970s, the game was perceived as unrelatable to the kinds of fans (read: white) that franchises and advertisers wanted to reach.

Halberstam's discussion of race in "The Breaks of the Game" can be a startling read in 2009, not because anything he wrote was untruthful, insensitive, or even outrageous, but because the conversation about race and the NBA today resides in a much different place.

When LeBron James came into the league with unprecedented fanfare in 2003, few considered his certain stardom in any context other than: Here is a kid who has the talent to surpass the game's most totemic stars. Sponsors couldn't wait to throw their dollars at James, and the league primed itself for one of the great marketing pushes in sports history.

As Halberstam chronicled in "The Breaks of the Game," it wasn't always that way.

When did things begin to change?

About the time Earvin Johnson first took the floor for the Los Angeles Lakers, as Halberstam wrote in 1981:

Now, after the Laker practice, the press waited for Magic. Everybody wanted a piece of him. It had been a long time since a black athlete had come into the league who was so enthusiastic and thus so reassuring. Perhaps not since Willie Mays in another sport and another era had there been a black athlete so ingenuous and so boyish. But no one had ever had to sell the innocence of baseball -- baseball was innocent as the memory of every village green, even to those who had never set foot on one. But basketball was different. Its media franchisers, the people in the commissioner's office, the people who ran CBS Sports, the people who sold the commercials for television, were finding it worrisome. Not only was it less linked to American myth, not only were its players blacker -- and more obviously so, given the skimpiness of their uniforms compared to baseball and football -- but they had also become, over the years, more politicized, prouder, and more outspoken. Some, like Kareem, had been unwilling to play for the U.S. Olympic team. Madison Avenue already had its doubts about professional as opposed to college basketball. Athletes were increasingly viewed by Madison Avenue as articulate but surly and ungrateful or, just as bad, grateful but inarticulate.

Thus did the network and league fasten on Magic...

... The crowd gathered early under the Laker basket to watch Magic. He brought with him not just his own joy but a public display of his excitement. At his best, he was one of the most innovative new players in the game; he appeared to invent a new pass and a new move every time he had the ball. He had the height of a forward, 6'8", but he played guard, where men in the past had only been 6'4", or, at best, 6'5". He had the potential for changing the way the game was played. In basketball there is something called the transition game: a team is on offense, it puts up a shot, the shot misses, the defensive team takes the rebound and starts downcourt. The second or two in which the teams change over, offense to defense, defense to offense, is called the transition period: traditionally, it was the bigger men who had to rebound, and then, because they were not very good ballhandlers, they passed the ball off to smaller guards who were ballhandlers. But because Magic was so tall he was able to at once rebound and then lead the attack up the court without passing off himself. That made it harder for the defensive team to set up and it dramatically altered the flow of the game. Still, the other players were not sure he was a player yet. That was their word, a player. All the hype and hoopla worked against him. Hype and hoopla were white, written by whites and sold by whites, and they did not often connect to the core of basketball.

Was Johnson's most profound impact on the NBA what Halberstam called his "potential for changing the way the game was played," or was it that he was "reassuring" to white fans? The truth, as it usually does, lies somewhere in between.