Yago Colas reflects on race and basketball, as they were lived and played, body and soul, in 1970’s America.
In 1968, when I was 3, my family moved from Portland, Oregon to Madison, Wisconsin. Memories of my first few years there are dominated by the Milwaukee Bucks and their meteoric rise from expansion team to NBA champion and perennial contention. But all that changed in the summer of 1975. The knowledgeable among you are thinking that’s the summer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar left Milwaukee for LA. But that’s only part of it. The other part is that I celebrated my 10th birthday with a family vacation to Portland and came back with a Trailblazers pennant.
Maybe three months before we headed west for my birthday trip, Kareem played his last game with the Milwaukee Bucks on April 6th, 1975, a home loss to the Chicago Bulls. The season had been a disappointment. The Bucks had taken the Celtics to seven games in the NBA Finals the previous season, but Oscar Robertson had retired, Lucius Allen, the other starting guard, had already been traded, and Kareem himself had missed the first two months of the season with a broken hand.
Kareem was in the last year of his contract, and though he wrote fondly of the Milwaukee fans in his 1983 autobiography, Giant Steps, he was feeling isolated, alien, and alone: a 7-2 black Muslim, native of Harlem, in a small market Midwestern city. The Bucks ultimately agreed to trade him to the Lakers, where, as everyone knows, he would play the rest of his career, winning 5 more championships alongside Magic Johnson and becoming the all-time leading scorer in NBA history.
As for the Bucks, they sucked the next two seasons before Don Nelson began to turn them around in 1977. I still liked them and wanted them to do well, but I had moved on, adopting the Portland Trailblazers as my new team on the grounds that I had been born there and had visited in 1975. I even had the Trailblazers pennant up in my bedroom, right next to the Bucks’ one.
Now, the ‘75-‘76 Blazers weren’t anything to write home about, finishing 37-45 and missing the playoffs. But, even so, they held my attention because, among other things, they had Bill Walton, in his second year out of UCLA. As far as college hoops went, I was a Bruin. And, indeed, the very next season Walton led the Blazers to the NBA championship and vindicated my decision to adopt them as my team.
In his chapter on Kareem and Walton in FreeDarko Presents the Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History, Bethlehem Shoals establishes some of the contrasts, in fact and perception, surrounding these men. There are, first of all, the very arcs of their careers. While Kareem played more than 1500 games during 20 seasons, Walton played less than 500 over 10 seasons. Kareem won six titles and six MVP awards, and played in 19 All-Star games. Walton won two titles, one MVP award, and played in only two All-Star games. But if that were all there were to it, then it would seem Walton—exceptionally skilled though he was—hardly merits a co-starring role in the story of this period of league history. But that’s not all there is to it.
When we leave the court and go out into society at that time, we find that each player embodied different facets of 1970s America. In 1971, the day after the Bucks won their first and only NBA championship, Lew Alcindor, as Kareem was then known, converted to Islam and changed his name. That was right around the time that Walton would enroll at Kareem’s alma mater, UCLA, and not only embark on a legendary college basketball career, but also break the athletic mold by participating in and experimenting with a variety of extra-curricular activities, from political protests to vegetarianism. Kareem, perceived as stoic, if not aloof, emblematized an angry blackness that would not be appeased or assimilated. Walton, meanwhile, was the eccentric, outgoing campus radical.
But in an NBA era in which increases in the number of black players, as well as player salaries, and reports of drug use would combine to turn off a white audience that would rationalize its disinterest as a sorrowful lament for the decline of the team game, there was more: Walton became the standard bearer for the traditional game played the right (read: white) way. This perception would culminate, and Walton’s historical reputation be set in stone, when his disproportionately white Trailblazers team, playing an effective passing game, defeated what Shoals calls the “badder than thou” 76ers of Julius Erving, Darryl Dawkins, and World B. Free in the 1977 finals.
Being only 12, I was oblivious to the dynamics at the time, though in another way I was living them and, in yet another, undoing or at least complicating them. As I’ve written before, one of the more striking (and possibly erreoneous) aspects of my memories of the Bucks is how sparsely watched their games were in Madison. Madison was Packer country. None of my (all white) Catholic school friends really cared much about the Bucks, let alone about basketball. So I gravitated to the only kid who did, who also happened to be the only black kid in my neighborhood, Robb. Robb’s family had moved in in 1976 and he went to public school. He was also a Dr. J fanatic.
I would be the Blazers and Robb the Sixers. Best of 7. Blazers home games were played in my driveway, Sixers home games on the court up The Park, which bordered Robb’s back yard. His terrifying German Shepard, Ginger, chained to her dog house in the back yard, would cheer Robb on and intimidate me, especially when Robb, laughing, would yell, “Kill, Ginger, Kill.” We would have boom boxes blaring music during our games and, for night games in my driveway, would hook up shop lights to the garage door. We would introduce the starting line-ups: “at forward, from the University of Massachusetts, NUMBer SIX, JOOOLLLLIUSSSS ERRRRRRVINGGGGGGGGGG.”
Robb had the edge in one respect: it was much easier to imitate the Sixers than the Blazers. He could pull up for long jumpers and be World B. Free; he could back me in for a power lay up a la Darryl Dawkins or flip up a little jump hook like Cladwell Jones, or, of course, he could swoop in for demoralizing driving Dr. J. layups—the crowd in “The Spectrum” going nuts (or the crowd in Memorial Coliseum hushed by the display of athleticism and blackness).
Meanwhile, what was I going to do: be Bill Walton throwing an outlet pass? Dave Twardzik hitting Bob Gross with a bouncepass for a backdoor layup? Maurice Lucas ripping down a board? Of course, I did all these things, but it wasn’t quite the same and I still recall the confusion I often felt as I attempted to translate what I was doing in my games with Robb into the language of a Blazers broadcast.
I don’t remember how those series turned out. I remember we kept stats, arbitrarily assigning a certain number of points, rebounds, and assists to each of our “players.” Robb was about a year and a half older than me and though his time was split between hoops and football (and mine was not), I think he probably won more games than I did (though that would change over the course of high school).
Our games were fiercely competitive, frequently leading to arguments, but these always seemed to resolve themselves over postgame meals. At the Spectrum, we enjoyed homemade sweet potato pie and iced tea. At the Coliseum it was more likely to be fresh baked chocolate chip cookies and milk. I came to consider Robb my closest friend, even though we went to different middle schools, high schools, and colleges. He introduced me to Earth, Wind and Fire, and later to Luther Vandross. We went to see Purple Rain together, several times (but also, before that, Rocky, also several times, and, because Wilt Chamberlain’s in it, Conan the Barbarian, though just the once). We even “recorded” a song together, covering EW&F’s “After the Love is Gone” under the pseudonyms McAlister and Whitehead, for which we carefully drew the LP art.
To this day, Robb erroneously believes it was McFadden, not McAlister. We’re not in touch regularly, but every time we are it’s as if no time has passed. We smoothly integrate the victories and defeats of our respective passing lives into our friendship, a friendship we built when we were competing for the NBA title back in the 1970s and stumbling with awkward gait through family discord into adolescence.
I realized reading Shoals’ book on the NBA that Robb and I were playing with social and ideological, especially racial, dynamite. It’s as though the grownups left us these fucked-up toys and we still managed to do something cool with them. After all, we saw and loved both Rocky and Purple Rain (maybe we loved Purple Rain a little more). Robb may have been the Sixers and I may have been the Blazers—he the hard-to-contain slasher, I the dead-eye shooter, he black and I white—but somehow, for better or worse (for better and worse), we never seemed to understand that these affinities had racial significance. Or maybe, at some deep level we did, but we didn’t care. I certainly don’t remember talking much about race until we were older, maybe late in high school. Maybe I’ve repressed it and Robb remembers it differently. Maybe it just wasn’t as important as trying to find a way to feel less alone.
Or (and) maybe we were both tapping into something that Shoals points out toward the end of his chapter on the two UCLA stars who in many ways defined the NBA during that era, something that undoes the dichotomous opposition between Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton, and all the broader moral and racial meanings mapped onto them, something that the two of them shared, not only as players but as figures on different edges of America’s mainstream at the time. “Each,” Shoals argues, “embodied a different kind of purism. In the stately Kareem and the playful Walton, there was a wholly original perspective on how to approach the game, philosophically speaking. . . . Each lived by his own version of the philosophy expressed in this statement by Kareem: “Don’t ever forget that you play basketball with your soul as well as your body.”
I’m not sure the philosophy was a new one, but I think the articulation of it, and in those terms specifically, was new and very much of its time. I suspect, for example, that Bill Russell also played basketball with his soul as well as his body, but I don’t think Bill’s time was ready to hear him say so, nor, perhaps, was his temperment of the kind to articulate it. But Kareem and Bill both stood fpr a specific basketball philosophy, as did, by the way, Dr J and the Sixers. Those Sixers, after all, embodied the ABA genome that was just then impacting the NBA, a genome, as I have written elsewhere, that could be summed up with the phrase psychedelia, or “soul, manifesting.” It’s a nifty way to sum up, perhaps, what is shared by every wonderful player, event, or moment in the game’s history: they played or were played with soul as well as with body. I think Kareem and Walton hold the distinction of being the first notable players of the modern NBA to fully live the consequences of that commitment, on and off the court.
Given the durability of our friendship, and the other interests we shared and introduced each other to, given the intensity with which we constructed an imaginary space in which we could, with soul and body, embody these heroes of ours, I suspect that Robb and I were more than anything trying to live Kareem’s maxim and in that way to elude the painfully alienating dichotomies that marked the era, and the game, and which we were perhaps just beginning to fathom, each in our own way.
A French philosopher I much admire, had he been me and grown up in my time and place, on my court, might have written of basketball: “the only question of basketball is ‘Does it work, and how does it work?’ How does it work for you? If it doesn’t work, if nothing comes through you, try a different game. . . . Hoops is a little cog in much more complicated external machinery. Hooping is one flow among others, with no special place in relation to the others, that comes into relations of current, countercurrent, and eddy with other flows. . . This intensive way of playing and watching, in contact with what’s outside the game, as a flow meeting other flows, one machine among others, as a series of experiments for each player and fan in the midst of events that have nothing to do with hoops, as getting the game to interact with other things, absolutely anything…is playing (or watching) with love.”
Walton’s and Kareem’s respective careers and personas, and my memories of the time, offer, I think, another important instance of how the game is more than a game, or, in other words, of what it means to play, watch, and think about the game with love. In this particular case, the instance is inflected specifically by the tones of the era in question. And the examples are instructive of that time, in which during the decline of American civilization some people were still talking about soul, desperately trying to find their way to something like an integrated existence in a rapidly transforming (not to say disintegrating) culture that was America around the time of its bicentennial, in the wake of Vietnam, and Watergate, and in the thick of the energy crisis.
In this, we can see also the conditions under which the game allows itself to be experienced and understood as more than just a game, more than just the moves on the court, more than just the technical innovations. Kareem and Walton offer examples of throwing oneself so fully into the game that you come out the other side and see the game as a swatch in a much vaster fabric through which our very selves are threaded.
We were just playing, sure, Robb and I, just like Walton and Kareem were just playing, but we were also, like them, taking the promising and unpromising threads of our time and place, private and public, and weaving ourselves, body and soul, from them. And in turn, we were—we are—weaving those unfinishable selves into the fabric of the world.