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edge staff writer


‘From Hang Time to Prime Time’ a slam dunk

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The NBA is big business these days.

Players are global icons, recognizable to billions of people. They are literally world famous, making eight figure salaries and signing even bigger endorsement deals. On the ownership side, TV contracts and ever-escalating franchise values mean big profit for anyone with a piece of an NBA team.

It’s easy to forget that it wasn’t always this way.

Pete Croatto’s new book “From Hang Time to Prime Time: Business, Entertainment, and the Birth of the Modern-Day NBA” (Atria, $27) takes us back to a time, not so long, when the NBA was a pro sports afterthought, a league that struggled to gain any sort of foothold in the cultural consciousness. The public perception was mixed and the product on the floor was uneven; outside of a few cities, the league was barely holding on. You couldn’t even watch games live; even the Finals were infamously aired on tape delay.

But thanks to some savvy league officials, some smart business moves, a handful of transcendent players and a few lucky bounces, the NBA transformed itself. The period from the early ‘70s through the ‘80s was transformative, a time when the league went from also-ran to clubhouse leader. It was a long journey, and not without obstacles, but ultimately, the NBA got where it wanted to go.

The NBA of 40 years ago bore little resemblance to the megalithic cultural machine that it is now. Even the most successful teams were struggling financially; the league was viewed as a lesser entity by the average consumer. The brief rise of the ABA started things down a different path; while it was a financial disaster and largely behind the elder league in terms of overall talent, it also proved far more willing to experiment than its staid predecessor. We got the red, white and blue ball and the dunk contest and – perhaps most importantly – we got Dr. J.

The NBA/ABA merger happened almost exclusively to get Julius Erving to the NBA. That switch was the catalyst, the first domino in the long tumbling string that would lead to today’s league. Things started moving when Larry O’Brien took over as commissioner in 1975; under his purview, the league started pushing its way to the front of the American consciousness (though it seems clear that much of the legwork was done by rising star and eventual head honcho David Stern).

It didn’t hurt that the end of the 1970s saw the emergence of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, two rivals cut from the same cloth making the leap from NCAA legends to NBA superstars. That they reinvigorated two of the league’s premier franchises certainly helped as well. Their presence helped push the league into better television deals, and with a go-getter and full-on acolyte like Stern steering the ship, the focus shifted from teams to stars. That change in promotional ideology was the leap forward that the league needed.

And then Michael Jordan showed up.

Jordan kicked wide open the door that Bird, Magic and Dr. J had helped unlock. From the hype videos to the relationship with Nike to the on-court excellence, Jordan was the figure that Stern and the rest of the league needed to break through into the popular consciousness. And from there, the sky was the limit. Or rather … the air.

“From Hang Time to Prime Time” is a fascinating snapshot of sports history. The NBA took a weird and meandering path to relevance. It took a lot of work by a lot of very smart people to push the league forward; David Stern is the foremost figure, of course, but there were so many behind-the-scenes folks whose contributions were key to the evolution of the NBA brand. NBA Entertainment, Nike, various network partners – all of it happened due to hard work by a lot of people you may never have heard of.

And then there were the players. The arrival of Dr. J, followed a few years later by the simultaneous appearance of Bird and Magic and the ascension and anointing of Jordan just a few years after that … all of that was absolutely necessary for the league to grow like it did. Absent any one of them, the road grows exponentially more rocky – it’s an interesting “what if” to consider the league’s evolution without them.

Croatto captures the predominant feelings of the rapidly-shifting era, bringing a wealth of engaging interviews and some real deep-dive reportage to bear in the service of reconstructing the freewheeling weirdness and financial desperation of the times. One gets a sense of the danger the NBA was in, even as the people whose loyalty and passion worked tirelessly to push it to where they believed it should be.

“From Hang Time to Prime Time” is granular sports history, the kind of wonky stuff that will likely fascinate fans of the NBA’s present as much as those who revere its past. It’s a combination of in-depth research and deft prose, informative and engaging and extremely readable. Am I going to call this book a slam dunk? Yes. Yes I am, cliches be damned.

Last modified on Wednesday, 23 December 2020 07:19


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