NBA Photos/NBAE Michael Jordan
The NBA of the early 1980s would seem unrecognizable to today’s fans.
Finals games were shown on tape delay, lest they compete with more popular programming like The Dukes of Hazard. Near-empty arenas were widespread, and with the majority of franchises losing money, contraction was a serious consideration. The league’s television contract was a relative pittance compared to those of pro football and baseball. Networks and advertisers were leery about marketing Black players to a white audience.
A lot has changed since then. Now, the NBA is a global entertainment behemoth. Its players are crossover celebrities who drive merchandise sales around the world. How the league got here from there is the subject of Pete Croatto’s deeply researched debut book, From Hang Time to Prime Time: Business, Entertainment, and the Birth of the Modern-Day NBA.
Combining vivid sports writing and inside-the-conference room business reporting with cultural history, Croatto focuses on the NBA from 1975 to 1989, which he argues set the league on its present course. During that time, the league turned its perceived liabilities — its lack of a deeply-rooted tradition and its association with Black America — into assets.
The NBA’s rise coincided with an era in which Black culture was being embraced by mainstream white America. Black entertainers like Michael Jackson, Bill Cosby and Eddie Murphy were accepted as mega-celebrities in a way that would have been impossible a generation before. Hip-hop took off in the inner cities, and then became the music of choice for suburban white kids. In this context, the NBA carved out its niche as the fast-paced, exciting sport whose rhythm and style appealed to America’s youth. Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley joined the pantheon of Black celebrities idolized by kids of all demographics.
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In the middle of the book, Croatto dedicates a chapter to a watershed moment: Marvin Gaye’s sultry version of the Star-Spangled Banner at the 1983 All-Star Game. It would go down in music history as one of the most beautiful, creative interpretations of the anthem. But at the time, much of the establishment media, as well as the league’s commissioner, Larry O’Brien, recoiled at what Croatto describes as Gaye’s attempt to turn “Francis Scott Key’s stodgy jingoistic dirge into baby-making music.”
One high-ranking NBA official felt differently, however. David Stern, then the NBA’s executive vice president for business and legal affairs, “couldn’t stop smiling,” Croatto writes. Less than a year later, Stern became commissioner, determined to chart a new course for the league by embracing what his predecessor had shied away from.
“Gaye's performance was a turning point for the NBA, because it was an (unintentional) admission that the league was going to do its own thing,” Croatto wrote in an email to PEOPLE. “Here was an anthem that actually represented the grace and power of the players on the floor, and also represented the Black men who played not only this particular game but dominated the league's demographics.”
To Stern — who died on Jan. 1, 2020 — the fact that the NBA was less established than the other major leagues presented an opportunity for a rethink: The NBA wasn’t just a sports league, it was a multi-pronged entertainment entity. He marketed the league’s stars as individuals with personas — Johnson as the joyous, charismatic leader of the “Showtime” Lakers, Larry Bird as the dour, farm boy assassin, Charles Barkley as the bad boy rebel — that made them characters in an ongoing serial drama.
A big part of the NBA’s marketing machine was the player-focused home videos that synched spectacular highlights to music. Croatto calls these videos “recruitment tools for the NBA,” noting that they successfully hooked in the MTV generation. (Croatto, 43, who lives in Dryden, New York, credits these videos with turning him into a superfan.)
Simon & Schuster Pete Croatto
And then of course was Jordan: It was the good fortune of all involved that the greatest player of all time was promoted by the most ambitious apparel marketing campaign of all time. It's a testament to the enduring impact of the Air Jordan advertising campaign that Jordan the brand has eclipsed even Jordan the player in the popular imagination. As Croatto wrote to PEOPLE, "Today, young basketball fans and players know Jordan more for his gear than his game. As a lapsed Knicks fan who was tortured by Jordan's Bulls in the 1990s, that seems unfathomable."
Summing up the league’s achievement in going from an afterthought to a worldwide cultural force, Croatto wrote to PEOPLE, “The NBA in the 1980s was a grand experiment in merging marketing and business and sports. What you see now — a global game buoyed by clothes and video games and players who we know on a first-name basis — is the result.”
From Hang Time to Prime Time: Business, Entertainment, and the Birth of the Modern-Day NBA (Atria Books, Simon & Schuster) went on sale Dec. 1.