Chapter 5: The Myth of the Amateurs, March 26, 1979 (Overview)
The most-watched basketball game in the history of the sport took place in Salt Lake City on March 26, 1979. One fourth of American television sets tuned to NBC, which broadcast the NCAA Men’s Tournament Final to forty million viewers.About two months later, just twelve million viewers tuned in to watch the NBA Finals—the fourth lowest rated series of any between 1974 and 2014. What accounts for the massive disparity in popularity? Historians claim that many fans complained that the league featured too much one-on-one play, violence, drug use, players interested only in contracts and individual statistics who didn’t really try, and too many African American players—84 % of NBA players were black in the 1978-89 season. So even Knicks fans, who in the early 1970s fell in love with what one writer calls the “healthy mix of white and black players racial mix of players, took to calling the 1978-79 squad, composed entirely of black players, “the Niggerbockers.” These and other unhappy fans, the common explanation continues, turned away from the pro game and instead renewed their interest in college basketball, which the television industry was beginning, in the late 1970s, to supply in greater abundance.
In 1979, unknown Indiana State enjoyed an undefeated season, was ranked number one, and featured the nation’s top scorer, senior forward Larry Bird. Michigan State, meanwhile, emerged as Big Ten champions, reaching the NCAA Final by trouncing Penn by thirty-four points. They were led by versatile 6’-9” sophomore point guard Earvin Johnson. Johnson’s Spartans defeated Indiana State 75-64 and Johnson and Bird entered the NBA for the 1979-1980 season, joining the fabled Lakers and Celtics, respectively. Between them, they won eight of the ten championships during the 1980s. Along the way, the story goes, Bird and Magic saved pro basketball and set the stage for Michael Jordan and the NBA’s global empire. Perhaps, but I am more interested in the way that story gets told, via what I call here “the myth of the amateurs.”
If Johnson and Bird “saved the NBA” it was obviously in their capacity as professional basketball players, paid to play and so to make money for their employers and the league. Yet this myth’s power stems from its association of the two with emotion, and through that, with amateur values. Originating in their college championship duel, the myth of the amateurs emphasizes Johnson and Bird’s openly expressed love of the game for its own sake. Meanwhile, differences between the two allow them to function as a complementary unit containing racial antagonism. The lower middle-class African American Johnson’s unthreatening congeniality, at home in Hollywood, complements Bird’s Boston-based, taciturn, white working class toughness. These traits shape their respective emotional investments in basketball: Johnson’s expressive joy and Bird’s focused diligence. But the myth joins these variations as flip sides of a single coin: a shared unselfish will to win that would nourish both rivalry and loving friendship. Considering existing racial stereotypes and perceptions, the myth contrasts a league saved in the loving image of “the amateurs” with the narrowly escaped dangers posed by selfish black professionals cynically using the sport to garner undeserved riches. The myth of the amateurs however deemphasizes elements of their story to preserve its amateurist color-blind fantasy. Telling their story from the point of view of their innovative on-court style, by contrast, helps situate them as heirs to the maligned era that preceded them and as clear predecessors of NBA stars that would follow them a generation later.