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  • Big Ten Basketball, 1943–1972 by Murry R. Nelson
  • Paul Emory Putz
Nelson, Murry R. Big Ten Basketball, 1943–1972. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2017. Pp. vi+ 248. Illustrations, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. $39.95, pb.

Murry Nelson's latest basketball history book moves from the professional ranks—the setting for his previous books—to college. Inspired by a lifelong interest in Big Ten basketball, Nelson "wanted to know more Big Ten history as well as to relive my memories of Big Ten action" (1). The result is Big Ten Basketball, 1943–1972, a season-by-season chronicle of the league from World War II through 1972.

The Chicago Tribune serves as the primary source for Nelson's account, with limited material coming from four other newspapers, national sports magazines like Sports Illustrated and Sport, biographies of influential Big Ten figures, a handful of secondary sources, and fifteen interviews. Nelson organizes his story around twelve chapters. With the exception of one chapter that features minibiographies of important Big Ten coaches, the chapters follow a chronological path through game and season results, with most chapters featuring three seasons. Each season receives a similar treatment: Nelson lists preseason predictions and then goes through key games by listing the final score, leading scorers, the size of the crowd, and, on occasion, unusual circumstances surrounding the contest. Following his summary of key matchups, Nelson describes the final results of conference play—these results are also included in a table that lists final conference standings and the individual MVP for each team—and then discusses how Big Ten teams performed in postseason tournaments. He concludes by mentioning off-season rule changes discussed by the Big Ten or by the NCAA, and then transitions to the next season where the process starts all over again.

Nelson pauses here and there in his chronicle briefly to discuss the careers of key players or coaches and also major college basketball storylines beyond the Big Ten (the point-shaving scandals of the early 1950s being one example). He highlights pioneering African American players and includes an appendix at the end of the book listing the first African American player at each Big Ten school. One of his most interesting observations [End Page 121] involves the Big Ten's use of television in the 1950s and 1960s. Although it is not a major theme, Nelson notes that the conference cobbled together a regional network of stations to broadcast Saturday afternoon basketball games.

In an attempt to provide historical context, Nelson also mentions important national and international events that were occurring at the same time as the games that he chronicles. A typical example of this approach reads as follows: "The United Nations sat down on February 1 to debate Vietnam. Illinois and Minnesota settled their debates, defeating Michigan and Northwestern, respectively" (154). As indicated by that example, the historical events mentioned by Nelson rarely intersect in any meaningful way with Big Ten basketball. In Nelson's account basketball tends to march on mechanically, a long listing of scoring leaders, final game results, and season standings that operate parallel to world and national events. Big Ten basketball touches broader historical and cultural developments only in the sense that both basketball games and the world out there can be described with similar adjectives and metaphors: the Big Ten season and Vietnam both heated up, JFK's presidency and Big Ten basketball games both brought excitement, Big Ten teams and the state of Virginia in its appeal to the Supreme Court to resist integration both experienced big losses.

Of course, Nelson does not claim to be writing a cultural history of Big Ten basketball. He admits up front it is "somewhat true" that Big Ten Basketball is, to quote the words of one manuscript reviewer, "just annals" (1). But even as an annals approach to sports history, Big Ten Basketball is not at the same level as Nelson's previous books. His The National Basketball League: A History, 1935–1949 (2009), for example, was also organized as a year-by-year chronicle. But that book had a more geographically diverse source base featuring newspapers from a variety of NBL cities such as...


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