- Tall Tales and Short Shorts: Dr. J, Pistol Pete, and the Birth of the Modern NBA by Adam J. Criblez
Adam Criblez’s Tall Tales and Short Shorts merges strong research and colorful anecdotes to convey the history of the National Basketball Association (NBA) during the 1970s, a decade that Criblez argues brought about “the birth of the modern NBA” (xii). Drawing primarily from secondary research as well as magazines and newspaper outlets, Criblez argues that “the modern NBA” is characterized by increases in league relevancy, expansion, and quality of competition brought about by the talent and celebrity of ’70s-era players. Organized linearly, Tall Tales takes on each season of the decade in its ten chapters, only deviating in three “Time Out” sections in which Criblez pays special attention to the impact of “Pistol” Pete Maravich, Julius “Dr. J” Irving, and the NBA’s merger with the American Basketball Association (ABA). [End Page 365]
In his earliest chapters, Criblez paints a picture of a league dominated by Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics, who won the NBA title in nine of the 1960s’ ten seasons, and its transition in the wake of Russell’s retirement in 1969. As Russell stepped aside, UCLA star Lew Alcindor stepped up, selected first overall in the 1969 NBA draft, not by the storied Celtics or Lakers but by the one-year-old Milwaukee Bucks. In just two short seasons, Alcindor had the Bucks atop the NBA ladder, not to mention record endorsement deals with Topps trading cards and Adidas footwear. For Criblez, shakeups like this are what separated the 1970s NBA from the previous two decades, when only a handful of teams and players had competitive or cultural relevancy. The 1970s, Criblez claims, brought new, complicated figures like Alcindor, Walt “Clyde” Frazier, and Bill Walton to the forefront, along with previously unknown or uncompetitive teams.
In his “Time Out” sections, Criblez details the almost mythical nature of “Pistol” Pete, who attracted nationwide attention as a stellar scorer even before shattering the NCAA record books at Louisiana State University. Maravich’s first years in the NBA were not nearly as successful, however, marked by a high salary and inconsistency on the court. This led some of his Atlanta Hawks teammates, who were paid far less despite strong seasons prior to Pete’s arrival, to question if his salary had more to do with his race than his actual talent. As Maravich made a name for himself in the Deep South, Dr. J earned his reputation on the playgrounds of New York City. Although his journey to the NBA was quite different from Maravich’s, beginning college as relatively unknown and first playing in the ABA, Erving ultimately cemented an even greater legacy and celebrity. This would not have been possible without the NBA–ABA merger, which Criblez argues brought about a “basketball revolution” that helped make the game what it is today, due in large part to the high-flying playing style and exciting gimmicks, like the three-point line, that the ABA introduced (176).
Tall Tales is refreshingly accessible, and its vividness of in-game description and behind-the-scenes happenings will make readers feel as though they are in the 1970s, sitting courtside and lounging in the locker room. The depth of detail Criblez provides in relaying the on- and off-court drama will be appreciated by NBA fans and casual readers alike, and any basketball historian will want Tall Tales in his or her collection. As the only full-length historical treatment of the NBA in the 1970s, Tall Tales deserves kudos given the league’s popularity today and the pivotal ways in which it changed during that decade.
Still, for its many strengths, Criblez may have traded accessibility for depth of analysis. There are several important aspects shared in the book that are not extrapolated to an extent that would satisfy analytical scholars of sport history. Among these are...