- Dixeball: Race and Professional Basketball in the Deep South, 1947–1979 by Thomas Aiello
In 2020, almost a third of the teams in the National Basketball Association (NBA) call the southern United States their home. Yet, as Thomas Aiello significantly notes, this was not always the case. In Dixieball: Race and Professional Basketball in the Deep South, 1947–1979, Thomas Aiello provides a historical and cultural analysis of professional basketball's emergence in the southern United States. He specifically examines two southern cities, New Orleans and Atlanta, and their struggles to sustain a professional basketball team. He also focuses on historical issues of race in the United States that hindered early endeavors to bring basketball to the Deep South. While American sports such as football and baseball were popular in the South (while retaining black players), Aiello notably suggests that basketball's more visible blackness kept southern Americans from devoting themselves to the sport as fans. Aiello notes, "[B]asketball was the one professional sport that came south with an established and overt racial identity" (7). Basketball uses no helmets or hefty uniforms; therefore, a player's race is always clearly on display.
In Chapter 1, Aiello focuses on early attempts to bring professional basketball to the South. In 1947, Sid Goldberg presented a series of professional basketball games in the region, a tour considered a "near-total failure" (9). That same year, the Professional Basketball League of America was created. Even with Goldberg's failed promotional tour, the new basketball league placed franchises in four southeast cities—Atlanta, Birmingham, Chattanooga, and New Orleans. Yet this league closed within one year due to a lack of financial success. Aiello crucially demonstrates how southern segregation policies affected the South's "ability to draw athletes and athletics in the decades following World War II" (17). [End Page 161]
Chapter 2 concentrates on the American Basketball League and the first major southern professional basketball team, the New Orleans Buccaneers. In 1966, Morton Downey Jr. helped create a booster organization meant to draw an NBA team to the city. After a failed deal attempting to move the St. Louis Hawks to New Orleans, Downey instead began working with members of the burgeoning American Basketball Association (ABA). The ABA, started in 1965, "wanted to rival the NBA" but also "encourage a merger, so they worked to bring professional basketball to cities that did not already have NBA franchises" (38). In this chapter, Aiello focuses on the creation of the New Orleans Buccaneers. While the Buccaneers played successfully their first season, in subsequent seasons they performed poorly, and attendance disappeared. Ultimately, the Buccaneers remained in New Orleans for only three years before moving out of Louisiana.
Aiello's third chapter examines another southern city, Atlanta, and its historical relationship with professional basketball. The Hawks basketball team began in St. Louis. In the 1950s, they became "the last all-white championship team in the NBA" (63). Throughout the 1960s, the NBA increasingly gained black players, changing the image of the league. In 1968, the St. Louis Hawks moved to Atlanta, officially bringing the NBA to the Deep South. The initial Atlanta Hawks team (1968) starred many black athletes who played well, but the team did not achieve high attendance at games. In the following year, the Hawks drafted more white players, hoping to appease local fans. During the 1970 draft, the Hawks went all in on one player, Pete Maravich, "the Great White Hope" (76). While Maravich did not perform particularly well for the team, "attendance rose by more than 20 percent" (80). To make the Hawks more palatable for white, southern fans, management "steadily eroded the talent of the team" (85).
Chapter 4 examines the New Orleans Jazz, an NBA team backed by Sam Battistone (creator of the racist Sambo's restaurant chain). This second attempt at professional basketball in New Orleans began in the early 1970s. Aiello succinctly argues that "the history of racism in the southern reception of professional basketball and the NBA...