Q&A With Pete Croatto on From Hang Time to Prime Time, David Stern, the Wild 1980s, and More

On December 1, 2020, Pete Croatto released, “From Hang Time to Prime Time: Business, Entertainment, and the Birth of the Modern-Day NBA.”   The book is a fascinating behind the scene looks about how the NBA went from a business teetering on the brink of bankruptcy in 1970s to a billion-dollar industry that dominates entertainment.  Pete dug deep into the ascendancy and spoke with scores of players, coaches, executives, and people who happened to be around to witness the stages of the transformation.  He detailed the corporate maneuvering and canny decisions to link the game to cutting edge pop culture.  Pete has written for many publications including Grantland, GQ, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, and Columbia Journalism Review.  He was kind enough to sit down and talk about the NBA and his journey in writing this book.

HoopsAnalyst:  I know you’ve been asked this question in every interview, but I have to ask…what was the impetus for deciding to write this book?

Pete Croatto:  In 2013, I wrote a piece for Grantland about Marvin Gaye’s national anthem performance for the 1983 All-Star game and was very lucky to have Grantland run that piece because I felt that the site was way out of my league.  So, I really got into the story.  I talked to 25 or 30 people and read several books and articles.  What was amazing to me was the performance really served, to me, as a pivot point for the new NBA, a league that was going to be cool and with it and not try to attract the same demographics that Major League Baseball or the NFL were going to. 

This was not a deliberate choice by the NBA.  The Lakers hired Marvin Gaye to perform and the NBA was out-to-lunch on this.  The NBA didn’t know what Gaye was going to perform until right before the game.  What the anthem did was an implicit admission that represented what the fans were seeing right now in the NBA.  It is a Black sport and a sport that represents a younger culture, that doesn’t care as much about history or tradition.  That, to me, was the turning point for the NBA.  A lot of favorable things for the NBA happened quickly afterwards. 

NBA All-Star Weekend started the next season and becomes the NBA’s version of the Super Bowl.  David Stern becomes the commissioner the next year and he loved that anthem.  He understood the entertainment value of it.  All of the big cultural moments for the NBA came shortly after Gaye’s performance.  The pageantry of the NBA and the presentation of a cutting edge entertainment, like rap and hip hop, Gaye made it a “Crossing the Rubicon” moment. I was fascinated about what came before and after that moment from the business side.   I had read a lot of NBA books but I had never seen anything that showed how the NBA got from the dark ages to where it is now.  The idea for this book was lodged into my head after the Grantland piece and never really left until 2018 when I got a contract to write this book.

There were so many really great stories from players and others that I had from the piece that weren’t used in the article and I just had to tell that story.  It was a seven-year journey to where we are today with the book.

HA:  Let’s go back to the old days of the NBA a little bit.  When you watch a replay of an NBA game from 1975 or 1976, it is definitely missing the glossy finish of the modern NBA.  The old games are sort of like the NBA version of the movie “Serpico,” gritty 70s drama, but without the same entertainment value.  If you watch the Sonics-Bullets Finals games from the late 1970s, they aren’t that fun to watch.

PC:  You’re right.  Recently, I did a podcast where I watched part of a game between the Knicks and Pistons in 1984.  Even then, things look ragged.  There is not a lot of pageantry or hoopla.  The TV coverage is very blah and the game was filmed from one camera angle the entire time.  The players aren’t quite the same.  I’m loath to say this but today’s NBA athlete is designed to play all year round.  Back then, there are so many ordinary looking players who are not jacked up or even stylish in appearance.  It really wasn’t a television league.  The players took the cue back then too [in not worrying about the entertainment aspect of the game].

Now, the game is an event that starts hours before tipoff, from the moment the stars do the catwalk into the arena.  There is so much media attention that the players now, like LeBron or Russell Westbrook, have an incentive to look good.  The modern athletes make so much more that the owners look at the players as major investments and you really can’t be Paul Mokeski or Kent Benson today.  They were good players but they just didn’t look like pro athletes.  If you showed them to your kids, they would be shocked that they were NBA players. 

If you do side-by-side footage of an NBA game from 1978 and now, it’s night and day.  The announcers are better.  The arenas are built for entertainment.  The camera work and editing is better.  The NBA seems to be the one professional sport where appearance means the most.  The players are most visible and everything flowed from that.  David Stern saw that and wanted the fans to get to know the players and that ethos has carried over to today.

HA:  One of the funny things about the late 1970s is the solvency issues of the NBA franchises.   You mention in the book that they are all teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.  Do you think Larry O’Brien and David Stern were the primary reasons that this was fixed or were there other factors at play?

PC:  I talked to a lot of people close to Larry O’Brien about him.  The NBA wasn’t exactly his dream job.  He was part of JFK’s inner circle, he served in the LBJ administration, he was Postmaster General, and he was on the cover of Time Magazine.  The NBA was a step down for him.  The most important thing he brought to the NBA, and this can’t be overstated, was legitimacy.

You hire O’Brien and you are getting a man of prominence for a league with solvency issues and bad television ratings.  To have one of the men of Camelot was big.  Also, he wasn’t going to take bullshit from any of the owners.  His predecessor, J. Walter Kennedy, had major alliances with the big city teams, listening to them because that’s where the money came from.  O’Brien just wanted to get the league on its feet. 

In terms of solvency, I think David Stern played a big role in that.  O’Brien just let Stern do the dirty work to put the NBA on the right track by fixing the television contracts, the drug issues, and the salary cap.  The solvency issue improves with the CBA.  That is the moment the NBPA saw the hard reality of how the franchises were doing.  The owners brought in the books and showed that many of the franchises were wobblers.  The players, the teams, and owners were able to agree on a salary cap because Stern showed what was at stake in those meetings and Larry Fleisher [who ran the NBPA] was as shrewd as Stern and cut a good deal.  One of the fascinating things in writing this book was finding out just how close to the edge the NBA was for a long time.

HA:  Do you think the failure to merge with the ABA sooner was a major factor in this solvency problem or were there other factors that were more significant?

PC:  They had to merge because the ABA and the NBA forced a price war.  Rookies coming out used to have one option and then the ABA came around and was free spending and aggressively trying to sign players who hadn’t even finished college and, in the case of Moses Malone, hadn’t even yet gone to college.  The ABA was an expensive competitor to the NBA.  Salaries went up.  The merger was necessary.  The ABA was out of money and the NBA also needed the infusion of talent.  The mainstay NBA players in 1976 were either not relatable guys, like Kareem or Pete Maravich, or their careers were ending, like Wilt and Jerry West.  By taking the ABA, the NBA gets Dr. J, Larry Kenon, James Silas, and a bunch of fun players that create excitement for the NBA.  That sets things up for the next 10-15 years, making a much more fun form of the game for the fans to watch.

HA:  Let’s talk about the drug issue.  There was a perception that the NBA had been infiltrated with drug use in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  You wrote a bit about this and found that drugs were a problem but it wasn’t clear that the NBA problem was any worse than in society as a whole and that the perception may have been driven by the fact that the league was majority Black.  Did you come to a conclusion on that issue?

PC:  That’s a good question.  It’s hard to say.  My personal feeling is that a lot of the drug discussions regarding the NBA had to do with the fact that the NBA was an easy target.  You have all these Black millionaires playing a game we all want to play.  It was easy to say they are wasting talent on drugs.  I do think that in the 1970s, if you had a lot of money and you were young and wanted to have a good time, drugs were an easy avenue.  It wasn’t just athletes.  It was musicians, actors, stockbrokers, everyone. 

The NBA did not have the same history or goodwill as baseball, which also had its own major drug problem.  The NBA was barely 30 years old and had no tradition that had woven into the American tapestry.  It was very easy for regular people to target people like George Gervin.  For white America, it was easy to see these Black athletes in a new sport as the real problem. NBA players did use drugs but it didn’t seem to be any worse than any other field where young men work in high intensity jobs and have a lot of disposable income.

HA:  Stern had a real problem with drugs in the NBA but also this perception problem.  In retrospect, did he handle it appropriately or was he too harsh?

PC:  Personally, I think the three-strike-and-you’re-out was needed at the time.   The NBA was walking a very thin line and the policy was really optics for the general public.  The NBA admitted it had a problem and wanted to show fans that it was handling the problem.  The uniform policy was necessary.  As Charlie Grantham from the NBPA told me, he liked that the drug policy treated the issue like a disease and not a punishment.  That policy wouldn’t work in 2020 (as we see with some of the recent changes) but the hardline was necessary.

HA:  The composition of owners has changed as well.  You detailed how the early owners weren’t even that wealthy and were more local investors or just fans.  Now we are at the point where you need to be an oligarch or Steve Ballmer to afford a team.   How many old owners did you get to speak with and how did they differ from the newer breed of owner?

PC:  I tried to find old owners.  A bunch of them have passed away and a couple, like Harold Katz, didn’t want to speak to me.  I did talk to Paul Snyder of Buffalo and Herb Simon [of Indiana].  Simon was different.  He owned a local business and bought the Pacers as a civics investment with his brother.  The local government begged him and his brother to buy the team.

Now, to buy a team, the line is around the block and it is all billionaires.  Back then, if you made six figures, you could legitimately own part of an NBA team.  The money is ridiculous for what was a small scale company.  It wasn’t a major-league commitment.

The person who changed the concept of an owner was Jerry Buss of the Lakers.  He made owning a team sexy and fun. 

HA:  That’s funny because he fit the profile of a local, less sophisticated owner.  Most of those guys either didn’t invest in the team or just weren’t that smart or, like Ted Stepien, were a combination of the two.  Buss was just another solo guy who just happened to be really smart and really good at running an organization.

PC:  I think that was the start of it.  Owners began to think that they needed to have strategies for making money and success.  He’s a really fascinating figure.  He loved sports and bought the Lakers as part of his lifestyle.  He loved everything that came with it.  He was so smart.  Everything was mathematical.  He was always calculating whether his investments would make money.  Not a lot of owners had that attitude.  They just liked being the boss.

Buss enjoyed the party scene but he worked his ass off to make the Lakers a great organization.  He is the inspiration for the modern owner who makes money and wins.  Steve Ballmer and Mark Cuban treat ownership like flagship businesses.

HA:   Would you say then that James Dolan is delightfully retro as an owner?

PC:  [Laughs] He reminds me of the little kid from “The Toy” with Richard Pryor.  If you are the NBA, you have to be hoping and praying that he sells.  It’s a mess. 

I’m a former Knicks fan grew up rooting for the 1990s Knicks and Dolan ran them off a cliff.  The turning point to me was when they didn’t re-sign Jeremy Lin.  I was done.  You sign Jerome James and all these other busts like Eddy Curry and not the man who galvanized the fan base.

HA:  Let’s talk big market/small market dichotomy.  Even today, the NBA benefits from having great teams in the big cities.  They probably want LeBron in Los Angeles or New York.  Do you think it’s a problem?

PC:  No I don’t.  If you look at someone like Giannis Antetokounmpo, he’s in Milwaukee and he’s a superstar.  The NBA is global and has the machinery to promote great players no matter where you play.  The world-wide fan base will watch you.  In the 1990s, if you saw Michael Jordan once per week, that was a lot.  Now, you can see any player every night.  It’s not as big a problem as some members of the media make it out to be.  It doesn’t hurt that LeBron is in L.A. and Kevin Durant is in New York but it’s not essential.  It might’ve been essential 30 years ago but not today. 

HA:  This does come up when purists complain about the stars jumping teams today but it does seem like the money is so big that the players can dictate where they go and stars from the past would probably have done the same thing if they played by today’s CBA rules.

PC:  Of course they would.  The NBA is a billion-dollar business and the players treat it as such.  Cable television and apparel began pumping huge revenues into the NBA.  Apparel went from being an afterthought to a huge source of revenue run by NBA Properties.   David Stern also found the NBA fans and players that grew things even further. 

It all came from television.   CBS had a great relationship with the NBA in the 1980s.  When CBS’s contract ran out in 1989, the NBA was a hot property.  NBC wanted it and blew CBS out of the water with a much higher bid than CBS would consider.  NBC gave the NBA primetime games and ads during Seinfeld and Friends.  Stern wanted to get kids into the game and started NBA Inside Stuff, which was also a gateway drug for kids to get into the NBA for the next generation.

HA:  Obviously, Jordan, Bird, and Magic aren’t likely going to give an interview but was there anyone that you wanted to talk to for this book that you couldn’t talk to?

PC:  There were two.  Dick Ebersol agreed to speak with me but we were never able to hook up for an interview.  I spoke with him on the phone a few times and it was crazy trading text messages with a legend but it just never synced up due to schedule conflicts.

The other was David Stern.  I thought I had a chance because I was friendly with a few people who knew him well and would put in a good word for me but Stern was just never interested.  I tried e-mailing him and he told me he didn’t want to do it.  I told him the book would be better with him but he politely declined.  He died six weeks later.

I didn’t absolutely need him because I spoke with many of his associates and there is a bounty of articles online to go through.  It’s all there.  Also, I got very lucky that a friend of mine in, Shawn Fury, had interviewed Stern for VICE Sports and offered me his notes from that interview.  That was very helpful and I was happy to have it.  In all, I spoke with all sorts of people and I was very happy with the story I told.

From Hang Time to Prime Time is available for order today here.   Follow Pete on Twitter @PeteCroatto