ITHACA, NY -- Given that Ithaca tends to trend “younger” demographically, many sports fans are likely unaware that the NBA was not always the cultural phenomenon it is today. For many basketball fans of my vintage (watching Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain do battle was our version of “The Clash of the Titans”), it is easy to remember when the NBA was a comparatively upstart enterprise, fighting for its share of revenue and relevance.
Local author Pete Croatto has just released an exhaustive and impressive 300-plus page book, and “From Hang Time to Prime Time: Business, Entertainment and the Birth of the Modern-Day NBA” has received some very high praise from some very dialed-in experts, from Publisher’s Weekly to the co-creator of “Billions” to Sports Illustrated to the Wall Street Journal. The book was published by Atria Books (an imprint of Simon and Schuster), and I was pleased to catch up with the author at a (safely distanced) book signing event at Odyssey Books in Ithaca.
Pete Croatto grew up in New Jersey, graduated from the College of New Jersey, and did a lot of writing and editing before writing this book. In reflecting on the eight-year journey from idea to hard-cover, Pete said, “I was working on a story for [ESPN-owned sports and pop culture blog] Grantland about Marvin Gaye’s rendition of the National Anthem at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game, and how it redefined what the league was going to become.”
Croatto’s thorough research includes a fascinating timeline of the NBA’s evolution. In 1975, Larry O’Brien became the NBA Commissioner. The NBA and ABA merged the next year. In ’78, attorney David Stern (the next commish) came on to work full-time for the league and in 1979, the visibility meter would launch at warp speed when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird came into the league and ESPN arrived. Five years later, Michael Jordan burst onto the scene, and a year later, Air Jordans became a part of our cultural lexicon. In 1986, the 3-Point Shootout was added to the All-Star weekend lineup, and in 1989, the first wave of influential European players made their collective debut.
The timeline takes the reader up to the present moment, and uses an example from 2017 — Derek Fisher’s appearance on “Dancing With the Stars” — to put a fine point on the degree to which the worlds of sports and culture and entertainment have converged. Croatto writes, “The goofy transience of Fisher’s goofy prime time spectacle — who knew dribbling a basketball could preface a sexy, shimmering salsa routine — obscured a greater historical reference… Here was a black man, representing an overwhelmingly black sport, strutting to a rap classic on a popular network program. Such a confluence of circumstances would have caused a riot 35 years ago.”
The book adds that Fisher’s performance was “the latest page in the NBA’s new history, one that was a part of our world, not a world apart.”
As he sat at the book-signing table, Pete looked at the stack of books like a proud father looks at his brood. “I didn’t think I had it in me,” he said. “I interviewed 315 people, from players to executives to rappers, three Laker Girls and one Pointer Sister!” He added, “I’m a huge basketball fan,” and went on to describe what a joy it was to capture “the swirl of societal and cultural convergence that made the NBA what it is today.”
Pete’s life has taken a few turns since he started on the book. His wife, Laura, took a job teaching music at Ithaca College, so the couple packed up and moved here. They welcomed their daughter, Olivia, four years ago, and the book’s dedication reads, “To Laura and Olivia, the ultimate home court advantage.”
The first-time author — who writes so eloquently about convergence — understands that the process is ultimately a convergence of art and science: The art of writing, and the science of marketing. While Croatto is aware that the pandemic is limiting the number of personal appearances he can do, he expresses his faith in his publicist and in the literary horsepower of the book. “It has already exceeded my hopes, and if it opens a few doors, that’s great.” Pete offered, “I’m very grateful to Odyssey Books for their help, and I’m very grateful for the opportunity to have breakfast with my wife and child every morning.”
Autographed copies of “From Hang Time to Prime Time” are available at Odyssey Books on Green Street, at Barnes & Noble and the book can be ordered online as well.