By Ed Odeven
Pete Croatto’s new book, “From Hang Time to Prime Time: Business, Entertainment, and the Birth of the Modern-Day NBA,” is a well-researched, informative dissertation on how the NBA became a global sports behemoth and powerhouse brand.
Transforming itself from small-scale operations to a billion-dollar industry, the modern NBA is a remarkable economic success story. This book examines how it happened with startling clarity.
It’s one of my favorite sports books in recent years.
Croatto’s definitive breakdown of David Stern’s vision for the NBA required plenty of background on how the league operated before he ascended to the top job, how other pro leagues handled their business and media relationships and much more.
Released on Dec. 1, 2020, “From Hang Time to Prime Time” packs a punch: it’s filled with rich anecdotes to illuminate the facts and checks in at a hefty 384 pages.
To preface what Croatto outlined from start to finish, it helps to remember something legendary Boston Globe sportswriter Bob Ryan said on a recent podcast. He mentioned that the 1969 NBA guide book listed eight employees working at the league office, including three secretaries. (The league had 14 teams at the time.)
In the 2020-21 season, there are 30 NBA teams and thousands of employees.
When the 2019-20 season tipped off, the league had 108 international players from 38 countries and territories.
Croatto reports on the Larry O’Brien era (1975-84) with thorough details, including his political background (he served as the chair of the Democratic National Committee in the early 1970s), and paints a vivid picture of the landscape of the NBA that Stern inherited.
In short, it was a glorified mom-and-pop operation.
In a nutshell, Croatto captured the essence of the NBA’s evolution in the book’s introduction. In part, he wrote:
“As David Stern worked his way from Larry O’Brien’s consigliere to Godfather and Larry and Magic were sexing up fundamentals, allies aligned. Cable television, led by a twenty-four-hour cable station called ESPN, provided a perfect platform for NBA highlights with SportsCenter. VHS tapes helped spread the message. Rap was inching into Top 40
radio and its upbeat, pulsating rhythm gave the NBA a soundtrack—plus, later, a way to court the kids. A company known for running shoes was poised to take it to the hoop, revolutionizing sports marketing with the unlikeliest of icons—a black national spokesperson. These embryonic symbols of cool became cultural landmarks of our lives—the click of a play button, a swoosh, an adroitly edited highlight, rhyming to a prerecorded beat—that we frequently enjoyed at once.”
To me, the above paragraph is one of the key summaries that Croatto made within the pages of his book.
In the present era of YouTube, social media and instant information 24/7/365, the importance of VHS tapes as a vital element of the NBA broadcast machinations may be difficult to comprehend.
But, as Croatto deftly pointed out, Stern’s recognition of the value of the VCR was only one aspect of his total grasp of the marriage between sports, business, technology and entertainment. And all of these things tied into the establishment of NBA Entertainment in the 1980-81 campaign.
“Ed Desser, then the Lakers’ director of broadcasting, thought the NBA needed to utilize television to sell and promote the NBA. Look at The NFL Today with its highlights and colorful, intelligent personalities,” wrote Croatto. “NBA halftime programming consisted of ‘what can we put on the air to fill fifteen minutes that won’t cost us anything.’ The highlight, if one could call it that, was an interview with Sam Goldaper, the New York Times’ NBA columnist. ‘I’ll put it gently,’ Desser said. ‘Sam Goldaper had a great face for radio.’
“Desser said he urged Stern to have the NBA create and provide halftime programming for various telecasts. Thirty-five halftime segments were produced to commemorate the thirty-fifth anniversary. ‘That was sort of the first time the NBA got involved in having TV programming produced that was anything other than ‘Here, CBS, take this license and go produce a game,’ ” Desser said.
Even before he replaced O’Brien, Stern would take any good idea—such as Desser’s—and turned it into a great idea, as Croatto chronicled within the pages of “From Hang Time to Prime Time.”
That idea helped the NBA elevate its presence within the media landscape.
One of the key catalysts in the 1980s may seem bizarre now, but at the time it was a necessary investment in Stern’s mind.
Stern’s orders presented an across-the-board commitment by all NBA teams (there were 23 teams from 1980-88) to be on the same page.
“Stern wanted more. There was no video library. In addition to securing old games from ABC, he sent a memo to O’Brien: Have the league buy each team a three-quarter-inch VCR—total cost: $135,000—to record the game feed and then ship the tapes via Federal Express. Years later, Stern admitted the plan was far from original. That material could be archived, used for programming and highlight shows, was one of the ‘things that any normal sports league should do’ and the ethos behind NBA Entertainment. (The cinematic, sweeping NFL Films—an aspirational model for the NBA—perfected this principle.) It also highlighted a self-reliance that defined the Stern era.”
Along with David Stern and a who’s who of league and team officials, the book’s central characters (and key NBA staff in Stern’s early years at the helm, including PR man Brian McIntyre and Rick Welts, who got his start hunting down corporate sponsors for the league before working his way up the executive ranks) and the more obscure figures come alive with Croatto’s lively descriptions.
How the league’s key movers and shakers, many of whom are not known by the average basketball fan, fit into the way Stern ran the league, dished out mandates and dealt with problems big and small are explained effectively. Credit Croatto for doing his homework and researching everything possible.
“Both David and the Players Association realized that for the league to grow and to prosper, the players were more important than just being the employees who played the game,” Gary Way, a former NBA and Nike employee, told Croatto. “They were a big part of your product.”
Case in point: Stern’s relationship with former NBA Players Association chief Larry Fleischer, as related by former NBA marketing VP Michael Suscavage, hammered home that priority.
Croatto paraphrased the former marketing VP’s point this way: “What also worked in Stern’s favor was that he spoke the owners’ language, Suscavage said.”
How the NBA adapted a more aggressive mindset to sell and market itself with every piece of merchandise took an interesting twist during the rise of Larry Bird’s fame and popularity.
As Croatto reported, former NBA national sales manager Bill Marshall “capitalized on rookie Larry Bird’s popularity by designing a Bird-themed T-shirt for Jordan Marsh. His boss didn’t care—until a thousand boys’ shirts were sold in two hours. Celtics shirts soon sprang up in fifteen Jordan Marsh shops. David Stern liked what he saw.”
“You can do this in Boston; can you do it in Utah?” Stern asked Marshall.
“Well, all I know if nothing has ever been done in Boston, then probably nothing’s ever been done in Philadelphia, Seattle, Chicago, L.A.,” Marshall replied. “I was right.”
This was a textbook example of Stern asking the right question—and demanding that his underlings recognize what the big picture was and where their eyes and plan must be focused on.
What worked in Boston had to work in Salt Lake City, and Houston, Denver and Portland. Market the stars. Give fans fun products to buy in their local markets. To Stern, none of this was rocket science, as Croatto made clear again and again and again.
Croatto explores Stern’s overall vision for how the NBA could grow locally, regionally, nationally and internationally if it reached for the stars with bigger, bolder plans.
The late commissioner, who died on New Year’s Day 2020, also demanded that the league needed to be smarter, and Croatto offers numerous examples.
For example, he wrote, “before Stern’s administration, ‘teams didn’t talk to each other,’ said Paula Hanson, the NBA’s director of team services, which helped share ideas with the various teams. League meetings became vital to attend, said Greg Jamison of the Mavericks, because you’d gain insights from your colleagues on what worked, whether it was halftime acts or tending to your local broadcast.
“The guys on the other side of the table—agents, sponsors, TV and radio stations—had all the information on what the deals looked like, said Steve Patterson, general manager of the Houston Rockets and later the Portland Trailblazers. Teams were ‘always negotiating at a disadvantage.’ Stern made the teams understand that by sharing information they would run more effective businesses: the owners got more revenue; the players got higher salaries.”
Croatto handles a fascinating subject with the skill of a surgeon and diligently explains seemingly everything about it. From the O’Brien era in the 1970s to the innovative changes and rapid growth that marked the David Stern era, the author covers it all. Marquee names, such as Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, are highlighted in many spots within the comprehensive book, but don’t overwhelm the subject at any time.
The game and the league are the interconnected key subjects, with David Stern as the protagonist. Keep that in mind as you journey through the pages of this important addition to the annals of NBA history.