Monday, January 17, 2022

MMGM- Hardcourt: Stories from 75 Years of the National Basketball Association

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday
and #IMWAYR day 

Bowen, Fred. Hardcourt: Stories from 75 Years of the National Basketball Association
January 18th 2022 by Margaret K. McElderry Books
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

I'm a HUGE Fred Bowen fan, and I always learn something about sports from any book of his I read. I'm still trying to process that there is an American Basketball Association in addition to the NBA, and the fact that there is apparently a real team called the New Orleans Pelicans. Reading Hardcourt made me realize that I know even less about basketball than I know about football!

Like Mr. Bowen's Gridion, this is a beautifully illustrated, larger format (11"x 11") book that would look great on a coffee table, or displayed on a shelf next to trophies. It's also hugely informative, laying out the history of the game of basketball and chronicles the changes made in it over the years. Starting with James' Naismith's creation of the game, we see how time and social changes contribute to the way the game is structured today. I hadn't realized that while the game has been around since the late 1800s, it didn't really take off until well after World War II, and had a hard time getting fans during a time when baseball was the preferred sport. 

While the majority of the players today are Black (almost 75%), when the National Basketball Association started out in 1946, it was entirely white. There were many teams in other leagues that were all Black. By 1950, the Boston Celtics drafted Chuck Cooper, and Earl Lloyd and Sweetwater Cliftion also signed on. There was relatively little controversy over this move, perhaps because basketball was not as much in the limelight as baseball. 

The book is divided into four quarters, and discusses the various changes made over the years, including things about points and clocks that I didn't even try to understand, but which my students will avidly discuss. Major players during the ascendancy of basketball's popularity in the 1970s and 80s, such as Wilt Chamberlain (1936-1999), Majic Johnson, and Larry Bird, are familiar names to me, while players since 2000 will resonate more with my students. The 1992 Olympic "Dream Team" is also discussed at length, although I still want to know why pros were allowed in the Olympics. 

There's a bit about the American Basketball Association, which was active for around a decade in the 1960s and 70s and made a comeback in the 2000s. It's apparent a semi-professional league, but I have no idea what this means, and still don't quite believe it exists. The list of the founding year of the NBA teams at the end of the book is very helpful, but I also have my doubts about the existance of the New Orlean Pelicans. My brother watched football when I was growing up, but apparently basketball has not entered my consciousness at all, because I'm even a bit doubtful about the Denver Nuggets, whom the book says have existed since 1976.

Ransome's illustrations are colorful and vibrant, and the book design showcases these nicely against the easy to read text. Both this and Gridiron would be excellent gifts for a young sports fan, and throwing in a couple of Bowen's fiction books would make an excellent package! (Ooh. Or a gift basket, with a ball. Keep that in mind for school auctions.)

If your sports knowledge is roughly equivalent to mine and you work with young sports enthusiasts, it's imperative that you read Hardcourt and buy it for any elementary or middle school library in your charge. If you haven't looked into Bowen's fiction, this is my occasional reminder that you need to gradually replace all of your crumbling Matt Christopher titles with Bowen's work. 

Interview with the Fantastic Fred Bowen!

Ms. Yingling: You’ve written a number of fictional basketball titles, including the fantastic Hardcourt Comeback, as well as the informative Gridiron: Stories from 100 Years of the National Football League. What’s your personal connection to basketball? Do you think basketball is more popular than football in the US, or the other way around?

Mr. Bowen: Thanks for the kind words about my books.  Hardcourt: Stories From 75 Years of the National Basketball Association is my 27th sports book for young readers.  I am proud of all of them.  Now to your questions.

The National Football League (NFL) and professional football is the most popular sport in the United States by several metrics.  The National Basketball Association (NBA) is, I believe, more popular on an international scale.

As for my personal connection to basketball, I played throughout my youth on various teams as I grew up.  My problem was that I didn’t grow up fast enough.  I was 4’ 11” and 92 pounds at the beginning of the ninth grade (yes, they measured us) and I failed to make the school team.  I also got cut from the high school varsity team two years later.

These disappointments, however, did not hold back my love of the game (I also grew to be almost 6-feet tall).  I played on teams and in leagues as well as on playgrounds until I was 40-years-old.  In my sleep, I still dream of playing the game.

Ms. Yingling: Can you explain briefly the difference between the NBA and the various incarnations of the ABA for those of us who were not aware there were two leagues at different points in history?

Mr. Bowen: As Hardcourt indicates, the NBA started in the 1946-47 season.  By 1967, the league had ten teams (there are now 30).  The American Basketball Association (ABA) started as a separate, competing league in the 1967-68 season with 11 teams.  Chapter 7 of Hardcourt describes some of the ups and downs of the league as well as the great (and not so great, but very colorful) players in the league.

The ABA lasted nine seasons.  Many teams were founded and many folded.  Prior to the 1976-77 season four of the remaining seven ABA teams - the New York Nets, San Antonio Spurs, Denver Nuggets and Indiana Pacers – merged with the NBA.

One story I did not include in Hardcourt because it is mostly about finance is the incredible story of the Silna brothers.  The Silnas owned the Spirits of St. Louis, an ABA team, at the time of the merger with the NBA.  Instead of taking a buyout of two or three million dollars to fold their team as other ABA owners did, the Silnas negotiated a deal in which they received a very small percentage of the television revenues of the league.  At the time, very few NBA games were on TV.  But some years after the deal, the popularity of the NBA exploded and hundreds of games were shown every season. 

It is estimated the Silnas made somewhere between $300 and $800 million under the deal.  That is a lot of money for not owning a team!


Ms. Yingling: Basketball was invented a long time before the NBA came around. What effect did having a national organization have on the game? Why did it take until the 1950s for basketball to really come into the national interest?

Mr. Bowen: Actually, it took much longer.  One of the surprising things about researching Hardcourt was discovering (or rediscovering) how small-time the NBA was for much of its early years.  For example, in 1961 there were only eight NBA teams.  The 1980 NBA Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers with such legendary stars as Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Julius “Dr. J” Erving was not televised during prime time.  The games were shown on tape delay after the late local news.

My father told the story that as a businessman in Boston he was approached to invest in the Boston Celtics around 1950.  When I asked why he didn’t, he looked at me and said, “they didn’t make a profit for years.  It would have been like investing in the circus.”  It probably would have been worse.  The circus was pretty popular back then.

Ms. Yingling: There’s always so much interest in Jackie Robinson and the integration of Black players into baseball, but there are some fascinating stories about early Black basketball players. Why do you think these stories aren’t as well known?

Mr. Bowen: Basketball was simply not as central a part of the American sports experience as baseball was in the 1940s and 1950s.  Baseball was the most popular team sport in the country by far in those days.  So Major League Baseball integrating was a big story in 1947 when Robinson played for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

When the NBA integrated in 1950 with Chuck Cooper, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton and Earl “Big Cat” Lloyd, few people noticed because few people were following the NBA.  Those early Black players, however, led the way to such all-time greats as Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Elgin Baylor and Oscar Robertson as well as modern stars such as LeBron James and Stephen Curry.

Ms. Yingling: Basketball seems to have more iconic players than football. Who would be the three most important but possibly underrated players that young readers should know about (and librarians should have biographies of)?

Mr. Bowen: That’s a hard question.  One of the things the NBA has done to celebrate its 75th season is to name the 75 greatest NBA players.  So there have been a lot of great players.  I will talk about three. (Here's the link:

Researching Hardcourt reminded me what a big star Bob Cousy was in the early days of the NBA.  Cousy was only 6’1” but was a wizard with the basketball, dribbling through his legs, passing behind his back and doing a million things that are common today but unheard of in the 1950s and 60s.  They called Cousy the “Houdini of the Hardwood.”

Bill Russell was the greatest winner in the history of team sports in the United States.  His Boston Celtics won 11 NBA titles from 1957 to 1969. 

What makes Russell a great story for kids is that when he was a sophomore in high school Russell tried out for his school’s junior varsity.  Sixteen kids tried out for the team and the school had only fifteen uniforms.  The coach did not have the heart to cut one kid.  So he went to his worst player – Bill Russell – and said he could stay on the team but would have to share a uniform with another player. 

Half of the games Russell sat on the bench in his uniform while the other half he sat on the bench in his street clothes.  Russell, however, got better.  A lot better.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was one of the greatest basketball players of all time.  He won 3 NCAA titles at UCLA, 6 NBA titles and is the all-time leading scorer in NBA history.  But the reason I admire Abdul-Jabbar is that he has done so much after his basketball career.  He is a political activist, historian and author.  Abdul-Jabbar is a good example of someone who is more than “just an athlete.”

Ms. Yingling: There are so many interesting topics briefly discussed in Hardcourt that would make excellent middle grade nonfiction titles. The 1992 Olympic Dream Team and the Harlem Globetrotters are both fascinating, but there don’t seem to be many books for middle grade readers. What are some other topics that deserve books of their own?

Mr. Bowen: One topic that I did not know much about before I started researching Hardcourt was that there was a World Professional Basketball Championship played each year from 1939 to 1948.  The best professional teams, both Black teams and White teams, competed for the title.  The Harlem Globetrotters, for example, won the tournament in 1940.

This forgotten era of early professional basketball might be an interesting topic for a book.

Ms. Yingling: Would you ever consider writing a historical novel about a sport, like Yep’s Dragon Road? This would be a great way to get sports fans to read historical fiction. What era would you be most likely to pick if you did write one?

Mr. Bowen: I am flattered you think I could write historical fiction.  Maybe I will give it a try one day.  Most of my reading is in American history so I have a background in many historical eras.

Some of my favorite time periods to read about include the 1930s when the U.S. was going through the greatest economic challenge of its history – The Great Depression.  I am also fascinated with the 1960s when the country was trying to find its way through the Civil Rights movement as well as the protests surrounding the Vietnam War.

Ms. Yingling: While this history isn’t part of the NBA, women were involved in the sport very early on. Why was basketball deemed more “suitable” for women? It even shows up in Jessie Grace Flower’s 1911 Grace Harlow’s Sophomore Year in High School and other literature of the time. 

Mr. Bowen: Basketball was supposed to be a “non-contact” sport.  After all, one of Dr. Naismith’s original 13 rules for the sport was that there should be “no shouldering, holding, pushing, tripping, or striking in any way the person of an opponent . . . .”  Perhaps that is why the game was considered more “suitable” for women.

Women often played a toned-down version of the game.  For years, many women in high schools and colleges played a game called “6 on 6” basketball in which three players only played on offense and three players only played on defense and no player ran the whole court.  That version of the game was played in high schools in Iowa and Oklahoma into the 1990s.

I discuss the 6 on 6 game more fully in my Fred Bowen Sports Story series book Off the Rim.

Now women play a very high level of the game in high school, colleges and the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA).  I often joke that nothing has improved during my lifetime as much as restaurant food and women’s basketball.

Ms. Yingling: What projects are you considering next? Will we be seeing more of your Soccer Mystery series, or maybe a book on the history of baseball or soccer in the U.S.?

Mr. Bowen: My next book will be part of my Fred Bowen Sports Story series.  Those are 25 books that combine sports fiction, sports history and always have a chapter of sports history in the back.  The new book is about basketball and is called Off the Bench.  It is scheduled to be published in the Spring of 2023. 

I also am scheduled to write a baseball book in the series for 2024 and a football book for 2025.

I have actually written a history of baseball for young readers but my editor for Hardcourt and Gridiron thinks there are too many baseball books.  So I may have to find another publisher for that book.

My plan is to write Fred Bowen Sports Story and sports history books as long as I enjoy writing them and as long as kids enjoy reading them. 

I'm certainly glad to hear that! If you have not investigated Mr. Bowen's work, make it a New Year's Goal to read at least one of his books in 2022!


  1. I hadn't heard of Bowen's books, but Hardcourt sounds like a fascinating story with tons of facts about basketball I had no clue about (I wasn't familiar with the ABA either)! And how neat that you got to interview him—reading it was fascinating. Thanks so much for the wonderful post, Karen!

  2. Always enjoyed basketball over the other major sports. Loved that you asked Bowen about writing historical fiction that included sport stories. What a great idea. With his background, he could do it. I will keep Bowen in mind, because I have a great grandson who will be 8 this summer and has become very interested in football books. He's too young for most sport books. So I will book mark Bowen's books for future gifts. Thanks for sharing.

  3. I just finished HARDCOURT and found it fascinating. Such great insights into the early days of the league. I've read a bunch of Fred's books in all four sports he features. Thanks for the great interview on this edition of MMGM.

  4. I'll bet this book will have a built-in large audience. Kids love basketball. Thanks for a fun and interesting interview.