Kuska, Bob with Archie Clark. Shake & Bake: The Life and Times of NBA Great Archie Clark. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2021. Pp. 352. $29.95. hardback and ebook.
Reviewed by Łukasz Muniowski
Archie Clark is not the first, second, or third name that comes to mind when discussing NBA greats. He did not make the NBA 50th or 75th Anniversary Teams. His number was not retired by an NBA franchise. He did not win a single NBA Championship. After being selected in the fourth round of the 1966 NBA Draft, the two-time All-Star played in the league for 10 seasons.
So… why was he great?
In a sense, Clark was one of many––a starter on a number of teams and a vital contributor off the bench on others. There seemingly was nothing unique about his career. Of course, it might be argued that anybody making the league––let alone two All-Star teams––was a historically great basketball player. The main selling point of Clark’s semi-autobiography is that he was on numerous teams on the cusp of greatness, sharing the locker room with several big-name players.
Written with Bob Kuska, Clark’s Shake & Bake: The Life and Times of NBA Great Archie Clark provides the reader with a behind-the-scenes look at the likes of Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, and head coach Gene Shue, to name a few. The moment in history when he entered the league, the late 1960s, also was a special time in the NBA, with a generational shift occurring with the retirement of Bill Russell and the aging of Wilt Chamberlain. Clark’s story shows that there was more to the league than just the two giants, standing above everybody else.
At age 24, Clark was older than most rookies when he entered the NBA. But this maturity predisposed him to make an impact immediately upon arrival. The professional expectations for Clark were relatively low, as the Lakers, the team that drafted him, did not even bother to find him a place to stay when he arrived in Los Angeles with his family. Early on in Shake & Bake, it becomes evident that, while Clark was a great player, he was not treated by his peers with the same respect that great players are showered with today. Although he had to face significant adversity, that is what makes his story so engaging, highlighting the problems that talented athletes had to face during the NBA-ABA rivalry.
The power struggle between the two leagues is at the forefront of his narrative, as it allowed players to strengthen their positions in contract negotiations. The pay disparity between the best players on a team and those at the end of the bench was significant, with the biggest names making hundreds of thousands of dollars per season while rookies selected late in the draft, like Clark, earned around $800 per month after taxes. This meant that players were forced to look for summer jobs, as teams did not take extra care of them outside of providing transportation to away games. The monopoly that the NBA had over professional basketball gave the owners dominion over the players, superstars included. Even free agents were not entirely free because their teams expected compensation from their future employers when their contracts ran out. That was until the ABA appeared.
The ABA’s sole existence was enough to scare NBA teams. They soon began offering larger contracts to rookies, hoping to attract and retain an influx of young talent. This caused a rift between rookies and the older, established players who had helped make the league what it was. It is understandable they were angry for not being properly compensated for their work. In consequence, general managers had to pay their stars under the table, oftentimes to keep them from complaining to the press. Other players, however, were expendable, or at least they were made to feel as such. Of special interest is the story of how Wilt Chamberlain, in process of being traded from the Philadelphia Seventy Sixers to the Lakers, got his wish when negotiating his contract with his new NBA team. The ABA’s Los Angeles Stars offered Chamberlain the first million-dollar basketball deal, pushing the Lakers to match the offer from the rival league. On the other side of the deal was Clark, who was supposed to be a part of the return package to the Sixers for the “Big Dipper.” Clark used the trade as leverage to get a larger contract, as Philadelphia really wanted him. And Clark wanted to earn more money.
The move to Pennsylvania hurt Clark’s career. He found himself bumping heads with coach Jack Ramsay, as the former Saint Joseph’s head coach had a hard time adapting to coaching professional players. The book shows a different side of Ramsay, who, as coach of the Portland Trail Blazers, was immortalized in David Halberstam’s The Breaks of the Game. Kuska and Clark, in contrast, depict him as a bad judge of talent, sacrificing individual players for the good of the team. It is apparent that Ramsay experienced serious growing pains when with the Sixers, evolving into a different, better coach when he took over the Trail Blazers.
However, the fact that Kuska takes Clark’s side in all the disagreements and debates discussed in the book leaves a somewhat negative impression. One such example is the point guard’s appreciation of Chamberlain and criticism of his on-court archrival Bill Russell, who had moved on to coaching the Seattle Super Sonics, for whom Clark would play for a season. Too often, it seems that Clark, through Kuska, is trying to settle old scores rather than present the events in an objective, complex manner. While this is understandable, as it is after all an authorized biography/autobiography––with anecdotes produced by Clark himself, speaking in his own voice, preceding the chapters––the leniency is at times off-putting.
Nevertheless, the insight into the NBA of the late 1960s and 1970s––from the machinations behind trades and contracts to the decisions made about the course of the league––make Shake & Bake a worthwhile read for any NBA historian. In context of today’s age of player empowerment, it is instructive to see how it long has been important for players to have their say in where they want to work. Likewise, the account encourages appreciation for the changes the league subsequently would undergo to benefit those around which the NBA product revolves––the players and the fans.
The darker times described in Shake & Bake serve as mementos, reminding how hard it was for players like Clark, Wes Unseld, or Spencer Haywood to even focus on basketball, with so many inconveniences involved in actually getting onto the court. The challenges encountered by players of earlier eras extended to concerns about their general wellbeing, whether due to neglectful coaching and ownership decisions or the unadvanced state of sports medicine and injury rehabilitation. Considering those less-than-ideal circumstances, the careers of star players can seem all the more unlikely, thus making them deserve more respect that they get in a contemporary sports culture that often falls prey to recency bias.
The same goes for Archie Clark who was, in fact, an NBA great.
Łukasz Muniowski recieved his Ph.D. in American Literature from the University of Warsaw. He is the author of Three-Pointer! A 40-Year NBA History (McFarland, 2020), Narrating the NBA: Representations of Leading Players after the Michael Jordan Era (Lexington, 2021), and The Sixth Man: A History of the NBA Off the Bench (McFarland, 2021).