It seems incredulous, given the modern NBA’s player demographic, to think that it took until 1950 for the league to employ black athletes.
As part of our Black History Month mini-series, GiveMeSport pays respect to some of the pioneers who led the way in creating the diverse and inclusive league we love today.
Before the 1950 NBA season, the league consisted of just 11 franchises. This number dropped to ten when the Washington Capitols folded 35 games into the season. With rosters limited to just ten spots, this meant that only 100-110 players were on NBA contracts. None of them were black.
Finally, three years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s colour barrier, the NBA followed suit. It was the Boston Celtics who toppled the first domino, selecting Chuck Cooper in the second round of the draft.
A six foot five forward, Cooper would play for six seasons - also suiting up for the Hawks and the Pistons.
The second domino to fall, courtesy of the Knicks, was the first black player to sign an NBA professional contract.
This breakthrough belonged to Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, whose nickname according to the New York Times came from his life-long love of soft drinks. Sweetwater was a six foot six forward who averaged 10ppg and 8.2rpg over his eight-year, Hall of Fame career.
This left one final hurdle to overcome, the first black player to take to the floor in an NBA game. Cooper and Clifton were beaten to that milestone by a matter of days.
That honour belongs to Earl Lloyd who featured for the soon-to-be-defunct Capitols on 31 October 1950.
In his debut, Lloyd totalled six points in a 78-70 loss to the Rochester Royals. Though not an overly impressive stat line, his appearance would cause a ripple effect far greater than he could possibly have imagined.
Lloyd, alongside team-mate Jim Tucker, would also go on to become the first black players on a championship team as part of the 1955 Syracuse Nationals.
What started out as a slow trickle began to gather momentum as more and more black players began to feature for NBA teams and this paved the way for black superstars.
One of the saddest elements of this part of history is that, although equals on the NBA court, black players were considered far from equal off it.
On-court fame, off-court shame
As the '50s moved into the '60s, more and more black players became stars. Though able to earn a living playing sport and sell out arenas, away from the court these role models and athletes were still widely treated with disdain by the US society they played in front of.
Oscar Robertson is arguably one of the top ten players in NBA history and once averaged a triple-double for an entire season.
But instead of being able to enjoy his success, Robertson retreated from the public eye and now has a reputation for being unapproachable, antisocial and even bitter.
His personality and attitude are perfectly understandable, though, given the unfathomable situations and circumstances he endured at times away from the basketball court.
In Bill Simmons’ “The Book of Basketball” (note: this book is a must read for any NBA fan), he details some of the sickening events that Robertson was exposed to whilst in college:
“In Houston, he couldn’t check into his hotel because of a NO BLACKS ALLOWED sign… only his team stayed there anyway, with poor Oscar stuck sleeping in a Texas Southern dorm room.”
Simmons goes on:
“In North Carolina, someone delivered him a pregame letter from the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, that simply read, ‘Don’t ever come to the South.’”
These things that happened less than 100 years ago seem so far-fetched to the (still imperfect) society we live in today that there is no way we can fully appreciate the gravity of the discrimination.
NBA ahead of the curve
Unfortunately, Oscar's experience was not unique. With separate water fountains, cinemas and restaurants, life away from the court juxtaposed with the respect and appreciation black players received on the hardwood.
Prior to the Civil Rights movement, and perhaps not consciously at the time, the NBA established itself as ahead of the societal curve in its approach to diversity.
A position it continues to enjoy to the current day.
Stay tuned for part three of GiveMeSports’ NBA Black History Month series, coming soon.