Red Auerbach gets set to send Cooper into a game.
"I'm convinced that no NBA team would have made the move on blacks in 1950 if the Celtics hadn't drafted me early, taking me in the second round," said Cooper when he reflected on the 1950 NBA Draft. "Seven rounds later the Washington Caps took Earl Lloyd, and a couple of months later the New York Knicks bought Sweetwater Clifton's contract from the Harlem Globetrotters. But this was a case of the Caps and Knicks following the Celtics lead."
Walter Brown [founder of the Boston Celtics] was the man who put his neck on the line. It took a lot of guts to do what he did.
"I'll never forget Walter Brown. He was a gentleman with a backbone. Give all the credit to that man. He made it all possible when nobody else would."
Although he was the first African-American to be drafted into the NBA, he shied away from comparisons with Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to crack the color barrier three years earlier for the Brooklyn Dodgers in Major League Baseball.
"No, I don't see myself as basketball's Jackie Robinson," said Cooper. "There was only one Jackie. When he broke baseball's color line he shouldered a terrific burden that helped all other sports. A lot of acceptance that he pioneered transferred over to all who followed in all sports."
In addition to Cooper, three other African-American players joined the NBA in 1950. Earl Lloyd, who played for the Washington Capitols, was the first African-American to play in an NBA game on October 31, 1950. The late Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton was the first African-American to sign an NBA contract (with New York). Hank DeZonie, a former member of the New York Rens barnstorming team, played five games in 1950 for the Tri-Cities Blackhawks (now the Atlanta Hawks).
Years later, the Celtics experienced another historic first. In 1966 Bill Russell, arguably the greatest player the game has ever seen, became the first African-American Head Coach in any major professional sports league. Under his leadership, the Celtics won NBA titles in 1968 and 1969, making him the first African-American coach to lead a pro sports team to a championship.
Special thanks to George Sullivan and his book The Picture History of the Boston Celtics.