Celtics, John Hancock Host Forum | Celtics Role Models

If you have been to the FleetCenter this season, you may have noticed a new banner hanging from the rafters. The Boston Celtics commemorated the 50th anniversary of African-Americans joining the National Basketball Association by raising a special banner in honor of the late Chuck Cooper, the first African-American player to be drafted by an NBA team.


Chuck Cooper, Jr. and Red Auerbach pose in front of Cooper banner. The banner, hanging in the FleetCenter, commemorates Chuck Cooper, Sr. being drafted by the Celtics 50 years ago.
Reflecting on the 1950 draft, Cooper said, "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 on the second round. 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 is 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 a basketball first, he shied away from comparison with Jackie Robinson [Major League Baseball's first African-American player].

"No, I don't see myself as basketball's Jackie Robinson. There was only one Jackie. When he broke baseball's color line three years earlier, 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 league in 1950. Earl Lloyd, who played for the Washington Capitols, was the first African-American to play in an NBA game (Oct. 31, 1950). The late Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton was the first African-American player 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).

The Celtics also experienced another historic "first" in 1966 when Bill Russell, arguably the greatest player the game has ever seen, became the first African-American coach in a 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.

This originally appeared in the February issue of Celtics Insider, the official publication of the Boston Celtics.

Chuck Cooper comments courtesy of The Picture History of the Boston Celtics, by George Sullivan