Rick Mahorn of the Detroit Pistons/Shock spoke to high school students at the Detroit Pistons/ Detroit Shock 3rd Annual Know Your Black History Month Tour Tip-Off Event.
(Allen Einstein/NBAE/Getty Images)
Black History Month Around the League

by John Smallwood

The flame was first lit a half century ago. It happened on the night of October 31, 1950 when Earl Lloyd stepped onto the court for the Washington Capitols. The complexion of the NBA would not only change, but the very fabric of how the league would evolve was impacted in a very permanent and profound way.

Lloyd was the first African-American to participate in an NBA game. Fifty years later, the league is predominantly comprised of African-Americans and it seems almost na´ve to think there was a time when the owners operating the NBA openly questioned whether their audience would accept players who were not white.

But back in 1946, when the Basketball Association of America -- the league that would become the NBA -- was founded, America was a different place. The general societal belief of interaction between the races was still separate and professional sports was no different.

Jackie Robinson was playing in the Brookyn Dodgers' farm system, so the shattering of Major League Baseball's color barrier was inevitable. But the founders of the BAA were starting a new professional league for a sport that did not register very highly in the public consciousness and was considered a shaky proposition at best. Thus the BAA owners had little passion to take up social concerns at the risk of failing economically.

During its early years, when many college teams were integrated; all-black teams competed regularly against all-white teams; and UCLA All-American Don Barksdale became the first African-American to play on a United States Olympic basketball team in 1948.

By the end of the 1949-50 season, it had become clear that black players -- albeit in extremely limited numbers -- would be allowed into the league.

Chuck Cooper, from Duquesne University, was the first to be drafted, taken by the Boston Celtics in the second round of the 1950 draft. Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton, who attended Xavier University in Louisiana, was the first to sign an NBA contract with the New York Knickerbockers. But through a scheduling quirk, Lloyd, who was picked in the ninth round out of West Virginia State University, became the first to actually play in a game.

"I don't think my situation was anything like Jackie Robinson's -- a guy who played in a very hostile environment, where some of his teammates didn't want him around," Lloyd said. "In basketball, folks were used to seeing integrated college teams. There was a different mentality."

During that first year, Cooper had an impressive season, playing in 66 games with 615 points, 562 rebounds and 174 assists. Clifton played in 65 games and collected 562 points, 491 rebounds and 162 assists. Lloyd, however, played in only seven games because another team (the U.S. Army) drafted him; besides, the Capitols disbanded on Jan. 9, 1951, after only 35 games. Lloyd returned for the 1952-53 season and he and Jim Tucker became the first African-American players to be on an NBA championship team -- the 1954-55 Syracuse Nationals.

The presence of the African-American player changed the way the NBA game was played. Because the African-American athlete had been so long excluded from the structured white organizations of the game, they were not bound by the traditional approaches to basketball. The segregation of the era meant that basketball developed independently in the African-American community, separate from the more conservative style that dominated early professional leagues, such as the BAA. Since African-Americans could not play in the pro leagues, black semipro players continued with the styles they had utilized in college, which were more conducive to a wide open play.

Cultural influences also played a large part in this development. For example, flamboyant or showy moves by an offensive player were considered bad sportmanship in the white-dominated leagues. By contrast, African-American players and fans reveled in showmanship and flamboyance as a mode of self expression.

Inspired by the play of the legendary all-black New York Renaissance Five and Harlem Globetrotters, a distinctive "black" style of play developed, one that emphasized speed, agility, and took advantage of creative ball handling.

While this style often conflicted with white coaching philosophies of the day, it was clearly a style of play that fans found more appealing. And at the start of the 1954-55 season, when the NBA adopted the 24-second clock because it's slow methodical style was losing interest with fans, the "open style" of play exploded throughout the game.

Two seasons after the shot clock came into being, the first African-American superstar entered the league -- Boston Celtics center Bill Russell who was unlike any other big man who had ever played the game.

"Nobody had ever blocked shots in the pros before Russell came along," legendary Celtics Coach Arnold "Red" Auerbach said. "He upset everybody. And the thing about it is that he blocked shots with a purpose. You see today a lot of players will block a shot as hard as they can, and it goes out of bounds. Russell always tried to control the ball when he blocked it. He would block a shot and aim it towards a teammate. It was almost like a pass. Nobody else has ever done that."

Auerbach was the first NBA coach to take advantage of this style of play by installing a full-court press and allowing black stars such as Russell, K.C. Jones and Sam Jones to free lance more on the court. In 1958, Russell became the first African-American to be named Most Valuable Player.

After St. Louis Hawks forward Bob Pettit in 1958-59, it would be 13 seasons before another white player -- Boston Celtics center Dave Cowens in 1972-73 -- would be name league MVP. Since Russell won his first MVP, only four white players -- Pettit, Cowens, Portland Trail Blazers center Bill Walton (1977-78) and Boston Celtics forward Larry Bird (1983-84, 1984-85 and 1985-86) have been named MVP.

Within three years after Russell made his NBA debut, two more African-American players who would change the style and perception of the NBA entered the league -- Wilt Chamberlain of the Philadelphia Warriors and Elgin Baylor of the Minneapolis Lakers.

Chamberlain, 7-1 and 275 pounds, was the original immovable object. The "Power-in-the-Paint" game that is the staple offense of today's big men has its genesis in Chamberlain. The "Big Dipper" became the NBA's first African-American scoring champion in 1959-60, which began a 40-year era when only three non-African-American players - -San Francisco Warriors forward Rick Barry in 1966-67; Los Angeles Lakers guard Jerry West in 1969-70 and New Orleans Jazz guard Pete Maravich in 1976-77 -- won scoring titles.

Before Julius Erving, Michael Jordan and Vince Carter started walking on air, Baylor was the first player to show crowd that NBA players could seemingly defy gravity. Baylor and other black players transformed the NBA from a game played below the rim to one played above. Hal Greer and Guy Rodgers became prototypes for the faster, ball-controlling NBA guard whose job is to direct the offense, play pressure defense and dictate the pace of the game. At 6-5 and 220 pounds, Oscar Robertson was the first of the "big lead guards." His all-around play foreshadowed the contemporary statistical "triple-double."

Erving, as "Dr. J," introduced the job of celebrity endorser for NBA players. Michael Jordan, as "Air Jordan," raised the connection between NBA players and Madison Avenue into the stratosphere. Long before the other major sports leagues would hire their first African-American head coaches, Russell had already guided the Celtics to championships. Later Al Attles, Lenny Wilkins and K.C. Jones also led teams to titles.

And Wayne Embry, who played 11 seasons in the NBA, became the first African-American general manager of a major sorts team when he took the reins of the Milwaukee Bucks in 1972.

Today the overwhelming majority of NBA players are African-American. But rather than being shunned by an audience that is predominantly not African-American, as the league's original owners feared, the NBA has flourished and grown into a globally recognized and celebrated league in large part because of its African-American players.

Reprinted courtesy of the NBA Encyclopedia