In honor of Black History Month, it’s important to recognize the key Black figures who helped propel the NBA to the levels we all enjoy daily.
Here’s a list of firsts from the NBA’s Black pioneers and the milestones they reached.
Get drafted in the NBA: Chuck Cooper earned this distinction on April 25, 1950, when Boston selected the 6-foot-5 All-American Duquesne forward with the 13th overall pick in the second round. Known for his strong shooting range, Cooper also displayed selflessness in often deferring to Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman. Cooper played his first four seasons in Boston and joined the Milwaukee/St. Louis Hawks in 1954 before finishing his career with the Fort Wayne Pistons.
Sign an NBA contract: Harold Hunter signed with the Washington Capitols the day after the 1950 Draft, but the club cut him during training camp and he never played for an NBA team. Twenty days later, Nathaniel “Sweetwater” Clifton signed a contract with the New York Knicks, where he’d compete the next seven seasons, becoming the first African-American to sign an NBA contract and catch on with a team.
Play an NBA game: Earl Lloyd, an All-American at West Virginia State where he led the Yellow Jackets to a 30-0 record in 1947-48, became the first African-American to play in an NBA game on Oct. 31, 1950. The power forward would play a total of 560 contests, averaging 10.2 points for Syracuse’s 1954-55 NBA championship team.
Become an NBA All-Star: Despite never logging a minute of prep hoops at Berkeley High due to rules limiting the number of black players on varsity teams, Don Barksdale in 1947 helped UCLA win the Pacific Coast Conference championship before becoming the first African-American the following year to make the U.S. Olympic team and capture gold. The Oakland native signed with the Baltimore Bullets in 1951, and in 1953, as a member of the Boston Celtics, he became the first African-American to be named to the NBA All-Star team.
#BuiltbyBlack: Don Barksdale.
Don Barksdale broke barriers as an African-American by becoming the first member of the U.S. Olympic basketball team (1948), the first to win a gold medal (1948), and the first to play in the NBA All-Star Game (1953). pic.twitter.com/3r3mzhW1Ac
— NBPA (@TheNBPA) February 18, 2021
Win an NBA championship: Earl Lloyd was in his fourth season as a pro and rookie Jim Tucker played 20 games on the Syracuse Nationals’ 1955 NBA championship team. Lloyd averaged 10.2 points and 7.7 rebounds that season, while Tucker came off the bench on Feb. 20, 1955, to notch the fastest triple-double in NBA history. Tucker scored 12 points with 10 rebounds and 12 assists in just 17 minutes to set a record that stood for more than 60 years until Nikola Jokic set the new mark in 2018.
Win NBA MVP: In just his second NBA season, Bill Russell became the first African-American to win MVP when he averaged 16.6 points and 22.7 rebounds. It was the first of five MVPs for Russell, who would also go on to win a record 11 NBA titles.
Win NBA Rookie of the Year: A 6-foot-11 center, Baltimore Bullets rookie Ray Felix averaged 17.6 points and 13.3 rebounds during the 1953-54 season on the way to taking the NBA Rookie of the Year award. Felix also became just the second African-American that same season to be named an NBA All-Star.
Win NBA Finals MVP: Willis Reed became the first African-American to win Finals MVP in 1970 when he led the New York Knicks to their first championship. But the lefty is also the first player to be named MVP of the NBA All-Star Game, MVP of the regular season and MVP of the Finals during the same season. Reed played his entire NBA career with the Knicks.
First Black starting five: The day after Christmas in 1964, legendary Celtics coach Red Auerbach needed to replace forward Tommy Heinsohn (foot injury) in a starting lineup that already included Sam Jones, K.C. Jones, Tom Sanders and Bill Russell. Auerbach chose four-time NBA All-Star Willie Naulls to replace Heinsohn in the starting lineup over a young, up-and-coming John Havlicek, and history was made. By the way, the first Black starting five won that game against the St. Louis Hawks and would go on to capture 12 straight wins.
Willie Naulls (1934-2018) A 6-6 PF/C, Naulls was a 4-time NBA All-Star w/ the @nyknicks & member of 3 @celtics title teams (1964-66). Naulls (#12) along with Satch Sanders, Sam Jones, K.C. Jones and Bill Russell comprised the NBA's first all-black starting lineup (12/26/64). pic.twitter.com/MsHuwlEcy0
— NBA History (@NBAHistory) November 26, 2018
First pair of coaches in NBA Finals: The 1975 NBA Finals marked a seminal milestone in America because it was the first time in U.S. professional sports history that a championship game or series featured two black coaches or managers. Al Attles led the Golden State Warriors into the Finals, while K.C. Jones served as coach of the East champion Washington Bullets. The Warriors swept the series 4-0 on May 25, 1975, against the favored Bullets.
First Black NBA head coach: After the retirement of Celtics legendary coach Red Auerbach on the heels of Boston’s 1966 title, Bill Russell agreed to become the NBA’s first Black coach, reluctantly accepting a job offer sweetened by the title of player-coach. Russell won two titles as player-coach for the Celtics over his final three seasons.
First Black NBA coach to win a title: Bill Russell entered the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame as a coach in 2021, 46 years after entering the Hall as a player. The Celtics fell to the Philadelphia 76ers in the conference finals during Russell’s first season at the helm. In Year 2, Russell and the Celtics defeated the Los Angeles Lakers in six games for his first title as player-coach.
First Black NBA general manager: Milwaukee’s 11-member Board of Directors unanimously promoted Wayne Embry to general manager of the Bucks in 1972, announcing the first Black GM in the history of professional sports. Embry played 11 years in the NBA and was nicknamed “The Wall” for his crushing pick. During Embry’s tenure, Milwaukee drafted Marques Johnson, Sidney Moncrief, Julius Erving and Alex English.
First Black majority NBA governor: The billionaire founder of Black Entertainment Television, Robert Johnson ushered in a new era by becoming the first majority governor/owner of a major sports professional franchise. The NBA’s expansion committee unanimously approved Johnson in 2002 to become governor of Charlotte’s expansion franchise. Michael Jordan became the NBA’s second majority governor in 2010 when he purchased the franchise from Johnson, before eventually selling his majority stake in 2023.
First Black NBA referee to officiate a game: Calls to add Black referees from players such as Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson and Bill Russell played a role in Jackie White becoming the first African-American to work as an NBA official on Feb. 11, 1968, when he officiated a game between the Chicago Bulls and Cincinnati Royals. White wore No. 32 on the back of his uniform.
First full-time Black NBA referee: Standing at 5-foot-5, former college baseball player Kenneth Hudson cast a long shadow as the first Black full-time NBA referee in 1968. Hudson officiated in the NBA from 1968 to 1972, but the former executive at Coca-Cola made an indelible mark on the community, developing Boston-area youth basketball programs in addition to founding the Boston Shootout in 1972. Hudson was awarded the Mannie Jackson Award in 2009 by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
First Black female referee: Violet Palmer made history as the NBA’s first female referee on Oct. 31, 1997, when she officiated the season opener between the Vancouver Grizzlies and Dallas Mavericks. Palmer was also the first female referee in 2006 to officiate an NBA playoff game. The Compton, Calif. native won the Naismith Award for Official of the Year in 1999 and retired in 2016 after working 919 NBA games, including the 2014 NBA All-Star Game.