2019 Hall of Fame

African-American Pioneer Chuck Cooper's Hall of Fame induction draws support across all eras

In 1950, Cooper was the first black player drafted into the NBA

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — Even for a Hall of Fame, the array of talent on the stage at Symphony Hall on Friday night was, momentarily, breathtaking.

The star power in the building for this event, as always, was blinding. But at one point during the two-hour Class of 2019 enshrinement ceremony, this group stood shoulder to shoulder across the width of the stage: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Elgin Baylor, Larry Bird, Julius Erving, Isiah Thomas, Dominque Wilkins, Tom Heinsohn, Ray Allen and Harlem Globetrotters CEO Mannie Jackson.

Multiple Mount Rushmores worth of basketball royalty, all there in the service of one inductee who averaged 6.7 points and 5.9 rebounds in six professional seasons. And one who died more than 35 years ago, at age 57, in February 1984.

Charles Henry (Chuck) Cooper, selected by the Early African-American Pioneers Committee, might possibly have had the most impressive roster of presenters in the history of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. It’s a tradition of the Hall that each new member gets ushered in on his or her big night by one or more already-enshrined legends.

Most ask one or two inductees with whom they shared a particular connection. Former Milwaukee All-Star Sidney Moncrief, for example, had former Bucks coach Don Nelson and teammate Bob Lanier at his side. International pick Vlade Divac was presented by Jerry West, the man who brought Divac to the Los Angeles Lakers. WNBA star Teresa Weatherspoon, selected by the Women’s Committee, was accompanied by peers (and rivals) Cynthia Cooper, Sheryl Swoopes and Tina Thompson. And so on.

But Cooper, in his posthumous recognition, stirred enough respect from men whose careers famously and statistically dwarfed his because of what he achieved to help make so many of theirs possible.

Cooper was the first black player drafted into the NBA, joining the Boston Celtics when they selected him in the second round in April 1950.

He is credited with two others in integrating the league in that 1950-51 season. And Cooper was the last of the three to make it to the Springfield shrine, finally joining Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton and Earl Lloyd.

Clifton, who previously had played for the Globetrotters, is known for becoming the first African-American player to sign an NBA contract, signing a deal with the New York Knicks that offseason. Lloyd, a ninth-round pick in 1950, was actually the first black to play in an NBA game, thanks to Washington opening its schedule before either Boston or New York.

None of them came to be as well-known as Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball’s color barrier more than three years earlier and did so as a solo act with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Cooper, Clifton and Lloyd had each other, though that didn’t help much with each playing and traveling with different teams. Each faced the same sort of discrimination as Robinson, from taunts of fans to being refused service at hotels and restaurants.

“Even though they were held to a higher standard, they never faltered,” said Chuck Cooper III, accepting on his father’s behalf.

That – and the strides the NBA and basketball overall have taken off that trio’s early steps – was what stirred the star-studded show of strong, silent support Friday.

Presenters don’t make acceptance speeches. At most, they’re there to absorb some teasing if their inductee is fighting initial jitters. But the Who’s Who symbolically backing Cooper didn’t have to say a word.

“That was serious,” Hall of Famer Spencer Haywood said after the ceremony. “There was something special going on tonight. Something spiritual.”

Devout Christians Bobby Jones and Paul Westphal didn’t shy away from talking about and crediting their faith. Weatherspoon was evangelical, too, in a speech that flipped what sounded like a joke about three frogs into an inspirational lesson in perseverance.

Moncrief, Divac, Jack Sikma and others spent more time talking about character than crossovers. Sikma and representatives of the Wayland Baptist University women’s teams from 1948-82 had the largest — or at least most vocal — fan-and-family contingents.

Family members appeared on behalf of player Carl Braun, an early Knicks star also elected posthumously, and coach Bill Fitch, who did not travel due to health. Al Attles, 82, a Warriors’ player, coach and executive for 60 years, attended but taped his speech in advance.

So did Dick Barnett, also 82, the former Knicks guard who represented Tennessee A&I’s consecutive NAIA title teams from 1957-59 before the Boston Celtics or UCLA Bruins ever thought of a “three-peat.” Barnett spoke forcefully about the racial injustices he and his teammates encountered, barred as they were from participating in the NCAA. He talked of opening eyes and changing some minds, too.

“It was teams like Tennessee A&I that made me appreciate the game,” Abdul-Jabbar said in a video.

The Class of 2019 slipped in between last year’s group heavy on household names – notably, Grant Hill, Jason Kidd, Steve Nash and Allen – and a 2020 crew that is expected to feature icons Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett.

It made for some newfound appreciation Friday for some performers and contributors who might have been missed the first time around or had their talents and achievements dusted off for a global television audience.

No one fit that category more than Cooper, who waited longer for Hall recognition than Lloyd (2003) or Clifton (2014).

Upon drafting the 6-foot-5 forward from Duquesne, Celtics founder Walter Brown reportedly said, “I don’t give a damn if he’s striped, plaid or polka-dot.”

Brown’s decision was credited years later by Lloyd for his team’s willingness to take him seven rounds later.

“If the Celtics did not draft Chuck in the second round, you could not tell me that the Washington Capitols in 1950 were going to make me the first black player to play in this league,” Lloyd once told the Boston Globe. “No way. The Boston Celtics had a tremendous influence on my acceptance in the NBA.”

Cooper’s immediate embrace by coach Red Auerbach, roommate Bob Cousy and teammate Heinsohn aided the integration of other teams that changed their outlooks or felt some pressure to stay competitive.

Cousy, for instance, talked about Cooper last year in the book The Last Pass that focused heavily on his relationship with Russell, the NBA’s first black star. The Celtics point guard recalled a night in Raleigh, North Carolina, after a neutral site game in February 1952, when Cooper wasn’t permitted to stay with the team at a segregated hotel. He volunteered to take an overnight train to New York for their next game, and Cousy volunteered to join him.

Waiting at the station, they were faced with “whites only” and “colored only” restrooms, a first for both men. Cousy suggested they walk to the end of the platform to relieve themselves in the darkness. Standing side by side, they did.

“The Rosa Parks moment, we couldn’t talk about,” Cousy said years later.

That helps explain why all those legends were on the stage Friday, standing shoulder to shoulder for Chuck Cooper.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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