Everyone knows the cultural significance of Jackie Robinson. On April 15, 1947, Robinson became the first African-American to play Major League Baseball, when he made his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey wanted to break the MLB’s rigid, but unwritten rule against black players. Over the years, much has been made of Robinson opening the doors for so many great minority players from Willie Mays to Roberto Clemente to Barry Bonds.
The National Basketball Association is light years ahead of the other professional sports in terms of African-American leadership, both on the bench and in the front office.
But who opened the door that now allows the Pistons to start five African-American players, in a league that is overwhelmingly dominated by African-Americans?
Harry “Bucky” Lew. Chuck Cooper. Earl Lloyd. Harold Hunter. Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton. Hank DeZonie. These six men are the African- American legacy of professional basketball. It was these gentlemen who fought the bitter racism that now allows the Kobe’s and LeBron’s to play in the NBA. Though the history of the NBA is just over 55 years old, the history of African-American professional basketball players goes back over 100 years.
Harry Lew – First Black Player in Professional Basketball
Harry “Bucky” Lew was the first recorded African-American to sign a professional basketball contract. Lew signed with Lowell, MA’s Pawtucket Athletic Club in the New England Basketball League in 1902. On November 2, 1902, Lew’s team faced a team from Marlborough, MA. After a few injuries to his team, the manager chose to play four on five, instead of inserting Lew into the game. Though he was just supposed to be an extra player, public pressure demanded that he play.
“The fans got real mad,” Lew remembered, “and they almost started a riot, screaming to let me play. That did it.”
Coincidently, Lew’s first game was only four days shy of basketball inventor James Naismith’s 33rd birthday and 96 mile from Springfield, MA, where Naismith actually invented the game. Lew spent the next three years playing in the New England Basketball League, spending one year with the team in Lowell and two years in Haverhill. When the league disbanded, Lew stayed in the game for the next 20 years, working as a player and general manager for his own Lowell-based teams. By the time the NBA was formed in 1949, Lew had paved the way for the Boston Celtics to draft the league’s first black player (1950), have the league’s first all-black starting five (1963), and it first black head coach (1966).
Over the next 45 years, basketball fans would become accustomed to seeing multi-racial teams playing throughout the country. Many high school and college teams were integrated, as were many of the barnstorming teams that traveled throughout the county. William Himmelman, an expert on the first 50 years of professional basketball, found that 73 black players participated in predominantly white basketball leagues before the NBA was integrated, including those that played in the Chicago World Championships from 1939 to 1948.
When the NBA finally formed in 1946, it did not take long for owners to recognize the skills of black players. The start of a new decade, 1950 may have been the most important year in the story of African-American players in the NBA. In a span of nine months in 1950, five players would cross the NBA’s color barrier.
Chuck Cooper – First Black Player Drafted in NBA
Chuck Cooper grew up in Pittsburgh, PA. After graduating from Westinghouse High School in 1944, Cooper decided to leave the city and enroll at West Virginia State, which at the time attracted many urban blacks. He was drafted by the Navy during his first semester in college.
After World War II ended in 1945, Cooper returned to Pittsburgh to continue his education. Pittsburgh’s Duquesne University, which had disbanded its basketball program two years earlier, reinstated the program to coincide with Cooper’s return to college. During Cooper’s four years as a Duke, the team amassed a record of 78-19 and made two trips to the National Invitational Tournament (NIT). Cooper averaged 10.5 points per game and was named All-American during his senior year.
The NBA’s color barrier was officially broken when Celtics owner Walter Brown drafted Cooper, much to the chagrin of other owners.
According to George Sullivan, a New York Times reporter, one owner said, “Walter, don’t you know he’s a colored boy?” To which Brown responded, “I don’t give a damn if he’s striped, plaid, or polka dot! Boston takes Chuck Cooper of Dusquene!”
Cooper made his Celtics debut on November 1, 1950 against the Fort Wayne Pistons, in a game that also featured the debuts of head coach Red Auerbach, guard Bob Cousy, and center “Easy” Ed Macauley. Cooper averaged 9.5 points and 8.5 rebounds in 66 games during his rookie year. Ultimately, Cooper played four years with Boston, before one-year stints with the Milwaukee/ St. Louis Hawks and the Fort Wayne Pistons. He finished his short career with averages of 6.7 points and 5.9 rebounds.
Earl Lloyd – First Black Player to Play in the NBA
Earl Lloyd graduated from Alexandria, VA’s Parker-Gray High School in 1946, before attending West Virginia State. During his four years in college, Lloyd was named All-Colored Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) Conference three times and All-American twice. He led his teams to two CIAA Conference and Tournament championships. West Virginia State was also the only undefeated team in the country in 1947-48. Following Boston’s lead, Washington Capitols coach Horace McKinney selected Lloyd in the ninth round.
Lloyd became the first African-American to play in the NBA on October 31, 1950, when his Washington Capitols faced the Rochester Royals. Inserted during the second half, Lloyd scored six points and grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds in a 78-70 Washington victory. Though in hind-sight this event has immense historical importance, at the time it was just another game. It attracted so little attention that Rochester Democrat & Chronicle reporter George Beahon did not mention it in the game story. Lloyd played only nine games that year, before the Korean War started and he was drafted into the Army.
Lloyd’s nine-year playing career included stops with Washington, the Syracuse Nationals, where he became the first Black player to win an NBA Championship in 1955 (defeating the Fort Wayne Pistons), and Detroit. Lloyd broke barriers on the sidelines as well. In 1968, he became the league’s first African-American assistant coach with the Pistons. He also became the NBA’s second Black head coach in 1971. Lloyd received the ultimate recognition in 2003, when he was selected to the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Harold Hunter – First Black Player to Sign with NBA Team
Harold Hunter was a stand-out guard from North Carolina College. Hunter led NCC to the title game of the Colored Intercollegiate Athletic Association National Tournament. In the tenth round of the 1950 NBA draft, Washington Capitols coach Horace McKinney selected Hunter to join Earl Lloyd on the club. The next day, April 26, 1950, Hunter became the first African-American player to sign an NBA contract. Unfortunately, Hunter’s skill level was not enough to maintain a roster spot, and Hunter was cut during training camp.
Hunter would never get the chance to play in the NBA. Hunter would, however, go on to become the first African-American to coach the U.S. Olympic Team. Hunter would also send 17 players to the NBA while head coach of the Tennessee State University Tiger basketball program.
Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton – First Black Player in the NBA Finals
Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton was born in Little Rock, AR as Clifton Nathaniel. He was given the nickname “Sweetwater” as a child because of his love of soft drinks. Clifton was a great prep baseball player, but would later make his name on the hardwood. Clifton attended Xavier College of Louisiana, before serving in the Army during World War II. After completing his tour of duty, Clifton joined the New York Renaissance, an all-black professional touring team. After only one season with the Rens, Clifton was invited to join the Harlem Globetrotters, perhaps the most popular basketball team in the country at the time. Clifton spent two and a half years with the Globetrotters, including one summer where he also played baseball with the Chicago American Giants of the Negro Leagues.
At the age of 27, Clifton made the jump to the NBA. On May 24, 1950, Clifton signed with the New York Knickerbockers, becoming the second African-American player to do so. Unlike Harold Hunter before him, Clifton made the Knicks. In his rookie year, Clifton averaged 8.6 points, and 7.5 rebounds per game, while helping the Knicks advance to the franchise’s first NBA Finals. The Knicks would also advance to and lose the Finals in 1952 and 1953 as well.
After the 1957 season, one in which Clifton was named to the NBA All-Star team, he was traded to the Detroit Pistons. Clifton played only the Pistons’ inaugural season of 1958 in Detroit, averaging 7.7 points per game. In the summer of 1958 Clifton retired, and played baseball for the Detroit Clowns in the Negro Leagues. He played professional basketball again when he was coaxed out of retirement in 1961 for a short stint with the Chicago Majors of the American Basketball League.
Hank DeZonie – Same Time, Different Story
Hank DeZonie became the final member of the group on December 3, 1950. It was on that day that DeZonie signed with the Tri-Cities Hawks, a club that represented Davenport, Iowa, and Moline and Rock Island, Illinois. Like Clifton, DeZonie had starred with both the New York Renaissance and the Harlem Globetrotters before entering the NBA. Dezonie’s NBA career lasted only five games. He quit in disgust over intense off-court racial discrimination.
Unlike Jackie Robinson before them, these five NBA pioneers could lean on each other. The mere presence of the others meant that no individual player suffered the brunt of the racism, as had been the case for Robinson who was easily singled out everywhere he went. However, these men had to endure the same on- and off-court segregation laws, the racial slurs, and the discrimination that Robinson endured. Like Robinson, these men paved the way for today’s players and are the reason that the best athletes in the world now play in the NBA.