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How a trio of pioneers gave rise to racial integration in the NBA

Posted on April 01, 2022

The NBA isn’t alone in celebrating its history across 75 years this season.

Major League Baseball has a big diamond anniversary coming up on April 15 – on that date in 1947, Jackie Robinson played his first game for the Brooklyn Dodgers, breaking baseball’s color line. A Rookie of the Year, an MVP, a seven-time All-Star, a World Series champion and eventually a Hall of Famer, Robinson’s uniform No. 42 is retired across the National and American Leagues not for those achievements but for his place in the sport’s – and the nation’s – history in as an African-American hero and civil rights leader.

Lesser known perhaps to casual sports fans but significant for the NBA, three men walked that path three years after Robinson. The 1950-51 season marked the start of the league’s racial integration, with three men serving together as pioneers.

Chuck Cooper of the Boston Celtics was the first African-American player drafted by an NBA team, going No. 13 overall as the first pick of the second round on April 25, 1950.

Nat (Sweetwater) Clifton is generally regarded as the first African-American to sign an NBA contract, joining the New York Knicks from the Harlem Globetrotters on May 24, 1950.

Earl Lloyd went to the Washington Capitols as the No. 100 pick, and six months later became the first African-American to play in an NBA game. The Capitols opened the 1950-51 schedule at Rochester on Halloween, one day before Cooper’s Celtics played at Fort Wayne, Ind., and four days before the Knicks opened on Nov. 4 against the Tri-Cities Blackhawks in Moline, Ill.

Earlier this month, children of the three race pioneers – Chuck Cooper III, Kevin Lloyd and Jataun Robinson (Clifton’s daughter) – got together on a Zoom call to talk with NBA.com about their fathers. None of them lugged the burden Robinson did by going it alone, just as none of them got his level of acclaim.

Sounds like a fair trade to their family members.

“Mr. Lloyd, and my dad too, gave Jackie a lot of credit for making things easier for them,” said Cooper III. “Certainly not easy, but easier.

“I think it was helpful for them to have each other because they would kind of look out for each other. They had an agreement they would never fight each other … They would let each other know the safe places to go and hang out.”

Said Kevin Lloyd: “There weren’t as many teams, so they played against each other a lot. Every time my father went to Boston, it was Chuck’s responsibility to take care of my father. And vice versa. Same with New York, ‘Sweetwater’ would take care of either one of them. They had to. They were tight-knit.”

All three men eventually were inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame: Lloyd in 2003, Clifton in 2014 and Cooper in 2019. But they got there as contributors or via a designated African-American selection committee. Their kids want people to know how good they were as athletes and players, not only as “firsts.”

“For them to open the door,” Cooper III said, “they had to be tremendous ball players.”

Cooper, a 6-foot-5 forward with long arms and a nose for defense, had impressed Boston coach/GM Red Auerbach with his character and his role at Duquesne in his native Pittsburgh. Cooper had been drafted into the military while in college at West Virginia State, so after serving he was 23 when the 1950 draft was held.

A rival owner said to Celtics boss Walter Brown as he made the pick, “Don’t you know he’s colored?” Brown’s response: “I don’t care if he’s striped, plaid or polka-dot.”

Cooper had his best season as a rookie, averaging 9.9 points and 8.5 rebounds per game. He spent four seasons in Boston, then one in Milwaukee. The Hawks moved to St. Louis in 1955, and Cooper split that season there and in Fort Wayne.

Lloyd, a native of Alexandria, Va., just missed Cooper at West Virginia State. Although he was picked in the eighth round, the 6-foot-6 forward would have a better NBA career than every man picked after No. 18 Bill Sharman. His rookie “season” actually lasted seven games – this time it was Lloyd getting drafted. The Capitols had folded by the time he returned from Army duty, but his rights had transferred to Syracuse in the 1951 dispersal draft.

Nicknamed “Moon Fixer” and “Big Cat,” Lloyd helped the Nationals (now known as the Philadelphia 76ers) to the 1955 NBA title, averaging 11.5 ppg and 8.1 rpg in the playoffs. He never missed the postseason after his abbreviated rookie year, spent his last two seasons with Detroit and retired ibn 1960 with averages of 8.4 ppg and 6.4 rpg.

He spent 10 seasons as a scout and assistant coach, eventually getting promoted by the Pistons in 1971-72 as the first African-American “coach only” (Bill Russell and Lenny Wilkens had done double duty as player-coaches). Lloyd later worked for the Detroit Board of Education. He was enshrined in the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame and, this weekend, will be honored with a state historical marker at his childhood home in Alexandria.

Clifton was a gifted athlete from Chicago, playing minor league baseball and 16-inch softball in his hometown to earn a spot in that sport’s Hall of Fame. He had spent two years with the Harlem Globetrotters — Cooper and Lloyd also played for the legendary all-Black team — when owner Abe Saperstein sold Clifton’s contract to the Knicks.

“If you were Black and wanted to make decent money playing basketball,” Cooper III said, “there were only 12 slots. And that was with the Globetrotters. Abe Saperstein had a monopoly on Black players.”

Like Robinson, Clifton was 28 by the time he got his chance in his sport’s major league. The 6-foot-7 forward became popular with the fans, in part because of his catchy nickname (he loved soft drinks as a child). His best season statistically was 1954-55, when he averaged 13.1 ppg and 8.5 rpg, then upped his scoring to 19.7 in the playoffs. Clifton earned a lone All-Star berth two seasons later at the age of 34. He returned to Chicago after one season with Detroit, then spent his years as a cab driver until his death in 1990.

(Actually, there were two more unsung Black pioneers in that 1950-51 season. Hank DeZonie, a 6-foot-6 forward out of Clark Atlanta University, played five games for the Tri-Cities Blackhawks in December. And Harold Hunter went to training camp with Washington, actually signing his contract four weeks before Clifton. But he got cut before the NBA season began. Hunter went on to coach at Tennessee State and for the U.S. men’s national program.)

None of the NBA’s first Black players got the same level of spotlight or scrutiny as Robinson. Baseball dwarfed basketball in popularity nationally, and African-Americans already were familiar in college hoops.

“That’s one of the differences between our dads and Jackie Robinson,” Cooper III said. “He didn’t get a lot of support from some of his own teammates. NBA players were college-educated, so it was a little different. And the Celtics organization was better still. Walter Brown and Red Auerbach made sure my father was treated with respect. And Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman became pretty good friends with my father.”

That didn’t mean it wasn’t challenging, sometimes unnerving. With four constituencies to navigate — teammates, opponents, fans and the general public — many days brought unpleasantries ranging from overt insults to minor slights.

Hotels would deny them lodging, restaurants refused to serve meals. When the Celtics played a preseason game in North Carolina in Cooper’s first year, Cousy — also a rookie — volunteered to join him on a late-night train to the next city when the team’s hotel wouldn’t accommodate a Black guest.

“They learned where to go and where not to go,” Kevin Lloyd said. “I think it was the crowds [that were roughest]. My father would hear every word in the book coming at him, and it was tough.”

Said Cooper III: “We’re talking about pre-Emmitt Till America. So there were still people getting hanged in this country when they were traveling to those not-so-friendly cities.”

The NBA had an unofficial-but-hardly-secret quota on Black players, bumping grudgingly from none to one to two, eventually to three or four.

Less overt was the way in which Cooper, Lloyd and Clifton were deployed by their teams. According to their descendants, their use as “role players” was by design more than by skill sets.

Remember, baseball — it’s often been said — is a team sport played by individuals. Hitting, baserunning, fielding, throwing are individual skills that a man can showcase.

Basketball, by contrast, is a team game in which any of the five players can demonstrate their abilities at any time — if permitted and encouraged to do so. Apparently, in the NBA of the 1950s, the Black pioneers might be asked to rebound, pass and play defense. But shooting the ball and scoring was for their white teammates.

“The NBA wasn’t going to go from no African-Americans to turning over the keys and letting one of them be the star of his franchise,” Cooper III said. “It didn’t happen in corporate America and it wasn’t going to happen in the NBA back in 1950.

“If you were the third or fourth guy in line to touch the ball, it probably was going up before it got to you.”

The arrival of Maurice Stokes with Rochester in 1955 started to break the embargo and enable Black players to flex all their talents, followed by Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain. Chamberlain’s Herculean feats from his 1959-60 rookie season forward quickly dashed the quota system, too, with fans clamoring to see the best players, regardless of race.

The Celtics’ dominance with African-American stars such Russell, Sam Jones, K.C. Jones, Tom “Satch” Sanders and others had a similar impact. On Dec. 26, 1964, Auerbach sent out five Black starters for the first time in NBA history, breaching a “gentleman’s agreement” among teams to have at least one white player on the court at all times.

Jump ahead 72 years from that historic, barrier-bending season, and the NBA is about 75% Black, with more than 100 players from around the globe. On its courts, the league presents the closest to a real meritocracy as society offers.

“I think my father would have a great big smile on his face,” Kevin Lloyd said. “So would Cooper and Sweetwater. They’re a part of something. For the kinds of salaries the players have today, the kind of lifestyles they have, it’s because of them.”

Said Jataun Robinson, Clifton’s daughter: “He watched all the games up until his death. He said he liked the fact that they could do more, score more points, all the kind of things they had not been allowed to do.”

Cooper III knows that many superb African-American players never got the chance his father got. Stars such as Marquis Haynes and Pop Gates were diverted to the Globetrotters. And remember, the NBA had only been around briefly before 1950. The future was as important as the past.

“My father had told me that with Sweetwater and Earl,” Cooper III said, “they were very cognizant of not messing up the opportunities for those who would come behind them.”

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