Today’s NBA features a bevy of African-American superstars as the sport has far evolved beyond its predominantly white past. During the 1950-51 season, a quartet of Black players broke the color lines, paving the way for the future of the league.
Chuck Cooper (pictured) was the first Black player drafted into the NBA, selected first in the second round by the Boston Celtics. The 6-foot-5 small forward and shooting guard averaged nearly seven points and six rebounds per game in a six-year career with the Celtics, the Milwaukee/St. Louis Hawks (now Atlanta), ending with the Fort Wayne (now Detroit) Pistons.
Forward and Center Nathaniel “Sweetwater” Clifton was the first of the group to sign a NBA contract with the New York Knicks. Before his professional basketball stint, Clifton played for the Harlem Globetrotters and was also a baseball player in the Negro Leagues. Clifton’s NBA career lasted 11 seasons, ending with the American Basketball League’s Chicago Majors at 40. Clifton’s charitable work after basketball continued and in 2005 the Knicks named its “City Spirit Award” in the player’s honor.
Small forward Earl Lloyd got the jump on his colleagues by becoming the first Black player to debut in the NBA with the Washington Capitols. He then played for the Syracuse Nationals and ended his career in 1960 with the Detroit Pistons. Lloyd also coached the squad for the 1971-72 season, becoming the NBA’s third head coach, although his coaching career was short-lived. After leaving the Pistons, Lloyd enjoyed a career as a Pistons scout, credited with recruiting players like future Hall of Famer Willis Reed and Earl Monroe and then worked with the Detroit public school system. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2003.
In 2009, Lloyd’s biography, “Moonfixer: The Basketball Journey of Earl Lloyd” was published.
Lloyd died in 2015 at the age of 86.
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Power forward and center Hank DeZonie is least heralded of the Black NBA pioneers because he played less than one season. But he was the fourth basketball player drafted into the NBA and thus deserves his place in history. The Harlem native first played for the all-black barnstorming Harlem Rens basketball squad. In 1950, Dezonie signed to the Tri-City Blackhawks (now the Atlanta Hawks) but quit after just five games. He was quoted as saying that the racial discrimination he and the other Black players faced made him walk away from the game. In 2000, he was honored at a ceremony at Madison Square Garden. DeZonie died in Harlem in 2009 at the age of 86.
PHOTO: Public Domain