The NBA’s color lines were broken in the 1950-51 season when three Black players made their mark on a series of teams. The appearance of the players shifted the racial paradigm of the popular sports league, paving the way for the Black superstars of today.
On April 25, 1950, the Boston Celtics drafted Charles “Chuck” Cooper, followed by the May 24 signing of Nathaniel “Sweetwater” Clifton by the New York Knicks and the debut of the Washington Capitols’ Earl Lloyd who was the first Black player in an NBA game on October 31.
As expected during the tense times, Clifton, Cooper and Lloyd faced heavy discrimination and ridicule in a sport long dominated by White men. Still, the players went on to have respectable careers.
At the time, baseball was a far more popular sport and basketball was a “babe in the woods,” as Lloyd said once. Celtics Hall Of Fame coach Red Auerbach said famously that Cooper “had to go through hell” in his time as a player. C
ooper was a roommate of Hall Of Fame guard Bob Cousy, and later went on to become a social worker and eventually the director of Minnesota’s Park and Recreations board. Clifton, a talented baseball and basketball player, excelled as a big man for the Knicks after attending Xavier University and fighting in the World War II.
Clifton was well known for his charity work in the city, and the Knicks named its City Spirit Award after him.The Associated Black Charities also recognized Clifton’s many contributions.
Lloyd, who celebrated his 86th birthday earlier this month, was a star player at West Virginia State and had a solid career for a number of pro teams. Lloyd and Jim Tucker became the first Black players to play for an NBA championship team with the Syracuse Nationals in 1955.
Lloyd earned his historic first NBA game distinction by virtue of his team’s schedule, otherwise it could have been possible for all of the players to have made their pro debuts at the same time.
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