There is a whole history most NBA fans are unaware of. My father was able to share with me the stories of what it was like to be a professional black basketball player in the early days of the NBA, everything from the referees turning a blind eye, to hard fouls, to the long-time kinships black players shared with white players. In that era, the racial challenges they faced were almost unimaginable.
In 1950, the merger of the National Basketball League [NBL] and the Basketball Association of America [BAA] formed the National Basketball Association [NBA]. From the beginning, most of the fans that went to the games in the major arenas were white. Team OWNERS also owned the arenas, and blacks were not allowed to rent these arenas for any reason. Basically, this meant if a black person was not playing on a team, there was no reason for them to be in the arena, at all. Initially, there were seventeen (17) franchises, but once the merger occurred, there were only 11 teams. The OWNERS collectively came up with an unwritten rule: only two (2) basketball players allowed per team.
Now, let’s do the math. Eleven (11) teams would mean at least 22 ball players, right? The current NBA Commissioner, Adam Silver, has recently mentioned several names, but there were three pioneers in particular: Chuck Cooper-Boston Celtics (Globetrotter), Earl Lloyd-Ft Wayne (Detroit), and Nat Sweetwater Clifton-Knicks (Globetrotter). Silver forgot to mention the fourth, Hank De Zonie, who was one of Harlem’s own, having formerly played for the TriCity Black Hawks. Notice there were only a mere 4 black ball players for the entire NBA in 1950. Like so many other franchises from that time, even Los Angeles, now home to the beloved Lakers, originally had a policy of not allowing blacks on the team. The Lakers franchise, in fact, did not have their first black ball player until 1956. That player was Bob Williams (former Harlem Globetrotter). It was actually pretty commonplace for great, All American status ball players, to get drafted by the NBA but then, abruptly find themselves cut from the team. The racism that existed within the NBA destroyed the careers of a lot of would-be greats.
It was no coincidence that 3 of the 4 teams that did have black ballplayers were associated with Red Aurbach. He was the one person that was truly responsible for helping bring down the barriers preventing African Americans from entering the NBA.
The one thing, my father shared with me that sticks out most is this: Initially they didn’t even want black players to score. Imagine stifling the talents the likes of Carmelo Anthony, Le Bron James or even Magic in his heyday. This was common in the NBA’s early history. Black players, regardless of how talented, weren’t even allowed to put the ball in the basket. They were just “on the team” for little more than appearance, relegated to passing and rebounding. And, even within these confines, most of them earned honors.
There were no scoring franchise black ball players from 1950-1960. The first known scores were received from Elgin Baylor who came in the 1958-59 season and Oscar “Big O” Robinson, who came along in the early 60’s. The Lakers wanted my father, before they acquired Elgin Baylor, because of the 37 point performance my father was able to display against their team in the exhibition game played against the Trotters that year in 1957. I guess it can even be said that my father was instrumental in showing the NBA’s LA franchise that people did want to see scoring, even if it was from a black player. Unfortunately, my father went to Philadelphia and was entangled in more back door dealings with the owners of the Harlem Globetrotters, Abe Saperstein and Philadelphia (Eddie Gotlieb).
I researched just about every aspect of the history and compiled this information into my book. Some of the injustices our pioneer sports heroes have had to endure are shocking, and others are downright disgusting. Details of rampant discrimination in the early NBA are spelled out in Basketball Slave: the Andy Johnson Harlem Globetrotter/NBA Story.
The article was edited by Eartha Watts Hicks. Eartha Watts Hicks is a freelance writer, editor, and award winning author of Love Changes.