Everyone knows about Jackie Robinson. I was curious about the black men who integrated what is today America’s most black-identified sports league, the NBA. And I was delighted to learn that Earl Lloyd, the very first black man to play in a regular-season NBA game, in the fall of 1950, was alive and well in Tennessee. So in 2001, I went down to his house to spend some time with him, and I also interviewed most of the other surviving black players who broke into the league in the 1950s. As it turns out, this story didn’t have the deep drama of Robinson’s, but for a fascinating reason: Whereas the white world of baseball was heavily populated by poorly educated yokels unused to being around blacks (and more inclined to be openly racist), the NBA in the 1950s was largely the domain of educated urbanites, what you might call white ethnics–Jews, Italians, Irish and Polish Catholics–who were used to being around blacks and less inclined to make a big deal of integration. Still, it was a tough road for most of the black guys who played professional basketball in the ’50s, as this story–inexplicably, one of the most obscure in my back catalog; no one read it–shows.
P.S. The headline for this story was devised by the late Art Cooper, then GQ’s editor, as a wink to Robert Peterson’s history of baseball’s Negro Leagues, Only the Ball Was White.
The National Basketball Association, spring 1950. The season just ending is the league’s first under the NBA moniker, which came about when the Basketball Association of America (BAA), an East Coast–based league, absorbed six teams from the defunct National Basketball League (NBL), which had served the Midwest. There are seventeen NBA teams, six of which—the Chicago Stags, the St. Louis Bombers, the Denver Nuggets, the Anderson (Indiana) Packers, the Sheboygan (Wisconsin) Redskins and the Waterloo (Iowa) Hawks—will not scrape together funds to continue into the 1950–51 season. There are 200-odd players playing. Every one of them is white.
The game is played in sateen shorts cut as high as majorettes’ pants, in ringed white socks pulled up to just below the knees, in arenas built for hockey and in dingy gymnasiums borrowed from high schools. It is played by men named Stanczak and Sadowski and Schatzman and Zaslofsky. The Rochester Royals, one of the league’s premier teams, have two big men named Arnie, both of whom are fed passes by a canny little guard out of CCNY, name of Holzman, whose shoulders are as furry as a chimp’s. The league’s biggest star, literally and figuratively, is a six-foot-ten Illinoisian who, with his steel-rimmed glasses and Rockwellian cowlick, looks like nothing so much as an elongated pharmacist. His name is George Mikan, and though he’s the center for the champion Minneapolis Lakers and averages more than twenty-seven points a game, he does not dunk. Dunking is something players do for fun during pregame shoot-arounds, but never, ever, during a game—that would be hotdogging, unsportsmanlike. Scoring is executed by completing a layup or a two-handed set shot. The contagion of the jump shot has only just begun; it is a new technique, embraced by younger players but regarded with suspicion by some coaches because, after all, how can a man control his body if he’s airborne?
Though it barely stretches west of the Mississippi, the NBA is the first truly national league for the second-tier sport of basketball, which, since its invention by Dr. James Naismith in 1891, has led a Balkanized existence of regional leagues, semipro leagues and unaffiliated clubs that barnstorm from city to city. The Philadelphia Warriors, one of the current NBA teams, are holdovers from this murky past, having begun their life as an offshoot of a fierce barnstorming outfit known as the SPHA—short for the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association—who, in the ’20s, enjoyed a rousing rivalry with the mighty Cleveland Rosenblums. Joe Lapchick, perhaps the mightiest Rosenblum of them all, is now the coach of the New York Knickerbockers. The Fort Wayne (Indiana) Pistons, another current NBA team, were once the NBL’s Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons, so named for the owner, Fred Zollner, whose company manufactures pistons for automobile engines. Taking a nickname from one’s sponsor was until recently a common practice; hence, in the 1940s, the Toledo Jim White Chevrolets, the Fort Wayne General Electrics, the Akron Firestone Non-Skids and the Chicago Duffy Florals.
It is not uncommon to see black men playing alongside white men on integrated teams at college-basketball double-headers at Madison Square Garden, or to see all-black college squads playing each other in the South. But the only black men playing professional basketball right now are the Harlem Globetrotters, they of the striped shorts and whistled renditions of “Sweet Georgia Brown.” Until recently, there were also the New York Rens, but they folded last year. In their time, the Rens, so named for having played their early games in the Renaissance ballroom on 128th Street in Harlem, were the greatest of the barnstorming teams, compiling an astonishing record of 2,588 wins against 529 losses in twenty-seven years. In 1939 they defeated the NBL’s reigning champs, the all-white Oshkosh All-Stars, to win the first World Professional Basketball Tournament, an unofficial “basketball World Series” sponsored by the Chicago Herald American newspaper. Nine years later, as the NBL was foundering in its final season, the Rens were invited to take the place of the league’s just-collapsed Detroit franchise, the Vagabond Kings. But the Rens were by then an aging and rickety collection of men; playing out of Ohio as the Dayton Rens, they went 14-26 and called it a day.
The Globetrotters are not, in fact, from Harlem but from Chicago, their misnomer imposed upon them by their sixty-three-inch-tall fireplug of an owner, Abe Saperstein. As a young man in the late 1920s, Saperstein, a tailor’s son, persuaded a promising group of black South Side players, then known as the Savoy Big Five, to let him manage them. Saperstein rechristened them the Harlem Globetrotters to evoke black cosmopolitanism and, more to the point, encourage comparison with the Rens, who had already acquired a national reputation. His father stitched together the striped shorts. Although the Globetrotters quickly emerged as a competitive force to be reckoned with—and defeated the Rens en route to taking the 1940 World Professional Basketball Tournament title—they are most renowned for their clowning and trickery: spinning balls on their fingers, performing virtuosic dribbling displays, dumping buckets of confetti on their opponents, etc.
This flair for showmanship has made the Globetrotters the biggest draw in pro basketball. When they came to the Minneapolis Auditorium in March of 1949 to play an exhibition game against Mikan’s Lakers, then the reigning champs of the NBL, the reported attendance of 10,112 was the highest in Lakers history—and shall remain so until the Lakers move to Los Angeles in 1960. The fledgling NBA, desperate for coattail business, has taken to putting its games on double bills with the Globetrotters’ contests against college All-Star teas and patsy semipro outfits. These circumstances have conspired to give Saperstein formidable leverage: If you’re an NBA-team owner and want to pull crowds, you talk to Abe. If you’re a black man and you want to be paid to play basketball, you talk to Abe.
But at the 1950 NBA draft, held in a Chicago hotel on April 25, something surprising happens. When the time comes for the Boston Celtics to make their second-round pick, the Celtics’ owner, Walter Brown, confers with the 32-year-old coach he has just hired, Arnold “Red” Auerbach, and then announces, “Boston takes Charles Cooper of Duquesne.”
Cooper, better known as Chuck, is an all-American forward who happens to be black. Light-skinned, but certifiably Negroid.
“Walter,” says someone in the room, “don’t you know he’s a colored boy?”
“I don’t give a damn if he’s striped, plaid or polka-dot!” says Brown. “Boston takes Chuck Cooper of Duquesne!”
“Uh-oh,” says Eddie Gottlieb, the coach of the Philadelphia Warriors and a chum of Saperstein’s. “Abe’s gonna go crazy.”
Seven rounds later, in the ninth, the Washington Capitols select Earl Lloyd out of West Virginia State. West Virginia State is an all-black college, so this time no one attempts to ascertain the team owner’s knowledge of his draft pick’s skin pigmentation. Lloyd, in fact, has recently spent a week touring with the Globetrotters as a sort of trial run, to see if he’s suited for a life in striped shorts.
Upon hearing the news that Cooper and Lloyd have been drafted, Abe does indeed go crazy. He retaliates by announcing that the Globetrotters and their boffo gate receipts shall forever be withheld from the cities of Boston and Washington. But Walter Brown withholds his ground. “As far as I’m concerned,” he says, “Abe Saperstein is out of the Boston Garden right now.” Cooper and Lloyd are NBA-bound.
So, by summertime, is Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, a 27-year-old member of the Globetrotters. Clifton has incurred Saperstein’s wrath by informing his teammates of a discovery he has made: The white collegiate All-Stars against whom the Globetrotters are competing on their current tour are being paid more per game than the Globetrotters are. Saperstein decides to offload the ingrate Clifton to Lapchick and the Knicks, who are happy to purchase his contract.
And so the 1950-51 season begins with Cooper, Lloyd and Clifton poised to integrate the NBA. Cooper and Clifton are northerners, from Pittsburgh and Chicago, respectively, and have mixed with whites all their lives. Lloyd, by contrast, has spent most of his twenty-two years in segregation, having grown up in an all-black enclave of Alexandria, Virginia, having attended an all-black college in the mountains of West Virginia, having never even engaged in a conversation with a white man until arriving at the Capitols’ training camp and meeting with his new coach, Horace “Bones” McKinney. But owing to a scheduling quirk that dictates that the Capitols open their season before the Celtics and the Knicks, it so transpires that on October 31, 1950, in an away game against the Rochester Royals, Lloyd, the son of a Virginia coal-yard worker, becomes the first black man ever to play basketball in the NBA.
“I MEAN, HERE YOU ARE,” SAYS LLOYD, LEANING FORWARD IN AN armchair. “You’re a young black kid from a very small town, extremely segregated—the cradle of segregation—and you’re picked to play in the NBA. Which is basically a white league. I’ve never sat next to a white peer, never had a conversation, never exchanged a pleasantry. And your first major contract with white people has to be at this level of competition. Even though you don’t want to admit it, it’s frightening. You’ve been treated inferiorly all your life, so it’s very easy to believe you’re…what? Inferior. And the first question you ask yourself—you know, quietly—‘Do I belong here?’”
Lloyd is 73 now, the only living member of the original trio, and he spent much of the past NBA season on a league-sponsored victory lap, appearing at various ceremonies commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the league’s integration. Belonging, obviously, is no longer a concern, nor is the novelty of interacting with white folks. He lives with his wife in an acutely Caucasoid golfing development in Fairfield Glade, Tennessee, a circumstance that he acknowledges is rather rich given his background and even richer given that he doesn’t golf. He lives in this place simply because he’s retired and “the livin’ is good here, as I think you’ll find.” His overall audiovisual self-presentation is typical of a senior in such a community: the paunch of contentment, the propensity to recline, the easy volubility, the cushiony arch-support sneakers over white socks—although the retiree-high hitch of his trousers serves to emphasize the uncommon length of his legs, making him seem even taller than his Official NBA Encyclopedia height of six feet six.
Lloyd’s tenure with the Capitols was short-lived, but only because he was drafted into the army seven games into his rookie season—which was just as well, since the lowly Caps folded a few weeks later, reducing the league to just ten teams. Upon completing his military duty, in 1952, he was welcomed back into the NBA and played six years for the Syracuse Nationals, winning a championship with them in ’55, before finishing his career with the Pistons, who had moved to Detroit in 1957. Thereafter, he spent most of his adult life in Detroit, working for the Pistons as a scout, assistant coach and briefly, head coach and then as a member of the city’s board of education.
That Halloween night in Rochester proved to be oddly unepochal. Lloyd says his fears of not belonging were overcome weeks earlier in training camp, when he was accepted without incident by the other players and made the team despite his low-pick status. The Caps lost to the Royals in that first game, but Lloyd led all rebounders with ten. “In all honesty, that particular night was uneventful,” he says. “You’re in Rochester, New York. You’re in a town where the university is integrated, the high school is integrated. So as a consequence, the newspaper didn’t play it up. The Ku Klux Klan wasn’t there with ropes and robes and stuff.”
So that’s it—a debut, a career, a landscaped split-level in eastern Tennessee. No mythology, no wide-screen epic of struggle overcome, no Jackie Robinson–style breakthrough for the first black man to play in what is now America’s most black-identified professional sports league, a league that has borrowed from hip-hop vernacular for its new slogan, IT’S ALL GOOD. In fact, comparison with Robinson makes Lloyd indignant: “Man, you can’t compare the first black player coming to pro basketball with Jackie Robinson! I’m not gonna even dignify that. That man was a world-class track athlete, all-American football player, the leading scorer of the Pacific Coast Conference in basketball. And he makes the Hall of Fame in his worst sport? You’re kidding, man!”
Lloyd is right: He is no Robinson, and there’s no single incident in basketball’s history that compares with the vortical momentousness of Robinson’s 1947 debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers. But he, Cooper and Clifton were part of an incremental, under-the-radar process that ultimately proved every bit as important, since basketball would come to be, as Nelson George put it in his book Elevating the Game: Black Men and Basketball, “the prime arena after World War II for black athletic innovation” and the main showcase for what George calls the “modern black athletic aesthetic,” that identifiably African-American fusion of flamboyance, improvisation and intimidation. Beyond that, the integration of basketball would have massive cultural implications. For anyone under 50, it’s hard to contemplate that there was ever a time when basketball was not a black-identified sport; trying to do so is a mind-warping exercise, like trying to contemplate what the universe was like before earth was formed or what being dead will be like. Basketball is today, along with hip-hop, one of the tent poles of African-American cultural identity. And since young white America takes its cues from young black America, basketball is, when you get right down to it, a cornerstone of American cultural identity. But when these men came up, basketball carried no such weight. They were the unknowing instigators of a cultural sea change.
One of the reasons no one foresaw this transformation—and why no news organization sent its ace correspondent to cover the breaking of the NBA color barrier—is the NBA was no big deal at the time, a poor relation to Major League Baseball, the National Football League and even the National Hockey League. (Indeed, as recently as 1980, the NBA was sufficiently unimportant that the decisive Game 6 of that year’s Finals was broadcast only on tape delay on the East Coast, well after prime time. That game happened to be the one in which the Lakers rookie Magic Johnson stepped in for the injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to torch the Philadelphia 76ers for forty-two points, sealing his stardom.) “Baseball was the sport in the ’50s,” says Lloyd. “I mean, basketball was, like, ho-hum. Even to me. I was a big Joe DiMaggio fan.”
The lack of a basketball figure comparable to Robinson is further explained by the fact that, technically speaking, Lloyd, Cooper and Clifton weren’t the first blacks to integrate a professional basketball league. The NBL, volatile and small-market though it was, was a genuine pro league, and it had admitted black players in dribs and drabs throughout the 1940s. Blacks were playing in the NBL as early as 1942, when the league’s Toledo Jim White Chevrolets and Chicago Studebakers, their ranks depleted by the World War II draft, signed black players to short-term deals to shore up their rosters. Among those signed by the Chevrolets was Bill Jones, a former University of Toledo star who later logged some time with the Globetrotters and is now an 87-year-old ex-schoolteacher in Los Angeles. “I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but I was the first African-American to play in the National Basketball League,” he says. “I played four games, and then on December 15, 1942, Jim White disbanded the team.”
If any one player deserves the designation “the Jackie Robinson of basketball,” it’s Bill Russell, the NBA’s first black superstar, who altered the balance of the league when he joined the Boston Celtics in 1956 and led them to eleven titles in the next thirteen years—and, every bit as important, never took any guff from anyone, about his game, his race or his (then controversial) goatee. Nevertheless, it’s surprising that the men who paved the way for Russell—Lloyd, Cooper and Clifton, along with eighteen other blacks who entered the league before he did—are so unsung. Although they might not have faced as difficult a road as Robinson, it still took some kind of drive and turn-the-other-cheek fortitude to enter a league in which they were a microminority, dispatched night after night into potentially hostile environments. It’s telling that most of these players were college graduates and that most of them went on to have an afterlife of eminence, to emerge as men of great standing and good works—Bill Cosby ideals of black achievement. Cooper returned to school after his NBA career fizzled, got his master’s degree in social work, and later became a Pittsburgh businessman and the city’s Parks and Recreation director. Jim Tucker, who became the Syracuse Nationals’ second black player, in 1954, won a fellowship to Harvard and wound up an executive at Pillsbury. Jesse Arnelle, a Penn State star who spent one season in the mid-’50s with the Pistons, later founded the largest minority-owned law firm in the United States. Bob Wilson, Jr., who followed the original black trio into the league in 1951 with the Milwaukee Hawks, was, until his 1995 retirement, the executive vice president of the YMCA Retirement Fund, where he managed $2 billion in assets.
The campus pedigrees of these men underscore the one unmistakable advantage they had over Robinson: They were operating in a realm in which not only were they college graduates but their white peers were as well. None faced a situation as acute as Robinson’s vis-à-vis his teammate Dixie Walker, a revered, popular Dodgers veteran who organized a petition to keep Robinson off the team because he feared infection and contamination from using the same facilities as a Negro. “Most of the people who played baseball at that time were from below the Mason-Dixon Line, and most of ’em never seen a college,” says Lloyd. “I mean, you got some guys from down south—hell, their first pair of shoes were baseball shoes! But my teammates were very intelligent, man. Dolph Schayes was a smart, kind of absentminded-professor kind of guy. I mean, anybody finishes NYU with a degree in engineering at 19 years old, you gotta be kind of smart.”
Red Auerbach recalls that his white players greeted the news of Cooper’s imminent arrival with admirable magnanimity. “As soon as we drafted him,” he says, “a couple of guys came to me—Bob Cousy was one of them—and said ‘Can we room with Chuck?’ ” That same year, Cousy, a Queens-born Catholic kid who’d starred at Holy Cross, took umbrage when a hotel in Raleigh, North Carolina, where the Celtics had played an exhibition game, refused to let Cooper stay there. So he walked the streets with Cooper for hours until they could catch a 3 A.M. sleeper train back to Boston. Sweetwater Clifton, so nicknamed for his fondness for soda pop, was similarly embraced by his teammates, says Ray Lumpp, a Knick in the late ’40s and early ’50s. “Sweets was one of us,” he says. “My wife and I socialized with him and his wife, and my kids used to call him Sweet-wawa.”
The NBA’s early days abound with such stories, touching evidence of the vanished outsider alliance between blacks and white ethnics. Basketball, long before it was explicitly a black-identified game, was more broadly an urban-identified game, embraced by the Irish, German, Italian, Jewish and black populations of inner cities and therefore by people used to living in heterogeneous populations. Not coincidentally, the college basketball teams of the Northeast attracted dedicated followings well before the pro teams did, especially at integrated schools such as St. John’s, Villanova, Seton Hall, Duquesne, the City College of New York, New York University and Long Island University.
But mid-century America was still too unforgiving in its racial attitudes for the NBA’s integration to have been a heart-warming tale of pure uplift. Draw Lloyd out on his experiences, get into the details, and his recollections become less facile and more pained. The same goes for his fellow pioneers, and in the case of one player, Hank DeZonie, the bitterness preempts any jovial wasn’t-that-a-time reminisces whatsoever. DeZonie is a kind of footnote to Lloyd, Cooper and Clifton, a former New York Rens star who led that team in scoring in its final, miserable season in Dayton and then briefly played in the NBA in ’50-51, the same season the original trio made their debut. He landed on the roster of the Tri-Cities Blackhawks, a particularly unstable team that played out of Moline, Illinois, and eventually morphed into the Atlanta Hawks, with stops in Milwaukee and St. Louis along the way. Though he was at the peak of his basketball powers, DeZonie played only five games for Tri-Cities. Today he is retired from the restaurant business and living in Harlem. “I ain’t too hot on the subject, ’cause it ain’t about nothin’,” he says of his abbreviated NBA career. “It’s a story that every black athlete went through: If you can’t do what you can do in your time, when can you do it? It’s not pleasant to talk about.” And that—click!—is all you’re going to hear from Hank DeZonie.
THE GREAT INTEGRATION EXPERIMENT OF 1950 did not exactly precipitate a gusher of black talent into the NBA. When Lloyd returned from military service in 1952 to join the Syracuse Nats, he found just two more black players than before, both with the Baltimore Bullets: Don Barksdale, the former UCLA star who in 1948 became the first black gold medalist on a U.S. Olympic basketball team, and Davage Minor, another UCLA alumnus. Barksdale was arguably the league’s first black glamour figure, telegenic and savvy in the Michael Jordan–Magic Johnson vein; he had his own off-season TV and radio programs in his native Oakland, and the Baltimore Sun reported that the “6-foot-6 Negro hoopster” had signed the richest contract in the city’s professional sports history, paying him even more money than the $18,000 that Y.A. Tittle, the Colts’ quarterback, reputedly made. But Barksdale’s pro career was relatively short-lived—he lasted four years in the league—and Minor’s was even more of a blip, just two seasons.
Another black player, Lloyd’s old West Virginia State teammate Bob Wilson Jr., had already been and gone in his buddy’s absence, spending the 1951-52 season with the Milwaukee Hawks. Had circumstances panned out differently, Wilson would today be mentioned in the same breath as Lloyd, Cooper and Clifton. The Chicago Stags had acquired rights to him in 1950, the year of integration, but the team folded before the season began. Expecting his first child and leery of the NBA’s instability, Wilson accepted a teaching post in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, oblivious to the fact that his rights had been transferred to Tri-Cities, whose front office didn’t know where to reach him. When the Blackhawks finally found him, they invited him up to their 1951 training camp. “I don’t know how much you know about Moline or Davenport, Iowa, but it was a very prejudiced place,” he says. “It was late at night, and I had driven all the way from West Virginia. All of the players were staying at the YMCA. And when I showed up at the Y, they said I couldn’t stay at the Y.” (This to a man who would later serve as an executive for the very same organization.) At training camp, Wilson discovered yet another disorganized team that was on the verge of folding. At the last minute, the team moved to Milwaukee, becoming the Milwaukee Hawks. When the smoke cleared, Wilson was the only black player on the roster.
Wilson spent one rough season with the last-place Hawks, forging an unlikely friendship with his Mormon roommate, Mel Hutchins, and enduring a misery of hostile hotels that grudgingly let him stay but expressly forbade him from eating in their restaurants. Doxie Moore, the Hawks’ sympathetic coach, forewarned Wilson when a segregated NBA city was coming up—the dreaded ones were Fort Wayne, Indianapolis and Baltimore—but Wilson couldn’t help responding with caustic gallows humor: “I said, ‘Doxie, you know what’s gonna happen one of these days? They’re gonna segregate me. They’re gonna have a separate basket that only I can shoot at. And I’m gonna score a hundred points!”
Wilson’s career effectively ended when, late in the season, he was tripped in a game against the Philadelphia Warriors and injured his knee. He returned for the ’52 training camp but didn’t make the team. “They said I wasn’t cutting it because of the knee,” he says. “It wasn’t really that. It was the new coach who’d replaced Doxie, Fuzzy Levane. I don’t think he liked me from day one. He was a racist sucker.”
The 81-year-old Levane is flabbergasted when Wilson’s charge is put to him. “Jesus, I’m just the opposite!” he says. “Oh shit! Hey, if she was good enough to play, I woulda played my grandmother! Tell him I cut a lot of white guys too!” Levane, who is of Italian extraction, notes that when he played with the Rochester Royals in the NBL in the late ’40s, he, Red Holzman and the black former Long Island University star Dolly King roomed together at the city’s Hotel Seneca. “A paesan, a Jew and a black,” he says, “and we all got along famously.”
By the mid-’50s, black players were still just trickling into the NBA, but now enough of them were in the league—including three all-Americans who’d followed in Chuck Cooper’s footsteps at Duquesne University, Jim Tucker, Dick Ricketts and Sihugo Green—to constitute a sort of informal support group, a b-ball brotherhood. Players exchanged information on navigating hostile cities—Indianapolis and St. Louis were where fans were most likely to spit on you and call you “nigger”; St. Louis had a cafeteria called Miss Hulling’s where you could get served without contempt—and they sometimes even put up out-of-town opponents for the night, to spare them the ignominy of hotel hassles.
By dint of his age and experience, Lloyd emerged as an elder of the brotherhood. “I mean, it was kind of a tacit responsibility,” he says. “You got to step up. I’d call ’em and say, ‘Hey, look, man, what you want to do after the game? These are some of the things happening right now. If you choose to go out, I’ll pick you up and take you home’—the whole thing.” In Syracuse this often meant dinner at Lloyd’s home in the Fifteenth Ward, the city’s black neighborhood, and a trip to his favorite haunt, a jazz club called the Embassy. As a general rule, in fact, jazz clubs were a good postgame option. “Downbeat was my bible,” Lloyd says. “Every city I went to had jazz clubs Downbeat had rated. That’s where I spent my time. I never got lonely. Lonely people get lonely, boring people get bored. There’s too much to do, man. John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon…”
Lloyd surmises that he handled the racial adversity on the road better than Cooper and Clifton because, having grown up in the segregated South, he was never surprised by a slight. “In exhibition season, you played a lot of little tank towns, towns like Alton, Illinois, or Mount Vernon, Illinois—you know, they’re not user-friendly for people like me. For Chuck, it was a kick in the groin, man, sleeping in a hotel but not being allowed to eat there. But here I am, from Virginia…. Man, I was shocked they let me sleep there.” Lloyd’s approach stood in marked contrast to the righteous agitation of later black players, such as Russell and Elgin Baylor, who chose to boycott exhibition games in southern cities rather than sleep in Negro hotels or accept the sleep-yes, eat-no arrangement offered them in white hotels. (Baylor told a white teammate, “I’m a human being. I’m not an animal to be put in a cage and let out for the show.”)
But Lloyd never thought of this as a matter of accepting second-class status, being the docile “good Negro.” “I was not a subservient type of person,” he says. “You have to pick and choose the issues that you want to fight for. You don’t want to win battles and then lose the war. And with three guys in the league, it’s like pissing into a hurricane. What the hell you gonna accomplish? Chuck, Sweets, myself—what could we say? I mean, how am I gonna pave the way for somebody else if I’m thinking in this vein and I get fired? Because if Syracuse cuts me loose, and they label me a rabble-rouser or a clubhouse lawyer, who’s gonna pick me up? I mean, they’re scared to death of you anyhow.”
“IN ATHLETICS, YOU KIND OF FORGET ABOUT race,” says Willie Naulls, a black Knicks and Celtics stalwart who joined the league in 1956. “You concentrate on the mission of a team. It’s on of the great things about sports.” He adds, rather tetchily and pointedly, “Race was not much of an issue within the team. It was more something brought up by sportswriters.” But in Bill Russell’s bracingly blunt first memoir, Go Up For Glory, published in 1966, when he and Naulls were both with the Celtics, race is the topic that won’t go away; it’s forever insinuating itself into the narrative. One chapter is titled “It,” the two-letter pronoun denoting the constant, lurking presence of racial prejudice and its potential to erupt into a “situation” (“Another place ‘it’ happened was in Marion, Indiana…”). Russell’s anecdotes of “it” aren’t limited to the usual 1950s villains, the redneck fans and snippy waitresses. Indeed, the book functions partially as a thorough catalog of the racial slights inflicted upon him by teammates, coaches and executives. Red Auerbach, we learn, was unequaled in his embrace of black talent but too willing to accept segregated conditions down south and offensive in his naïve expectations that Russell would have heard of an obscure North Carolina College prospect named Sam Jones because “he’s a schvartze…I thought you’d know about him.” Even bighearted, principled Walter Brown, who never did wrong by Cooper, Russell or any of the other Celtics’ black players, is portrayed as delusional in denying Russell’s public claim that the NBA had an unofficial quota on blacks in the late ’50s, allowing no more than two or three per team.
It’s true that race was hardly ever talked about within the confines of locker rooms and team trains and planes, but the issue was always there, subtly affecting the dynamics among players. “It wasn’t discussed, but you felt it,” says Jackie Moore, the first black player on the Philadelphia Warriors, who says he never developed a close friendship with anyone on the otherwise all-white team. “You got the feeling sometimes that you weren’t wanted on the team. And I heard racial slurs from time to time in game situations.” Lloyd, for his part, can think of an instance in which he wishes race were talked about more openly. “Syracuse played an exhibition in South Carolina, I think in 1953, and I couldn’t make the trip because they don’t allow blacks and whites to play against each other in South Carolina,” he says. “And not one person on that team ever said, ‘If Earl can’t go, I’m not going.’ The question I would ask now: Why would you schedule a game when all your players can’t go? What are you saying about how you feel about me?”
The response of the 1950s white players is generally one of remorse and contextualization. “In those days, it was a little different,” says Al Bianchi, one of Lloyd’s white friends on the Nats and later the general manager of the Knicks. “It never really sank in until later on. When I think back at it now, I think, Jesus, why didn’t we say, ‘Hell, we ain’t goin’!’? But then it was an accepted part of life.”
Then there was the whole thing about playing defense—about how, if you were the black guy on the team, you were there to block, guard, rebound and foul out in the cause of the shooters and playmakers. This was a subliminal sentiment, never uttered aloud and perhaps not even consciously thought by coaches, but there it was: the beast-of-burden stereotype made manifest. “The early perception was that black players were enforcers,” says Tucker, who, at six feet eight and a mere 180 pounds, was not built for enforcing. “I was an offensive player at Duquesne—the plays were designed for me and my roommate, Dick Ricketts. When I came to Syracuse, they didn’t know what to do with me.”
With their offensive games held in check, a lot of the early black players suffered serious career consequences, unsure of their roles, disenchanted, or dogged by the perception that they were merely “role players.” Tucker never really adjusted to his new “enforcer” role and lasted little more than two seasons with the Nats, averaging just 4.1 points per game. Ricketts, despite being the Milwaukee Hawks’ first-round pick from that year, Jesse Arnelle, lasted all of thirty-one games with Fort Wayne, averaging 4.7 points a game despite being, to this day, Penn State University’s all-time leading scorer. Cooper made more of a go of it, lasting six years with the Celtics, the Hawks and the Pistons, but he, too, felt his style had been cramped. “There was a sense of bitterness about Chuck,” says Tucker, who remained friends with Cooper after both men were out of the league. Before his death in 1984, Cooper told an interviewer, “There were things I had to adapt to throughout my career that I wouldn’t have had to if I were white. I was expected to play good, sound, intensified defense and really get under the boards for the heavy dirty work.”
Of all the black NBA players in the early 1950s, the ex-Globetrotter Clifton had the most manifestly “black” game as we think of it today, incorporating no-look passes, behind-the-back dribbling and graceful moves to the basket—what Lloyd summarizes as “Globie flair” (whereas Lloyd was, in his own words, “a traditional basketball player who happened to be black”). Although he averaged ten points a game over an eight-year career and made the ’57 All-Star team, Clifton bristled at the limitations placed on him. “When I first came to the Knicks, I found I had to change over,” he said. “They didn’t want me to do anything fancy. What I was supposed to do was rebound and play defense.” This de facto prohibition against showy play produced an ironic situation in which, as Nelson George wrote, “the prime exponent of what is now considered black style was a skinny white Catholic kid from Queens,” namely the Celtics’ Cousy. It was OK for Cousy to dribble between his legs and look one way and pass another, but if Clifton tried this kind of stuff he was being uppity. In one preseason game against the Celtics in the early ’50s, Clifton riled Cousy’s teammate Bob “Gabby” Harris, a white player from Oklahoma, by putting some Globie moves on him. “He said where he came from, people didn’t do him like that,” Clifton recalled. Clifton, not thrilled by the implications of this statement, knocked out a few of Harris’ front teeth. But this was an atypical episode for Clifton, who is generally remembered as a gentle, eccentric soul: “He had a nice soft voice, almost like a gay guy,” says Tucker. Clifton spent his post-basketball career happily working as a cab driver in Chicago, resisting all entreaties from his NBA and Globetrotter friends to take a basketball-related job. He died of a heart attack in his taxi in 1990.
THE SPECTER OF ABE SAPERSTEIN CONTINUED to loom large in the 1950s, even after integration. In 1956 more black men were on his three traveling Globetrotter squads than in the NBA, and if you were a Negro college hoops star whose graduation was imminent, you could do worse than to take a meeting with Abe. Among the NBA’s early black players, opinions of Saperstein are mixed. On the one hand, he provided well-paying jobs in a well-run organization unburdened by the financial difficulties of the NBA clubs. On the other hand, being a Globetrotter meant incorporating clowning into one’s game, the very notion of which evoked an unpalatable Stepin Fetchit-ism in some players’ minds, and it also meant working for a man whose conviction that he held first-look rights to all black players bordered uncomfortably on the…proprietary. “I did feel that if Saperstein had wanted to keep me out of the NBA, he could’ve,” says Tucker, who played on a summer tour for the Globetrotters after graduating from Duquesne and briefly rejoined them after he left the Nats. “He even said to me, ‘I’ll see to it that you don’t go to Syracuse.’ But he ended up being very nice to me. He was almost like a relative.” Wilt Chamberlain was also a Saperstein fan, calling him a “dear friend” who rescued Chamberlain from his misery at the University of Kansas and gave him a job in an era when underclassmen were not allowed to jump straight from school to the NBA. Biding his time with the Globetrotters in 1958 and ’59, Chamberlain had “the most fun of his career,” and then, NBA-eligible at last, signed with the Philadelphia Warriors.
But the man who made negritude unequivocally acceptable in the NBA didn’t do it for Saperstein. “He asked me to sign with him, but I never even considered it,” says Bill Russell. “I came in from a different place than most black guys. I conducted myself as a star. I didn’t have the approach that I was lucky to be here, that it was a privilege. I wanted to play professional basketball in the NBA, because I thought I was the best basketball player in the world.” Nevertheless, Russell, who had led the previously obscure University of San Francisco basketball team to two NCAA titles in a row, in ’55 and ’56, went through the motions and met with Saperstein before graduation. “He asked me and my coach to visit him,” Russell says. “Then he starts talking to my coach about the ‘social advantages’ of playing for the Globetrotters. I figure, Well, I guess he wants to sign the coach! That, or he thinks I’m not smart enough to talk to.”
Russell worked out a deal with Walter Brown to join the Celtics partway through the 1956-57 season so he could play on the 1956 Olympic team. Naulls, who was also a rookie that season, remembers that when Russell finally caught up with the Celtics, eighteen games into their schedule, his impact was so immediate, his dominance so profound, that the league was instantly severed from its past. “He was the difference; he changed the NBA,” says Naulls. “All the mediocrity that had been succeeding was pushed out of the league. It opened up competition for everyone, especially people of my color.”
In the next thirteen years, the Celtics would be the winningest and most racially progressive of the NBA teams, drafting or acquiring, among others, Sam Jones, K.C. Jones (Russell’s old roommate at the University of San Francisco), Bennie Swain, Tom “Satch” Sanders, Naulls, John Thompson and Wayne Embry. The game too would change. The introduction of the twenty-four-second shot clock in 1954 had already picked up the pace, eradicating the old, collegiate, stalling-oriented half-court game. Abetted by the twenty-four-second rule and bolstered by their swelling ranks, black players felt freer to play a more open, fast-break game; “Globie flair” was no longer taboo, nor was the up-tempo schoolyard style that had developed in black urban neighborhoods. By 1958 the Lakers had a new star in Elgin Baylor, the proto-Jordan, and by 1960 the Warriors had Chamberlain and the Cincinnati Royals had Oscar Robertson. The lodging and dining hassles didn’t disappear overnight, nor did the suspicions that fans wouldn’t come out to see four or five Negroes in a starting lineup, but the identity of the league, and the game, had started to shift.
Few of the NBA’s early black players lasted long enough in the league to play professional basketball by the time it had become a black-identified sport. Lloyd, in fact, would argue that none of them did. “It was in the ’70s, when you start seeing teams throughout the whole league with nine black players and three white players, or ten and two—that’s when,” he says. “Like when the Knicks had twelve black guys. You know what they called ’em? They didn’t call them the New York Knicker-bockers. You know where I’m going with that.”
But Russell is secure in his belief that the complexion of the game changed, literally and figuratively, in 1960, when he and Wilt Chamberlain began their personal rivalry, the greatest center matchup and arguably the greatest one-on-one player matchup in basketball history. “Oh, it was the confrontation between Wilt and me,” he says. “Everyone accepted that: You’ve got the two best players in the league, and you had to take sides, and you couldn’t take the side of a white guy because”—a pause for a chuckle—“there wasn’t one!”