The start of the NBA season and the recent death of the Boston Celtics coach/GM/visionary Red Auerbach prompted me to remember that I’d written a story five years ago for GQ about the very first black men to play in the NBA. I’d pretty much forgotten about this story; to be honest, I was disappointed that no one seemed to read it when it came out (perhaps because it was quite long and more New Yorker-ish than GQ-ish in tenor), so I banished it to the purgatory of faintly remembered, unfulfilling experiences.
But I recently dusted off the piece and read it–you, too, can read it, here–and realized that I’d had a ball (pardon the expression) researching it. I’d long been fascinated by the fact that, while everyone knew the name of Jackie Robinson, the first black man to break into Major League baseball, no one knew the names of the first black men to break into what is now the most black-identified professional sports league in America. Auerbach played a crucial role in the NBA’s integration, being the first GM to draft a black player (Chuck Cooper, in 1950), the first to field an all-black starting lineup (in the early 1960s), and the first to hire a black head coach, his star center, Bill Russell, who took over the coaching reins from Auerbach while still a player.
Besides Chuck Cooper, the other two black men who joined the league in 1950 were Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton of the Knicks and Earl Lloyd, who broke in that year with the Washington Capitols and later flourished with the Syracuse Nationals. Lloyd was the only one of this original trio still alive when I reported this story, and I visited him at his home in Tennessee. I also tracked down the sprinkling of surviving black players who followed in the original trio’s wake in the ’50s,playing b-ball in obscurity (both personally and league-wise; pro basketball was a second-tier sport until the ’70s, and arguably even the ’80s) until Russell and Wilt Chamberlain literally and figuratively raised the profile of the black man in pro basketball at the decade’s end. These relatively unknown players will never be mentioned in the same breath as Robinson–none were superstars, and none endured the spotlight glare that Robinson endured–but they all had some kind of dignity, toughness, and turn-the-other-cheek fortitude. I hope this article finds more readers on this site.