My son posed the above question to me recently, wondering why the most African-American-identified sport in the U.S. doesn’t have one single transformative historical figure the way baseball has Robinson. By a stroke of good fortune, GQ has just re-posted in its archives an article I wrote in 2001 addressing this very question.
The first men, plural, to break the color barrier in the NBA were a low-key group, in part because the NBA was still a low-key league, barely on its feet, when integration happened in 1950. Also, the integration of the NBA was less momentous than baseball’s because blacks and whites had already played basketball with and against one another at the college level. I’ll never forget how Earl Lloyd, the first black man to log minutes in an NBA game, framed this for me: “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. 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.”
Nevertheless, for the NBA’s black pioneers, there was still struggle, tension, and the constant potential for slights and humiliations. Not always the stuff of happy reading, but I’m at least happy that, for once, I can answer one of my son’s questions with more than the usual distracted “Uh, we’ll look it up.”