When the NBA was founded by a bunch of white hockey team owners, it was meant to fill empty venues when other events weren’t going on. Little did these owners know that they were creating the most popular basketball league in the world, and that the NBA would keep expanding until in 2021, teams were worth, on average, $2.4 billion. However, when the league was inaugurated, it was only white men that were allowed to play (until 1950). Like baseball and so many other sports, basketball went through a transition where people of color were allowed to play, and it transformed the game … forever.
The first African American player to play in the NBA was Earl Lloyd, who was drafted at the age of 22 by the Washington Capitols. Lloyd was drafted in the 9th round of the 1950 NBA Draft (which consisted of 12 rounds), with the 100th pick. Nicknamed “The Big Cat,” Lloyd was a 6’5″, 225-pound small forward. He debuted on October 31st of 1950, scoring six points. However, two other players, Chuck Cooper and Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton must also be recognized. They were black players in the NBA at the exact same time as Lloyd; because of scheduling, Lloyd played his debut game before the other two. Unfortunately, Earl Lloyd only played in seven games that season, as he was drafted into the Army for the Korean War.
After that year, the Washington Capitols, along with some other teams, would fold, and when he returned from the war, Lloyd would play for the Syracuse Nationals (now the Philadelphia 76ers) and the Detroit Pistons. He would finish his career at the age of 31 and only average over 10 points per game one season in his career. Lloyd later became an assistant coach for the Pistons, and the Head Coach of the team in 1971. Though Lloyd broke barriers as the first African American to play in the NBA, he may not have been the equivalent of Major League Baseball’s Jackie Robinson. That transformative figure likely was not Lloyd, Cooper, Clifton, or Bill Russell, but may be, in fact, Don Barksdale.
Barksdale only played four seasons in the NBA, but he made a huge impact on a growing league. In 1953, he was the first black All-Star with the Baltimore Bullets, averaging 13.8 points, 9.2 rebounds, and 2.6 assists per game with no shot clock. Since black players were prevented from playing in the NBA until 1950, Barksdale was a 28-year old rookie and a 29-year old All-Star.
“Unfortunately, I was 29 or 30 when I turned pro because the NBA had been closed to blacks for so long. I had lost three or four good years that I could have been playing. I do not think I ever reached my potential in pro ball.Don Barksdale on his career to the LA84 foundation in 1991
While some NBA greats have had incredibly inspirational rises to stardom, Barksdale’s story might just trump them all. The first African American to make an All-Star team never even played on a high school team, as his school would only allow one African American player on the team. He could never make the cut, but Barksdale still loved the game, and kept playing it at Martin Junior College. At one of his games, he was scouted by UCLA, who liked what they saw in the 6’6″ forward, and offered him a scholarship. During the 1943 season, Barksdale played eight games for UCLA, then served in the Army during World War II. He then went back to UCLA, finished his career, and made his way through Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) games to the Olympic team. Barksdale became the first African American player to win an Olympic Gold Medal, another incredible achievement. Barksdale had to endure death threats and segregation while traveling, but he persevered and pushed onward.
His final two seasons were spent with the Boston Celtics, averaging 9.0 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 1.8 assists on 38% shooting. Two seasons after his departure (and retirement) from the Celtics, a 6’9″ center from the University of San Francisco became the greatest African American basketball player in the 1950s and/or 1960s. His name? Bill Russell, the 11-time champion, 12-time All-Star, and multiple-time MVP. After Russell retired, another great center took the league by storm. His name? Wes Unseld, the man who led Washington, D.C., to its first championship and won Rookie of the Year and MVP in his first season! Of course, we can’t forget about the only other player in NBA history to do that, Wilt Chamberlain. These centers made the league what it is, and were an inspiration to African American ball players growing up in America. One idol has led to another, and from that stems Michael Jordan to Magic Johnson to Shaq to Lebron James, to who knows what superstar this decade.
However, the players aren’t the only part of the game. Almost all owners, General Managers, and coaches are white men. In 2020, 21 of 30 head coaches were white, seven were African American, one was Hispanic, and one was Asian. The first African American Head Coach to win the Coach of the Year award was Ray Scott, who was mentored by none other than Earl Lloyd.
Like racial equality in the NBA, gender equality is slowly but surely evolving as well. Vanessa Brooks, an NBA physical therapist/trainer who was hired two days before the 2019 NBA Draft by the Oklahoma City Thunder, became the first African American woman to hold such a position in the NBA. She got into physical therapy because, as a basketball player, she tore her ACL, MCL, and meniscus before her senior year of high school basketball. Instead of playing on a scholarship, Brooks was going to try and walk-on for the University of Georgia, but tore her ACL two days before tryouts at a gym… again. Throughout her journey to being able to walk and run properly, she gained an interest in physical therapy, and not only did she go to Georgia, but got a doctorate degree from Emory University and worked with sports medicine at Duke. She was contacted by the Oklahoma City Thunder via LinkedIn.
“I first thought, ‘Oh no, LinkedIn has spam, too.'”Vanessa Brooks on being contacted by the Oklahoma City Thunder
It happens slower in some parts of the league and faster in other parts, but the NBA is progressing. It’s in good hands, and its roots will always remain strong if it remembers where it came from, and how much it progressed.
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One thought on “Black History Month: How Guys You May Have Never Heard of Changed the NBA”
Excellent Blog and a great history lesson. As I said once before, your Blog’s are informative and extremely interesting. I always look forward to reading them and can’t wait for your next one.