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Who Was the First Black Basketball Player?

Publish Date: 09.07.2024
Fact checked by: Emily Carter

While major sports leagues are integrated in today’s world, it wasn’t always that way. For a long time, black and white players in the United States had separate leagues, or black players simply couldn’t participate at all. It took a while for everything to come together, especially in basketball.

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the sport was mostly played by white athletes. While people of all different races enjoyed the game, the professional leagues were white-only until the 1950’s. That’s when the barrier finally broke.

At that time, a few brave players stepped outside social norms, fought against prejudice, and put themselves on the line in order to play the sport they loved. Their moves didn’t just change the way fans saw the sport, they changed the fabric of basketball forever.

It’s impossible to discuss the question of “who was the first black basketball player” without covering these three athletes, as they all helped break the color barrier in their own way.

76ers

Earl Lloyd – The Pioneer

Born in Alexandria, Virginia, future hall of famer Earl Lloyd excelled at basketball from a young age. He stood out in high school, dominated every league, and then eventually earned a scholarship to West Virginia State University due to his numerous talents.

Lloyd also excelled at that level. He was always known for his large size and defensive capabilities, both of which were ahead of most other players during that time. He led West Virginia to an undefeated 30-0 season and a second place finish in the CIAA Championship.

Those accolades earned him a large reputation, which came to fruition in 1950 when the Harlem Globetrotters signed him. Soon after that jump, Lloyd’s elevated play landed him as the 100th pick of the 1950 NBA draft.

Despite racial segregation and mounting social pressure, Lloyd entered the league with two other African American athletes. However, due to scheduling, he was the first to actually play in a game. He suited up for the Washington Capitols on October 31st, 1950.

That contest made history, and changed the game forever. Not only did Lloyd pursue a personal lifelong dream, he also changed what was possible on an NBA court.

Lloyd’s time in the NBA was extremely difficult. Fans booed him, chastised him for his face, and even spit on him at times. However, he pushed through such obstacles and paved the way for other black athletes who followed in his footsteps.

His first game kickstarted his long and successful career, where he won a championship with the Syracuse Nationals and acted as a strong centerpiece for the Detroit Pistons. He didn’t play long, but everyone took note of his achievements.

Chuck Cooper – The Draft Breakthrough

During the same draft that Earl Lloyd entered the NBA, Chuck Cooper also made history by being the first African American ever selected into the league when the Celtics took him with the 14th overall pick.

Like Lloyd, Cooper went to West Virginia State for college (he also played at Duquesne) and excelled at basketball from an early age. He was quick, had a great shot, and managed to become a nationally ranked player before coming up to the NBA.

Though he was widely considered to be one of the most talented players in the draft, many teams tried to stop Boston from drafting Cooper due to his race. Fortunately, the organization did not listen and decided to make history instead.

Cooper played six years in the NBA, putting up strong stats in points, rebounds, and assists in the process. He might have even gone further, but an unfortunate car crash (and subsequent back injury) ended his career early.

After stepping away from the game, Cooper continued to fight for social justice and worked to break barriers in other fields as best he could. That included being the first black department head for Parks and Recreation in the city of Pittsburgh.

Though he wasn’t a superstar, or even an all-star, what Cooper did for future athletes was worth a lot more than such accolades. He constantly tried to change society as best he could, and he did it in multiple fields.

Nat Clifton – The Contract Signer

The third and final black athlete who entered the league during 1950, Nat Clifton had the longest and most successful basketball career of the three pioneers. He didn’t just play from an early age, he excelled long before he entered the NBA.

Born in England, Arkansas, Clifton stood out in both basketball and baseball while playing during high school in Chicago. After that, he joined up with the Harlem Globetrotters while also playing for the Chicago American Giants in the Negro Baseball League.

His inherent athleticism and strong frame helped him excel in both sports. While he had the ability to play each for as long as he wanted, the big man moved over to basketball full time when the New York Knicks signed him to an NBA contract on May 24th, 1950.

That move made Clifton the second African American to sign a big league deal, and pushed him into the forefront of social change. He fought against racism and did everything he could to make it easier for other black men to play the game he loved.

He played professional basketball for a total of fifteen years, eight of which were in the NBA. He also made an all-star game, and now has multiple awards named after him for athletes who go above and beyond their normal duties to improve the lives of others.

Challenges and Racial Barriers

Making it in the NBA has never been easy, but making it as a black athlete during segregation was an entirely different level. Not only were fans and America at large against you, but sometimes other teams and players could be against you as well.

That created an extreme challenge, and one that very few people were willing to face. The above players showed a ton of bravery for jumping into the fire head on and showing other non-white athletes that it was possible for them to make it as well.

They were a part of the large social change impacting the country. While the above three athletes entered the NBA before the Civil Rights Movement, which would occur a few years later, they were some of the first to show real change to average people.

Legacy and Honors

All three of the above players did great things during their time in the NBA, both on and off the court. That’s why they are all enshrined in the Hall of Fame, and why they will forever be remembered despite others having longer or more successful careers.

Lloyd, Cooper, and Clifton all were some of the first to take huge leaps for black athletes in professional sports. While others like Jackie Robinson broke their own barriers a few years before them, basketball’s integration would have likely taken a lot longer if not for them.

They each represented a changing world, and by doing so they moved the needle in a big way. It wasn’t long after they came into the league that the NBA became much more tolerable and many black superstars like Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain came on the scene.

It’s easy to see today’s integrated league and take it for granted. However, it’s also important to recognize those that made such an integration possible. That’s why they are in the hall, why they are still remembered, and why there are individual awards named after them as well.

Conclusion

The breaking of the color barrier mattered everywhere, but it was especially important in sports due to their popularity. Black athletes showed everyone across the country that times were changing, and gave a glimpse into what the future would look like.

All three black athletes who entered into the NBA in 1950 had an uphill and dangerous climb ahead of them. However, they didn’t back down. They just kept pushing forward and turned that backlash into hall of fame careers.

There’s still a long way to go in terms of proper inclusion, but the league (now mostly black) has come an extremely long way since the 1950’s. There are many reasons for that shift, but the change had to start somewhere. That’s where Lloyd, Cooper, and Clifton came in. It simply wouldn’t have been possible without them.

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