Five years before Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color line. Four years before Kenny Washington took the field for the Los Angeles Rams. Sixteen years before Willie O'Ree skated onto the ice for the Boston Bruins.
The National Basketball League (NBL) was already making strides against segregation in professional sports. Instead of integrating one African American player into the game as it happened in baseball, hockey and football, 10 African American players hit the hardwood in 1942 and made history. When World War II called the men on the field to the trenches, American sports suffered a loss. Baseball players like Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Warren Spahn and Ted Williams headed overseas.
Two of the seven NBL teams folded prior to the 1942-43 season because of the national call to military service. So Sid Goldberg, owner of the Toledo Jim White Chevrolets, made a decision. He went to the league and told them he would be replacing the athletes at war with local African American players. The United Automobile Workers at the Studebaker factory decided to front another team. Since the factory was being used as a defense plant, workers were exempt from service.
The Chicago Studebakers signed six Harlem Globetrotters players (Duke Cumberland, Bernie Price, Sonnie Boswell, Roosie Hudson, Tony Peyton and Hillary Brown) to challenge Toledo. 1946 marked the 20th anniversary for the Globetrotters, and while the NBL was busy trying to make up for lost players, they were busy entertaining crowds around the world. The Globetrotters played their 3,000th game in Vancouver British Columbia, and were featured in the pages of Time LIFE Magazine in the Dec 2, issue of that year. Other teams in the NBL began to add African Americans to their rosters, including Cleveland, Tri-Cities and Rochester. Ultimately, the two teams that pioneered integration, the Studebakers and the Chevrolets, folded and so did the NBL.
The League was replaced by the National Basketball Association, and 1950 proved to be a very good year. Red Auerbach drafted Charles 'Chuck' Cooper to his Boston Celtics team, making him the first African American player to be drafted to an NBA team. Former Harlem Globetrotter and first baseman for the Chicago American Giants, Nat 'Sweetwater' Clifton, followed as the first African American to sign with an NBA team when he joined the New York Knicks. But it was Earl Lloyd who was the first African American to take to the hardwood in his inaugural game with the Washington Capitols. Lloyd later became the first African- American to serve as a bench coach for the Detroit Pistons, 12 games into the 1971 season.
In the next ten years the NBA saw the arrival of prominent African American players like Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson and Elgin Baylor. While Bill Russell dominated the defense of Auerbach's Boston Celtics dynasty, Chamberlain was leading the attack for the Philadelphia 76ers. Chamberlain set records that few have broken, and remains the only player to have scored 100 points in a single game. Robertson led the 1960 Olympic team and played in the NBA for 14 years with the Cincinnati Royals and the Milwaukee Bucks.
Meanwhile, Elgin Baylor was busy taking the Los Angeles Lakers to the NBA Finals eight times (Although they never won). Basketball's deliberate integration of more than one player to the hardwood opened doors to players who have astounded audiences for generations. Players like Chamberlain, Julius Erving, Shaquille O' Neal, and Michael Jordan paved the way for today's superstars like Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, Lebron James and Tim Duncan. Mitchell & Ness Nostalgia Co., which specializes in authentic throwback jerseys of players past, ranks Shaq, Larry Johnson and Magic Johnson among their top selling NBA jerseys for fans looking to pay tribute to the heroes of the hardwood. Though the fanfare didn't come in one big rush as it did in other sports, basketball remains a sport for all ages.
Fans will continue to pay tribute to some of the NBA's finest as the 2006 NBA All-Star game approaches and spectators gear up for what should be a spectacular show. .
By: Nina Nocciolino