Most Americans are familiar with how Major League Baseball, whose 76th anniversary was recently celebrated, has been integrated. Jackie Robinson broke the color line in 1947, and before then black players had to play in the black leagues.
But what about professional basketball? Who was the first African-American in the NBA and when did he join?
A recently released film, “Sweetwater,” sheds light on this previously little-known chapter in professional sports history. It’s an important story and a good movie that recognizes former New York Knick Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton as the trailblazer he was for African-American players in the NBA. But like many Hollywood stories, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
On May 24, 1950, Clifton signed a contract with the Knicks. While the film and elsewhere identified him as the first black player to sign an NBA contract, many sources say the distinction actually belongs to Harold Hunter, who signed with the Washington Capitols a month earlier, but was cut in camp.
Clifton played his first NBA game on November 4, 1950. But once again, he was not the first African-American to do so. On October 31, 1950, Earl Lloyd made his debut in a game for the Capitol. And the next night, Chuck Cooper, who was the first African American drafted by the NBA when the Boston Celtics drafted him earlier that year, became the second black player in an NBA game.
This is not to take anything away from Clifton. Like Lloyd and Cooper, it took a lot of guts and character to do what he did. And like Lloyd and Cooper, he was a solid, steady player in the NBA, and in that first season, he helped lead the Knicks to their first NBA Finals appearance.
Clifton, Lloyd and Cooper are sometimes referred to as the “First Three” (or “First Four” when including Hank DeZonie, who signed with the Tri-Cities Blackhawks on December 3, 1950) and are considered together as the pioneers original African Americans in the NBA.
It would be a highlight of the story if the doors opened for black players after those initial signings, and NBA rosters were soon assembled without regard to race. But that didn’t happen either.
For the decade of the 1950s and into the 1960s, most NBA teams followed an unwritten but unquestionable quota regarding the number of black players per team. It started with one per team, grew to two, and by the early 1960s there were three or four to a team. Moreover, NBA teams wanted black players to do the essential job of playing defense, boxing and rebounding, but they did not want their black players to be scorers or stars.
In his autobiography, “Moonfixer: The Basketball Journey of Earl Lloyd,” Lloyd wrote, “nobody said it, but it was whispered that most of the black guys who made it to the early NBA were big, physical guys who weren’t expected to do so. be cerebral. They let the white guys run the team on the floor and sent the black guys under the hoop to do the hard work, which has been the pattern in this country for a long, long time.”
So where did many of the great black players of the 1950s and early 60s go to play, especially the historic black college and university scorers and graduates? That would be the Eastern Professional Basketball League, a weekend league located in small, blue-collar, mining, and factory towns in and around Eastern Pennsylvania, such as Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, Hazleton, Sunbury, Allentown, and Trenton.
In the 1950s, many black players with prolific scoring ability entered the Eastern League, including Hal “King” Lear, Tom Hemans, Julius McCoy, Dick Gaines, Wally Choice and Stacey Arceneaux. The top four scorers in Eastern League history and six of the top 10 are African-American players who entered the league between 1955 and 1958. (Two others in the top 10—Bill Spivey and Sherman White—were banned by the NBA for their involvement in the 1951 college scandal.)
The Eastern League had the first all-black starting lineup in an integrated professional basketball league in 1955-’56, nine years before the Boston Celtics did in the NBA in 1964. And while the NBA continued to plays a relatively deliberate style, the Eastern League was already playing a high-scoring, fast-paced, above-the-rim style of play a decade earlier.
Indeed, in 1964 the Eastern League adopted the three-point shot from the short-lived American Basketball League of the early 1960s. And when the American Basketball Association came into existence in 1967, it required the three-point, style of play free-flowing, high-scoring and about 25 of the best players in the Eastern League and it changed the way the game is played. today.
The film “Sweetwater” sheds a long overdue light on the first generation of black players who opened the doors to the NBA for African-Americans. May that light shine more widely to recognize what former NBA player, coach and Eastern League player Ray Scott called the people “of character and intellect whose stories may never have been told” who s -toiled in the Eastern League waiting for the doors to open a little wider. .
Syl Sobel (firstname.lastname@example.org) co-authored, with Jay Rosenstein, Boxed Out of the NBA: Remembering the Eastern Professional Basketball League, which is now being developed into a documentary film.