Game Changer

Earl Lloyd, Syracuse Nationals

Almost 80% of the players in the National Basketball Association this year are African-American.  That is in sharp contrast to 1949, when the percentage was zero.

Back then, NBA franchises included the Fort Wayne Pistons, the Rochester Royals, the Syracuse Nationals, the Minneapolis Lakers.  The players wore shorts that were basically satin briefs, exposing a lot of (white) leg.

In 1950, professional basketball’s color barrier was broken as it had been in baseball three years before.  Even people who aren’t baseball fans know Jackie Robinson’s name and his historic role in changing the game, but ask almost anyone who the NBA’s first black player was and you’ll probably get a shrug.

That may be partly due to the fact that there are three different players who have a claim.  Chuck Cooper was the first African-American drafted (by Boston) and Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton was the first to sign an NBA contract (with the New York Knickerbockers).  The first to actually play in a game, however, was Earl Lloyd, with a team called the Washington Capitols.

A 6’6″ forward, Lloyd played in the 1950 season opener on October 31st against the Rochester Royals.  Washington lost 78-70, but Lloyd had a respectable 10 rebounds to offset his meager offensive output of six points.  Cooper debuted with the Celtics the following day, and Clifton played his first NBA game three days after that.

Another reason Jackie Robinson is so widely known while the NBA pioneers aren’t is the degree of sucess he had.  In that first tension-filled season, Robinson was Major League Baseball’s Rookie of the Year — he was among the leaders in several statistical categories, including runs scored and stolen bases.  He went on the be the National League MVP in 1949, was a six-time All-Star, member of a World Series championship team (1955), and was ultimately inducted into the Hall of Fame.

In contrast, Clifton and Lloyd had solid but unspectacular careers, although it is worth noting that Sweetwater Clifton made the NBA All-Star team in 1957.  After being traded to Syracuse, Earl Lloyd contributed to the Nationals’ 1955 championship.  Meanwhile, Cooper played for three teams in six seasons.

Years later, Earl Lloyd also acknowledged the different circumstances the pioneers faced.  “I  don’t think my situation was anything like Jackie Robinson’s,” he said, “a guy who played in a very hostile environment, when even some of his own teammates didn’t want him around.”

Still, somebody had to open the NBA’s door to African-Americans, and as Lloyd told the Associated Press recently, “I’m glad I was part of something that helped pave the way for others.”

Considering that the average salary for NBA players is now in excess of $5 million, those three players paved a superhighway.  It seems unlikely that anyone who plays in the NBA will ever have to follow the path Nat Clifton took when his basketball career ended:  “Sweetwater” spent the rest of his life driving a taxi.

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6 responses to “Game Changer

  1. In February of 1948, the Harlem Globetrotters played an exhibition game against George Mikan and the Lakers in front of 20,000 people in Chicago. Barring a couple of dribbling routines, this was a serious basketball game. Much like the crossover barnstorming tours in baseball, this exhibition was a wakeup call to the NBA (NBL at the time), that basketball was not just a white man’s game. The Globetrotters won that game 61-59. Two years later, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton would be the first African American to sign with an NBA team after his contract was purchased from – wait for it – the Harlem Globetrotters.

    • Thanks for your comment, Brian. One can’t help but wonder what the athletic “Sweetwater” Clifton might accomplish if he was a current player, with the up-tempo style that is now popular. Back then, it was common strategy to get a lead and then freeze the ball. There was a game between Fort Wayne and Minneapolis in 1950 (Clifton’s first year) that had a final score of 19-18. The 24-second clock was introduced in the 1954-55 season — it’s probably not a coincidence that his best years came after that.

  2. Any of you reading the above two comments now have some idea what dinner conversations were like in our home.

  3. The name Chicago Lakers makes sense? LA Lakers? Not at all.

    • The relocation of teams created some odd combinations. When the New Orleans franchise moved to Salt Lake City, the team became known as the Utah Jazz. I don’t know about you, but I don’t associate Utah with a thriving jazz music scene.

  4. There are pictures of quilts next to each comment, Mom. Those are for you.

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