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.