It’s not strange today to find many African-American players, coaches, or general managers in the NBA.
This started in 1950 when three men beat the odds to become the first African-American players in the NBA. They were Charles “Chuck” Cooper, Earl Lloyd and Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton. All the three who broke the color barrier in the sport in 1950 and paved the way for other NBA greats have since passed away but their legacy lives on though only a few may know about their story.
At a time when sports, like the rest of the United States, were segregated, Cooper became the first African American to be drafted by an NBA team. Clifton became the first to sign an NBA contract. And Lloyd, a member of the Washington Capitols, became the first African American to play in an NBA game when he entered a game against the Rochester Royals.
The three were proud to have made history in the NBA three years after Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier in baseball. But it wasn’t easy for the three as they experienced racism during their playing days. Apart from enduring racist taunts, they could not stay in the same hotels, eat in the same restaurants or go to the same movie theaters as their teammates.
“I remember in Fort Wayne, Ind., we stayed at a hotel where they let me sleep, but they wouldn’t let me eat,” said Lloyd. “They didn’t want anyone to see me. Heck, I figured if they let me sleep there, I was at least halfway home.”
Despite the challenges, Lloyd and his fellow Black players were never bitter. They continued to prove their worth and helped make the NBA what it is today.
He made his debut with the Boston Celtics at age 24, making him the youngest of the three African Americans who entered the league in 1950. He was drafted by the Celtics in the second round of the 1950 Draft and had his best season as a rookie, averaging 9.9 points and 8.5 rebounds.
A native of Pittsburgh, Cooper served in World War Two. Upon returning from his service, he attended Duquesne University and had an amazing college career. One of his memorable moments in college was when he became the first African American to play in a college basketball game south of the Mason-Dixon line, according to a report by Fade Away World. Celtics’ owner at the time Walter A. Brown followed Cooper’s college career and wanted him, the report added.
When the owners of the other teams got to know that Brown had aims of drafting Cooper for the Celtics, they advised him not to because Cooper was African American.
“I don’t give a damn if he’s striped, plaid or polka dot. Boston takes Charles Cooper of Duquesne,” Brown reportedly said in response.
Cooper would play seven years in the league, averaging 6.7 points for his career. He passed away from cancer on February 5, 1984, aged 57. He was inducted as a player in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2019.
Drafted in the ninth round by the Capitols, he scored six points and pulled down a game-high 10 rebounds in his NBA debut, a 70-78 loss to the Royals. Growing up in segregated Virginia, he played at West Virginia State University and helped to lead his team to a 30-0 record in the 1947-48 season.
History shows that although Cooper was selected first, Lloyd became the first African American to play in the NBA by one day as Lloyd’s team scheduled to start the season a day before Cooper’s. So while Lloyd’s Washington Capitols played their first game on October 31, 1950, Cooper and the Boston Celtics played their first game on November 1, 1950. This made Cooper the second African American to play in the NBA.
Lloyd would play nine years in the league, averaging 8.4 points per game. He won a championship in 1955 as a member of the Syracuse Nationals and was inducted as a contributor in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2003. He died in February 2015 at the age of 86.
Although Cooper and Lloyd were the first two and only two African Americans drafted in the 1950–51 NBA Draft, they would not be the first African Americans to sign a contract with an NBA team. Clifton got that honor.
Thanks to his love for soft drinks as a child, Clifton was nicknamed “Sweetwater”. He was a native of Chicago and entered the NBA after having joined the Army during World War Two and later the Harlem Globetrotters. Clifton was playing for the Harlem Globetrotters in 1950 when the Globetrotters’ owner sold Clifton’s rights to the New York Knicks.
“For his career, Clifton averaged 10 points and 8.2 rebounds, and he made the 1956 All-Star team, scoring eight points in 23 minutes off the bench,” NBA writes.
After his career ended in 1958 when he was 35, he worked as a cab driver. He was driving his cab on August 31, 1990, at the age of 67 when he suffered a fatal heart attack.
“There’s so many different guys who paved the way for where we are now, so many different guys in our league and we’re so grateful for them,” Chris Paul said of Lloyd, Clifton, and Cooper. “Not just during Black History Month, but I think every month. All year round, we need to be grateful and thankful to those that paved the way.”
Clifton was inducted as a contributor in 2014 to the Basketball Hall of Fame.