In our ongoing celebration of Black History Month, we look back at some of the leaders, icons, and pop culture juggernauts that helped to bring diversity, equity, inclusion and representation to the forefront of the American landscape — like these men and women who left their indelible mark on the 1950s.
On April 25, 1950, a forward from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh changed the sporting world forever when he was drafted to the Boston Celtics. But it wasn’t Chuck Cooper’s place in the draft or the amount he would be paid that made headlines in 1950. It was the color of his skin. In a fact that seems almost incomprehensible today, Cooper was the first Black man ever brought into the National Basketball Association’s world of professional athletics.
Following his selection in the draft — which back then occurred in a smoky Chicago backroom rather than in front of a horde of press and media — Walter Brown, the owner of the then-new and still struggling to make a name for themselves Boston Celtics famously said to his detractors: “I don’t give a damn if he’s striped, polka dot or plaid. All I know is the kid can play basketball, and we want him on the Boston Celtics.”
Two other historic figures — Earl Lloyd and Nathaniel Clifton — joined Cooper as the inaugural Black players brought on to NBA teams that season, but Cooper’s presence immediately improved the Celtics’ performance on the court. The 6’5” No. 14 draft pick averaged 9.3 points and 8.5 rebounds in his rookie year. With his immense talent, Cooper helped the Celtics win 39 of their 69 games during regular play. It was their first winning season in franchise history. And more importantly, the racial barrier in another professional spot had been broken.
“When the NBA started, it was segregated,” basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar once noted in an interview looking back at the individuals who most inspired him in the sport. “By Chuck Cooper being drafted, it was the ownership of the NBA saying that ‘we can accept integration in the NBA.’”
Despite his historic place on the Celtics, Cooper was still widely discriminated against when he joined the team. After all, it was 1950: Rosa Parks had not yet refused to give up her seat on the bus, and the Civil Rights Movement was still in its infancy. Cooper often couldn’t eat in the same restaurants as his teammates, nor could he stay in the same hotels or take the same transportation. Racial slurs from fans in attendance at games were still all too common.
Despite the hardships, Cooper persevered. Throughout his career, he focused primarily on his game rather than his pioneering role in sports as a whole.
“Jackie Robinson took care of that when he broke the color line in baseball,” he once told a reporter in a 1976 interview, humbly downplaying the significance of his own achievement.
Luckily, his legacy hasn’t gone unnoticed.
In an interview with NBA.com, Cooper’s son, Chuck Cooper III, reflected on his father’s groundbreaking career, saying, “You think about today’s basketball world, and teams hire psychologists and motivational speakers to bring teams together. Back then, these people were ostracized from their teams. They couldn’t eat with the team at the team dinner or catch a cab ride to watch a movie together while they had some off time in many of the cities. So, for my father and Earl Lloyd, Sweetwater Clifton, Don Barksdale and all those early African American pioneers, for them to perform at the level that they did while dealing with all the hatred and the racism, to endure that and still perform at the level they did is pretty incredible.”