Sunday, March 3, 2013

the last book I ever read (King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution, excerpt nine)

from King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution by Aram Goudsouzian:

Until Bill Russell, professional basketball lacked a galvanizing emblem of African American excellence. Basketball lacked the status or history of baseball, so blacks had entered the NBA without the publicity, controversy, or metaphoric significance of Jackie Robinson. Most of the urban, college-educated whites populating “the city game” accepted blacks. Pop Gates and Dolly King joined the NBL in 1946, and six others enlisted with the Chicago Stags of the BAA in 1948.

But the NBA began without blacks. Abe Saperstein possessed a stranglehold on black talent, and the league owners hosted profitable doubleheaders with the Globetrotters. When Ned Irish of the Knicks tried signing Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton from the Globetrotters, most owners balked. Philadelphia’s Eddie Gottlieb also feared a racial floodgate. He predicted that “in five years, it’ll be seventy-five percent black and nobody will be coming to the games.”

So when Walter Brown drafted Chuck Cooper in 1950, it provoked consternation. “Walter, don’t you know he’s a colored boy?” someone asked. Brown replied, “I don’t give a damn if he’s striped or plaid or polka dot. Boston takes Charles Cooper of Duquesne!” The hardworking 6’6” forward played four years with the Celtics. Cooper endured segregation in Washington and Baltimore, as well as some on-court tussles after racial slurs. Don Barksdale had similar experiences during his Boston tenure from 1953 to 1955. Yet both men formed friendships with teammates, their bonds forged by travel and teamwork.

Blacks trickled into the NBA. After Boston drafted Cooper, Irish bought Clifton from the Globetrotters. Clifton became the first African American to sign an NBA contract. Earl Lloyd, drafted by the Syracuse Nationals, was the first to step on an NBA court. These players founded the fraternity of black professionals that Russell joined in 1956. Hosts looked out for visiting players. For instance, Lloyd and Russell advised each other on restaurants, clubs, and other amenities that welcomed blacks. Black players also shared stories about their particular hardships: eating room service in St. Louis, getting targeted for debris and spit from Fort Wayne fans, competing against other blacks for limited roster spots. As late as 1958, no team had more than two blacks, and St. Louis remained all white.

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