In 1950, Earl Lloyd, Chuck Cooper and Nat Clifton became the first Black players to make their presence felt in the NBA. While players like Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain are credited as being two of the most notable NBA players from the early days, Lloyd, Cooper and Clifton don’t get the same credit for their place in the early NBA.
Today, as we approach Black History Month, we’re taking a look back at the first five Black players to make an impact in the NBA, both on and off the court.
#5, Chuck Cooper
Before the 1950 NBA season, Chuck Cooper made NBA history by becoming the first Black player to be drafted into the league. With the 14th pick of the 1950 draft, the Boston Celtics selected Chuck Cooper, who had signed with the Harlem Globetrotters after finishing college.
When Celtics owner Walter A. Brown was questioned about taking Cooper because of his skin color, he famously proclaimed:
“I don’t give a damn if he’s striped, plaid or polka dot. Boston takes Charles Cooper of Duquesne.”
#4, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton
Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton was the first Black player to ever sign an NBA contract that wasn’t scrapped. Before that, he had served in World War II before playing for the Harlem Globetrotters for two years. During the offseason, he played first base for the Chicago American Giants in the Negro League as a sensational two-sport professional.
Thanks to his ballhandling abilities, the 6-foot-8 forward signed with the New York Knicks, who he helped reach the NBA Finals in his first year on the team.
#3, Earl Lloyd
Earl Lloyd was the first Black player to ever check into an NBA game. After leading West Virginia State to two Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association conference and tournament championships in back-to-back years, he joined the NBA. There, he made history with the Washington Capitols when he appeared in seven games for them during the 1950-51 season.
After the team relocated to Syracuse, Lloyd spent six more seasons with the team, winning a championship during the 1954-55 season.
Above, you can view the “Inside the NBA” crew discussing Lloyd’s death in 2015.
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#2, Wilt Chamberlain
A man who needs no introduction. In an era when few Black players competed in the NBA, Wilt Chamberlain was an absolute powerhouse. To date, he holds numerous records that likely will never be broken, including his famous 100-point performance in 1962 and his 50.4 ppg average from 1961-62.
As a player who competed in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, Chamberlain’s status as one of the first stars in the league cannot be denied.
#1, Bill Russell
Bill Russell was without a doubt a pioneer both on and off the court. After joining the league in 1956, Russell dominated the league, winning 11 championships in 13 seasons. Plus, Russell was more than just one of the first Black players to dominate the NBA, he was also a civil rights leader.
Known for his relationship with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, he famously took part in the 1963 March on Washington. As a civil rights leader and NBA superstar, Bill Russell is widely credited with being the voice of early black NBA players.
Below, you can view him reflecting on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.
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