Today’s NBA features a bevy of African-American superstars as the sport has far evolved beyond its predominately white past. During the 1950-51 season, a quartet of Black players broke the color lines, paving the way for the future of the league.
Chuck Cooper was the first Black player drafted into the NBA, selected first in the second round by the Boston Celtics. The 6-foot-5 small forward and shooting guard average nearly seven points and six rebounds per game in a six-year career with the Celtics, the Milwaukee/St. Louis Hawks (now Atlanta) and ending with the Fort Wayne (now Detroit) Pistons.
Forward and Center Nathaniel “Sweetwater” Clifton was the first of the group to sign a NBA contract with the New York Knicks. Before his professional basketball stint, Clifton played for the Harlem Globetrotters and was also a baseball player in the Negro Leagues. Clifton’s NBA career lasted 11 seasons, ending with the American Basketball League’s Chicago Majors at 40 years of age. Clifton’s charitable work after basketball continued, and in 2005 the Knicks named its “City Spirit Award” in the player’s honor.
Small forward Earl Lloyd got the jump on his colleagues by becoming the first Black player to debut in the NBA with the Washington Capitols. He then played for the Syracuse Nationals and ended his career in 1960 with the Detroit Pistons. Lloyd also coached the squad for the 1971-72 season.
Power forward and center Hank Dezonie is less heralded in the group because he only played one season. Dezonie was quoted as saying that the racial discrimination he and the other Black players faced became too much for him and he walked away from the game. However, basketball historians have done their part in keeping his name in the conversation of the game’s Black pioneers.
Lloyd, now 86, is the only living member of the group today. In 2009, Lloyd’s biography, “Moonfixer: The Basketball Journey of Earl Lloyd” was published.