In the Time of B.K. (Before Kobe)

Match the old-school baller to his team:

1. Elgin Baylor a. Philadelphia 76ers
2. Wes Unseld b. Detroit Pistons
3. Nate Thurmond c. Baltimore Bullets
4. Dave Bing d. Los Angeles Lakers
5. Hal Greer e. San Francisco Warriors

Unless you’re a basketball history junkie, or like me you were following the sport in the ’60s and ’70s, those names probably mean little to you. That’s just the nature of time, I suppose, for while they were great players in their day, very few athletes in any sport come readily to most minds a generation or two after their heyday.

But shouldn’t the names Earl Lloyd, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, Chuck Cooper, and Hank DeZonie register? Even though they were active a full decade before any of the players listed above, they’re important for more than their on-court skills. In the 1950-51, they became the players who desegregated the fledgling National Basketball Association.

Yes, you read that correctly. Way back in its early years, the NBA was all-white. Years before Spike Lee-directed sneaker commercials and high schoolers signed multimillion-dollar contacts; years before players brought hip-hop culture (cornrows, tats, and baggy shorts) into the league and dress codes strove to regulate some of it (hip-hop casual attire) back out; years before some would openly pine for a “great white hope” to counterbalance the preponderance of black superstars; and years before basketball far outpaced baseball and football in providing coaching and management opportunities for blacks, pro basketball was strictly a white man’s world.

They didn’t command big bucks and they’d never know the level of celebrity of today’s counterparts, but the early black players transcended the sport and were vital to creating this legendary black cultural institution; otherwise known as basketball.

It wasn’t always like that. In the ’20s and ’30s, when basketball itself was still a young sport, it existed mostly at the collegiate and amateur levels. There were professional teams and leagues, but nothing remotely close to the level or organization we know today. A handful of blacks played with some of those teams, but the best opportunity for black players to get paid was through barnstorming teams like the Harlem Globetrotters and the New York Renaissance (known popularly as the Rens). Some black players got signed to teams in the National Basketball League, forerunner to the NBA, in the early ’40s, and the Rens joined the league as a franchise after World War II. But the league did not survive to see 1950. By then the remnants of it and another early league, the Basketball Association of America, had coalesced to form the NBA.

Black players weren’t part of the NBA at first, mostly by the same “gentleman’s agreement” mentality that kept baseball lily-white until Jackie Robinson in 1947. It wasn’t until 1950, when Lloyd, Clifton, Cooper, and DeZonie were signed to contracts that black players were welcomed into the league, and then only grudgingly at best (it’s been maintained that a quota system for managing roster spots and playing time existed for years beyond the league’s integration).

Dave Bing

But while Robinson is duly celebrated as an icon of American history, his visage on postage stamps and Wheaties boxes, and the three or four biographies written over the years, the blacks who paved the way for the Kobe Bryants and LeBron James’s of today have barely received any recognition at all (the same can be said of the black footballers who re-integrated pro football after World War II — the National Football League actually had black players in the ’20s, but segregated itself during the Depression). That’s partly because 50 years ago, pro basketball didn’t occupy a lot of attention in the sports landscape (neither did pro football), so the emergence of black players wasn’t seen as the crumbling of a high-profile bastion of racism. It was a big deal for basketball, but hardly anyone cared about basketball, so it didn’t have the same impact as blacks entering baseball, with its national-pastime status.

The integration of the NBA remained an unheralded story because for many years and for whatever reasons, few people bothered to tell it. Perhaps the black presence in the league had become so matter-of-fact that no one ever wondered how it got to be that way. But the information was out there, in old newspaper clippings and archives and the recollections of the remaining players and sportswriters who followed pro ball from the start. Ron Thomas researched the early history of blacks in pro basketball, and while his They Cleared the Lane: The NBA’s Black Pioneers (University of Nebraska Press, 2002) has some factual errors and isn’t always a compelling read, it’s the first effort to get the story down for the ages, and it does important work.

A couple of years ago, the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies wanted to mount an exhibit as part of a community commemoration of Martin Luther King’s work. Using Thomas’ research as a jumping-off point, the Memphis-based National Civil Rights Museum and the National Basketball Hall of Fame developed an informative exhibit, complete with a timeline from the first black pro player (Harry “Bucky” Lew, 1902) to the first black pro owner (Robert Johnson, 2002). “The Quest for Equality: African American Pioneers in the Sport of Basketball” opened at the museum in 2002, and is touring selected NBA cities this season (it’s currently at the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia, and will be in Houston next month for the league’s All-Star Game).

The exhibit is rather short on artifacts (an old lace-up basketball and other gear from the game’s earliest days, some jerseys and sneakers from recent times), but its eight panels of information reveal the extent of the black presence in basketball throughout the first half of the 20th century. Viewers learn of college players like George Gregory, Jr., Columbia’s captain in 1930-31 and the first black All-American. We see how the game benefited from the playing, coaching, and refereeing talent that developed at black colleges. And we learn that there were black women hooping it up well before the WNBA.

But “The Quest for Equality” is short on the black experience in the NBA. It mentions the discrimination the first black players experienced with lodging on the road, and refers ever so briefly to “second-hand treatment by coaches, teammates, and fans,” but there’s no sense of how they overcame all that to prosper and thrive in the league. Thomas’ book is notable for capturing the accounts of such behavior from newspaper articles and interviews with some of the early black ballers, thus giving them the pages in a history book they deserve (for the record, DeZonie lasted only five games, but Lloyd, Clifton and Cooper went on to have successful playing careers.)

Aside from Thomas’ reporting, the literature of basketball remains woefully short on such matters. The latter-day game is well-covered: there are almost enough books on Michael Jordan to justify a bibliography, and cultural critics Nelson George and Todd Boyd have weighed in on the complicated relationship between masculinity, black style (especially hip-hop) and basketball. But the long passage from racial quotas to racial dominance is still pretty much unheralded and under-documented.

Fortunately, some recent books begin to fill in that gap. John Taylor approached The Rivalry: Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and the Golden Age of Basketball (Random House, 2005) as a meditation on conflict, but found a larger story to tell. Russell and Chamberlain were the NBA’s first two dominant black centers; Chamberlain-led teams in Philadelphia, and Los Angeles faced Russell’s Boston Celtics several times in the playoffs during the ’60s — and almost always lost. Taylor not only chronicles the story of their battles, but also places it within the larger context of civil rights-era cultural politics. Russell and Chamberlain were virtual opposites in many respects, but in their own ways of being physically powerful, freethinking black men, they both suffered the slings and arrows of the stodgy white establishment. (Also worth noting here is the most recent Chamberlain biography, Robert Allen Cherry’s Wilt: Larger Than Life (Triumph Books, 2004.)

One of their contemporaries was Oscar Robertson, a talented guard who gave rise to the term “triple-double”: he averaged double figures in points, rebounds, and assists for the 1961-62 season; a feat not since accomplished by Jordan, Magic Johnson or anybody else. His 2003 memoir The Big O: My Life, My Times, My Game (Rodale) tells how he encountered racism growing up in Indianapolis, in college at the University of Cincinnati, and as a pro with the Cincinnati Royals. Robertson was one of the activist leaders who helped start the NBA Players Association, and in the ’70s he won a court case that paved the way for the stratospheric salaries players enjoy today.

No understanding of the black history in basketball is complete without the Globetrotters, who didn’t necessarily start out as wholesome family entertainment. They were serious players in the barnstorming era; and proved their mettle in a pivotal 1948 match-up with the reigning, all-white pro powers, the Minneapolis Lakers. Ben Green’s Spinning the Globe (Amistad, 2005) is the first major biography I’ve seen of the team and organization, which has transcended sport to become a legendary black cultural institution.

This season, the NBA is mounting a large promotional push to frame its players as far from a bunch of brooding thugs who listen to and make gangsta rap, pop off outrageous statements, and beat up people in the stands. Each national broadcast makes prominent mention of the “NBA Cares” charity projects going on across the country, and there’s that dress code imposing some sartorial discipline on grown men making millions of dollars. But the league would do just as well to help tell and spread the story of how both the sport and the business grew, thanks in large measure to the talent and sacrifices of its first black stars. As athletes from across the world find their way into the league, as youngsters here grow up knowing even Jordan only as some guy with his name on some sneakers, and as the central figures in that story move through their golden years (Cooper passed in 1984, Clifton in 1990, and Chamberlain in 1999), it’s a story that needs to be captured and held up among all the other legendary tales of the game.

P.S.: Oh yeah, the answers: 1-d 2-c 3-e 4-b 5-a