They cleared the lane
Earl Lloyd, a middle-aged educator from Detroit, was walking through Detroit Metro Airport in the early 1980s when he spotted a cluster of tall, trim young men, towering over the other travelers at up to seven feet tall. They weren't difficult to identify as a group of pro basketball players, even if one failed to notice the team insignia that adorned their gym bags. There was something else characteristic of the group: most of the young men were black. Their height, color, age, and lanky appearance all added up to distinguish them as a basketball team, and since Lloyd had been a longtime follower of the NBA, he recognized many of their faces.
The temptation to gawk, perhaps even the inclination to search for a piece of paper on which an autograph could be scrawled, probably crossed the minds of many of the other people who noticed the players. Not Lloyd's. His thoughts did not turn to adulation. Instead they turned to a forgotten history that few can appreciate with his depth of understanding.
"It's really funny," Lloyd said. "I was walking through an airport one day and here come the Indiana Pacers, all these young black kids. I just spoke to them –'How you doing?'– and they don't have any idea who I am. Not that they necessarily should know."
The man those players acknowledged with barely more than a nod was the first black athlete to play in an NBA game. Lloyd, who by then was in his fifties, feels no bitterness or resentment that they didn't recognize him. "How would they know who I was?" asked Lloyd, who had a respectable but unspectacular nine-year NBA career. Yet there is an important point to be made: "It's just ironic," Lloyd said, "that here's the past passing by the present and the future and they both know nothing about each other."
Neither those Indiana Pacers nor most sports followers understand that the door to integrating the NBA wasn't burst open by a flood of black players. Instead it was nudged open, inch by inch, by a trickle of players throughout the first twenty years of the league's existence.
That trickle began on October 31, Halloween night, 1950, in Rochester, New York, when six-foot-six Earl Lloyd played his first NBA game. It was, to his recollection, an uneventful evening in terms of what occurred immediately before, during, and after the forty-eight minutes of play between Lloyd's Washington Capitols and the Rochester Royals. Lloyd was listed as a guard in that game, his pro debut, and he played a commendable though not starring role by scoring six points and grabbing a game-high ten rebounds in Rochester's 78-70 victory.
The Northeast had long seen a smattering of black college and professional players, and Lloyd's appearance attracted so little attention the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle reporter George Beahon didn't even mention him in the game story. Beahon did mention Lloyd in a second story about a press conference held earlier that day, but the reference amounted to only the following: "The Caps, incidentally, launch their home campaign tonight against the Indianapolis Olympians. Among other rookies, coach Bones McKinney has Earl Lloyd, rugged Negro guard, who appears to be a find. He was a draft choice from West Virginia State."
The Rochester Times-Union's Al C. Weber noted only that after Rochester took a 43-29 halftime lead, "Bones McKinney, the Caps' new coach, injected big Earl Lloyd, Negro star of West Virginia State into the lineup and he took most of the rebounds."
Yet Lloyd knows that those forty-eight minutes dramatically changed the face of the NBA, and eventually pro basketball worldwide, forever. When Lloyd stepped onto the court that Halloween night he ended the four-year period of what could be called the original WNBA – the White National Basketball Association. He took the league to a higher level merely by adding brown to its all-white palette of skin color.
The next evening Chuck Cooper, the former Duquesne University star forward who six months earlier had become the first black player drafted by the NBA, debuted with the Boston Celtics in their season opener in Fort Wayne, Indiana. It was a momentous day in Celtics history and not just because Cooper's presence foretold the arrival of future black Boston Hall of Famers Bill Russell, KC Jones, and Sam Jones. It also was a turning point for the franchise because head coach Red Auerbach, ballhandling phenomenon Bob Cousy, and high-scoring center "Easy" Ed Macauley participated in their first games as Celtics as well. Over the next twenty years they were directly and indirectly responsible for winning eleven of the Celtics championship banners that hang from
On November 4 in a game against the Tri-Cities Blackhawks, Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton took the court for the first time as the New York Knickerbockers' new six-foot-eight center. On May 24 of that year (1950) he had become the first black player with star quality to sign with an NBA team as a result of his previous exploits as a member of the famed black touring basketball teams, the New York Renaissance and the Harlem Globetrotters.
In midseason, on December 3 Hank DeZonie, another former member of the Rens and the Globetrotters, completed the foursome of black NBA groundbreakers when he played for Tri-Cities, a franchise from Davenport, Iowa, and Moline and Rock Island, Illinois. DeZonie's NBA career lasted only five games before he quit in disgust over the off-court racial discrimination he faced. Yet in those pioneering days just getting into five games was beyond what nearly every other black player would achieve.
Fifty years ago the debuts of those four players left a barely perceptible imprint on the NBA, the sports press, and America's sports fans. Clifton and Cooper were valuable but unspectacular additions to their teams. Lloyd played only seven games before he was drafted again – this time by the U.S. Army – to serve during the Korean War. DeZonie collected Tri-Cities paychecks for less than a month.
Besides, Jackie Robinson had initiated the big integration splash – actually an integration tidal wave – when he broke major league baseball's blatant color barrier in 1947. Compared to Robinson the NBA's pioneers didn't cause even a mild ripple on the calmest of lakes, or so it seemed. But the result a half-century later was an astounding change: a league in which by the year 2000 about 80 percent of the players and 90 percent of the stars are black; a twenty-nine-team NBA with franchises in the United States and Canada and thirty-seven players from twenty-five countries outside the United States; a financial bonanza that from 1976 to 2000 saw the players' salaries soar from an average of $130,000 to $3.2 million, the highest among all professional athletes in
Lloyd, Cooper, Clifton, and DeZonie, and the sprinkling of other black players who followed them until Bill Russell became the first black NBA head coach in 1966, can proudly point to an exemplary lineage. But they were only the midway point of the play-for-pay black player story, which dates all the way back to Harry "Bucky" Lew in 1902. William Himmelman's comprehensive research found that seventy-three black players participated in predominantly white professional basketball leagues before 1950, including those who played in the Chicago tournament that crowned basketball's acknowledged World Championship team from 1939 to 1948.
"It's a very impressive, long list," said Himmelman of Nostalgia Sports Research, "and having talked to many in the past, I know how proud they were of it and how upset they were that everyone looks at Cooper and Lloyd as the Jackie Robinsons. They were more the Pumpsie Greens, who was the last of the major league baseball
It all began with Bucky Lew, whose account of his first game with his hometown Lowell, Massachusetts, team, the Pawtucketville Athletic Club in the New England Basketball League, was described in a newspaper article by Gerry Finn that appeared in the Springfield [Massachusetts] Union on April 2, 1958. A team representing the town of Marlborough was the opponent when that game was played on November 7, 1902 and Lew was a mere
"I can almost see the faces of those Marlborough players when I got into that game," said Lew, who was seventy-four when the article was published. "Our Lowell team had been getting players from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and some of the local papers put the pressure on by demanding that they give this little Negro from around the corner a chance to play. Well, at first the team just ignored the publicity. But a series of injuries forced the manager to take me on for the Marlborough game. I made the sixth player that night and he said all I had to do was sit on the bench for my five bucks pay. There was no such thing as fouling out in those days so he figured he'd be safe all around.
"It just so happens that one of the Lowell players got himself injured and had to leave the game. At first this manager refused to put me in. He let them play us five on four but the fans got real mad and almost started a riot, screaming to let me play. That did it. I went in there and you know . . . all those things you read about Jackie Robinson, the abuse, the name-calling, extra effort to put him down . . . they're all true. I got the same treatment and even worse. Basketball was a rough game then. I took the bumps, the elbows in the gut, knees here and everything else that went with it. But I gave it right back. It was rough but worth it. Once they knew I could take it, I had it made. Some of those same boys who gave the hardest licks turned out to be among my best friends in the years that followed."
Finn wrote that five-foot-eight Lew, who previously had played ball at the Lowell YMCA, completed the season with the Lowell team, then played two years for Haverhill, where he gained a reputation for defense and hitting long-range set shots. Doing the latter was quite a challenge, for the style of basketball that Lew described was antiquated compared to today's game. For instance, there were no bank shots because there was nothing to bank a shot on.
"The finest players in the country were in that league just before it disbanded and I always wound up playing our opponent's best shooter," Lew said. "I like to throw from outside but wasn't much around the basket.
"Of course, we had no backboards in those days and everything had to go in clean. Naturally, there was no rebounding and after a shot there was a brawl to get the ball. There were no out-of-bounds markers. We had a fence around the court with nets hanging from the ceilings. The ball was always in play and you were guarded from the moment you touched it. Hardly had time to breathe, let alone think about what you were going to do with the ball."
Especially if Lew was guarding you. Himmelman, an expert on the first fifty years of pro basketball, said that during Lew's era the forwards were a team's principal scorers. Centers were needed mostly to rebound and take the center jump after every basket, while two other players specialized in in "guarding" the opponent's
"Generally the teams would groom people to be the defensive specialists, and that's what Bucky Lew was," Himmelman said. "They weren't asked to score; they were just asked to shut down opposing forwards. And he was one of the best at that. He was one of the best ten defensive players of that first era, but not one of the best overall players." That distinction was reserved for high scorers such as Ed Wachter, Harry Hough, and Joe Fogerty.
The New England League changed its name to the New England Association and disbanded after the 1905 season. For the next twenty years Lew barnstormed around New England with teams he organized, and in 1926 when he played his final game in St. John's, Vermont, he was forty-two years old.
The majority of pro basketball leagues were located in Massachusetts, New York, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Camden, New Jersey. Most of them played their games after players got off from their daytime jobs and travel was difficult then so teams didn't venture far or often from their homebases. Teams would travel into other areas for a week or two each year, especially if another team had a well-known player. When teams traveled to Massachusetts and played Lew's team, a strange but typical form of racism often occurred. "Teams would go up and play there and nobody ever voiced an objection to playing against him as a black player until they played him and he would shut down their best player," Himmelman said. "Then all of a sudden, they would say we don't want to play against a Negro player. They just used that tactic to get him off the court for the next game. It was like using race as a scapegoat-type excuse."
Between the time of Bucky Lew's first game and 1950, a smattering of black players participated in predominantly white pro leagues. In 1907 Frank "Dittola" Wilson played with the Fort Plain, New York, team in the minor Mohawk Valley League, and in 1935 Hank Williams played center for the Buffalo Bisons in the Midwest Basketball Conference's first season.
The pace of integration was agonizingly slow, however, and few black players had the opportunity to earn a living from pro basketball until Bob Douglas, a resident of New York City who had emigrated from the British West Indies in about 1902, founded the New York Renaissance traveling pro basketball team – the Renaissance Big Five – in 1923. Three years later Abe Saperstein organized the Harlem Globetrotters, another all-black traveling team. For the next three decades one of those two teams was the primary route to a pro basketball career for black players. But the route was extremely narrow because the Rens and Globetrotters carried only about eight players apiece.
"The only way blacks had to go, so the ball players were tremendous at that time – the sixteen best in the
In 1963 the Rens were named to the Basketball Hall of Fame as a team. Only their arch rivals, the Original Celtics, and the Buffalo Germans received the same honor. The Rens' selection was well-deserved, for despite traveling and playing throughout America when the harsh effect of segregation was common and often legal,
The Rens were named after the Renaissance Casino Ballroom in Harlem, where they played their first game on November 3, 1923, a 28-22 victory over a white team called the Collegiate Five. The ballroom was owned by William Roach, who allowed the dance floor to double as a basketball court to accommodate Douglas's team. It was far from an ideal site for basketball, preceding the era of the beautiful, tailor-made arenas of today's game. "It was rectangular, but more box-like," said former Rens star Pop Gates, arguably the best player of his day.
"They set up a basketball post on each end of the floor. The floor was very slippery and they outlined the sidelines and foul lines. It wasn't a big floor. It was far from being a regular basketball floor. Other than high
Dance halls lost their popularity in the late 1920s when the Depression strangled the economy and deprived people of spare cash. According to Susan J. Rayl in her Pennsylvania State dissertation, "The New York Renaissance Professional Black Basketball Team, 1923-1950," lagging attendance convinced Douglas to send his team on the road in 1928 in the Midwest. In 1933 they began barnstorming the South. Beginning in 1931 he had assembled a team so skilled that it was nicknamed the Magnificent Seven because of the excellence of its key players: Charles "Tarzan" Cooper, Clarence "Fat" Jenkins, John "Casey" Holt, James "Pappy" Ricks, Eyre "Bruiser" Saitch, William "Wee Willie" Smith, and Bill Yancey.
The highlight of the Rens' long history was an eighty-eight-game winning streak from January 1, 1933, through a game on March 27, 1933, when they lost to the Original Celtics. From 1932 to 1936 the Rens had a remarkable 497-58 record. "Our basketball heroes were the New York Rens and I used to see them play," Gates said. "I'd sneak in or get 50 cents to watch them play." He also had seen them practice because the Harlem YMCA, where Gates played ball as a youngster, was a practice site for the Rens.
Gates starred at Ben Franklin High School in New York. Because predominantly white colleges almost never recruited black players at the time, he attended black Clark University in Atlanta for a short while before dropping out because of a lack of funds.
"Coming from poor parents, and I don't want to condemn the college, but they had a very poor training table, so I more or less stayed hungry all the time," Gates said. "My parents did the best they could – send me $1 a month. You could buy a package of cupcakes and a container of milk. I relished that package of cupcakes and container of milk and made it last the best I could."
Gates couldn't tolerate the situation for long and decided to go back to New York. He said that through the kindness of Mrs. Logan, one of his mother's friends, he was given enough money to return home.
Gates began playing for the Harlem Yankees, who scrimmaged against the Rens to help the Rens' preseason conditioning. The Rens ended up signing Gates in 1938 for a salary of $125 a month, which doesn't sound like much until you compare it to the $17 a month that Gates recalls his father earned doing odd jobs. Thus began a career that spanned eighteen years, capped by Gates's induction into the Hall of Fame in 1988.
At the end of his rookie year Gates was the Rens' leading scorer with 12 points when they won the championship game in the World Professional Basketball Tournament in Chicago. The Rens lost the last World Championship in 1948, 75-71, against the Minneapolis Lakers, soon to be an NBA power. That game hadn't been forgotten by Rens forward George Crowe forty-three years after it occurred. This same George Crowe later had a solid, nine- year career as a major league baseball first baseman and pinchhitter. "I remember they had us down 18 at the half and we came back," he said in 1991. "We went one point ahead of them and Sonny Woods stole the ball and he gave it to Sweetwater Clifton and Sweetwater threw a pass behind his back and it went out of bounds. He threw that ball away and that cost us the World Championship."
The Rens emphasized passing rather than dribbling on offense "because the ball can travel faster by air than by dribble," Gates said. He wasn't much of an outside shooter, preferring instead to drive to the basket for his points. "I was a running, cutting player," he said. "I was ambidextrous."
The Rens barnstormed throughout the East, Midwest, and South, playing about one hundred games a year and taking on the best teams cities and towns could assemble. In Art Rust's Illustrated History of the Black Athlete, Douglas said the Rens traveled about thirty-eight thousand miles a year to games as far away as Iowa, Wyoming, and New Orleans. While the team hit the road Douglas stayed in New York and arranged the bookings. The nation's widespread racial discrimination of course made traveling a hassle; Gates remembered that conditions were especially aggravating in New Jersey, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. "You couldn't go in a restaurant," he said. "If you didn't have a Negro area to go to, you had to go to a grocery store and buy food from there. Cookies, you make a sandwich or buy canned whatever – do whatever you could connive to eat." Often they would play in a small town, then drive up to two hundred miles to a larger city where accommodations
The life was enjoyable as the young players traveled in the team bus nicknamed "The Blue Goose" driven by Tex Burnett. It carried ten people – a club secretary, eight players, and often a trainer – and seniority and stature ruled the seating arrangement.
"Tarzan Cooper was a big man on the team," Gates said. "He was sitting at the very front right by the door. He guerrillaed that seat. The rookies, when I came to the Renaissance, I was sitting at the very rear end of the bus. If you were a rookie, 'Go to the rear, rookie.' The club secretary [Eric Illidge] always sat near the front, as did player-coach Fat Jenkins. But Tarzan Cooper, he had the choice seat because he was the tallest, the biggest, the baddest, and strongest and so-called best ballplayer on the team. He was at the front where all the leg room was; he could stretch out. And anything that came into the bus had to go by Tarzan Cooper first before it got to the rear. If my mother or wife or sister sent a big cake out to me, before the cake gets to me it had to go by Tarzan. He had to get his slice first."
Almost anything was a topic of conversation: what players had done the night before, chatter about upcoming opponents, arguments about who was the best baseball player, trivia questions like which city had the largest population or how many games did Babe Ruth win as a pitcher. "It was a lot of fun, laughing and talking in the bus," Gates said. "Ride the bus from four to eight hours, and if you're not running your mouth, you're sleeping."
Simultaneously, the Harlem Globetrotters slowly began to thrive. Originally the team was named the Savoy Big Five after its home court in the Savoy Ballroom in Chicago. A twenty-three-year-old white promoter named Abe Saperstein began to book games in outlying towns starting with a contest on January 7, 1927, in Hinckley, Illinois.
The team traveled throughout the Midwest and Northwest playing so-called straight basketball, but was able to beat teams so badly that they began to add comedic and ballhandling routines to keep fans entertained while the home team was being overwhelmed on the court. Featuring such stars as Bernie Price, Babe Pressley, and Sonny Boswell, the Globetrotters established themselves as part of basketball's elite when they defeated the
"When the game was over, we all hung out together", said Isaacs. "No problem. But once we got out on the floor, it was see who's going to come out. You beat us or we beat you."
"This is a fallacy that people have, that the Globetrotters were not good ballplayers," Gates said. "They were excellent ballplayers."
It wasn't until the 1940s that the Trotters' comedy routines became their dominant style of play, yet they proved they still were skillful basketball players when they upset the Basketball Association of America's Minneapolis Lakers in serious basketball 61-59 in 1948 before a sellout crowd of 17,583 in Chicago Stadium, and 49-45 on February 28, 1949, as a crowd of 20,046 at Chicago Stadium watched the wizard-like ballhandling of Marques Haynes.
These same Laker teams featured future Hall of Famers George Mikan at center and Jim Pollard at forward, and beginning in the 1948-49 season they won five of the next six NBA championships. "A lot of recognition should go to Pop Gates, including some who played with the Trotters, including Zack Clayton and Ermer Robinson," said Haynes, who played with the Trotters from 1946 to 1953 and again from 1972 to 1979, a span of thirty-three years.
"All were great talents and proved their abilities against the NBA teams, including the Lakers. We beat them a number of times and, of course, they beat us. During those years we had the best talent in the world when it comes to black players."
Mikan wouldn't argue with that assessment. "There was no monkeying around," he said, referring to the lack of clowning around during their games. "He [Saperstein] had an excellent group of guys. They had Marques Haynes, who could dribble the ball, Goose Tatum, who was quite proficient as a pivot man, Babe Pressley, who guarded me, and a guy named Ermer Robinson who made the shot that beat us before twenty-one thousand at Chicago Stadium. [That was in 1949. Actually Robinson's twenty-footer had beaten the Lakers in their previous game, in 1948.] There was a lot of cheering from both sides. It was quite a day for everyone."
Organized pro basketball leagues as we know them now were still in their infancy, much the same as integrated rosters were. A smattering of leagues were formed in the East and Midwest beginning in the early 1900s of Bucky Lew's day, but nothing that compared to the stability of major league baseball. While college basketball thrived, pro players often competed against each other in small towns and haphazard, short-lived leagues.
By the 1940s two main leagues had survived. The Basketball Association of America (BAA) in the Northeast was created on June 6, 1946, by eleven arena owners, ten of whom owned or operated teams in the National and American hockey leagues. The exception among them was Miguel "Mike" Uline, who owned an arena in Washington DC. The businessmen had first come together to form the Arena Managers Association of America so that they could coordinate scheduling dates for extremely popular ice shows. In 1946 they formed the BAA to fill open arena dates during the hockey offseason.
The National Basketball League (NBL) was formed in 1937 of thirteen teams in the Northeast and Midwest. It had teams in some big cities but was dominated by small-town teams from places that one would never imagine having an NBA franchise today, like Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and Hammond, Indiana. Because so many players
At this time manufacturing companies often sponsored NBL teams. The 1942-43 season began with five teams, one of which was the Toledo Jim White Chevrolets. To make up for players he had lost because of the war, team owner Sid Goldberg signed five black players: Al Price, Bill Jones and Casey Jones (who were unrelated), Shannie Barnett, and Zane Wast. The team broke up after losing its first four games.
One of the teams, the Chicago Studebaker Champions, was the first thoroughly integrated pro team with its four white players and six black players. The latter all were former Harlem Globetrotters, according to Michael Funke's article "The Chicago Studebakers" that appeared in Solidarity Magazine published by the United Auto
Studebaker was a major automaker in Indiana that had built a factory in Chicago to manufacture military airplanes. Its player-workers were exempt from the military draft. A white NBL star, Mike Novak, already was employed by Studebaker. "And it was outside that plant where Roosie Hudson was standing one day in 1942 while another Globetrotter, Duke Cumberland, was inside applying for a job," Funke wrote. "Hudson was invited inside by a company official who recognized him from seeing him play with the Trotters at Studebaker's South Bend, Indiana, plant. Urged to contact some other Trotters, Hudson called Bernie Price from an office phone. Price, in turn, contacted Sonny Boswell. In the meantime, Novak contacted Dick Evans and told him he could
Everyone, except the security guards Evans and Novak, was a UAW Local 998 member. "It's disputed whether three other former Trotters – Babe Pressley, Ted Strong, and Al Johnson – also played for the Studebakers.
Evans, a Chicago native who played college ball at Iowa, said Novak informed him about the team because they had been teammates on the NBL's Chicago Bruins during the previous season. To Evans the fact that there would be black players on the team wasn't important. "He told me who the [former Trotters] were and we knew each other, but I don't recall the emphasis being on integration," Evans said. "It's just that these guys are [at Studebaker] and this is the kind of team that we have. We had a lot of respect for those guys."
Evans said he hadn't known any of the black players personally but believes he had seen them play with the Globetrotters several times. Novak was on the Chicago Bruins team that lost the 1940 World Championship to a Trotters team that included Price, Boswell, and Cumberland.
Although having a totally integrated team was a first at least in the pros, Evans said he didn't receive any criticism from friends about having black players as teammates. "They thought it was pretty good to play on a team like that," Evans said. "I never remember anybody saying, 'How can you play with those guys?' because we had a lot of respect for them. And people who saw the games thought it was great. They [the black players] were just like us. Some good guys and some were wise guys. They were just like we were."
Evans said that neither the white nor the black players dominated the team. "We respected those guys and they showed respect for us," Evans said. Funke acknowledges that there was a dispute between Boswell, who supposedly took too many shots, and Novak, who demanded that Boswell pass the ball to his teammates.
Evans said he knew nothing about it, and that may be possible since he played in only nine games. In Cages to Jump Shots by Robert W. Peterson, Hudson was quoted as saying their disagreement "had nothing to do with race," and the four players that Funke interviewed, including Evans, all agreed that the integrated team got along well.
"I had some good friends [among] the blacks and some I just got along with and some I didn't do nothing with,"
The team with the UAW logo on their uniforms finished the season last in the league with an 8-15 record. Yet they had functioned in an integrated team environment that the NBA wouldn't see for another twenty years, when during the 1962-63 season both the St. Louis Hawks and the San Francisco Warriors each had six black players on their rosters.
During the 1943-44 season New York Rens star center Wee Willie Smith, by then thirty-two years old, played four games for the Cleveland Chase Brass, and in the 1946-47 season Les Harrison, the owner of the Rochester Royals, took another step forward when he asked Gates and center-forward Dolly King, a former football and basketball standout at Long Island University, to join his team. Harrison needed an infusion of talent when several players, including center John Mahnken, left the Royals and jumped to the BAA. Harrison's teams had previously played exhibition games against the Rens, for whom both Gates and King had played, so he was familiar with the pair.
Like many athletes of his day, Dolly King was a multi-sports star. His basketball coach, the legendary Clair Bee, often recalled that on Thanksgiving Day 1939, King accomplished the awesome feat of playing the full sixty minutes of a football game against Catholic University and then that same night playing an entire forty-minute basketball game at Madison Square Garden. He was the leading scorer in both games.
Despite their prowess as athletes, however, Harrison felt it necessary to assess his players' acceptance of black teammates before bringing new players on board. "We got together with our whole team and said we need players and I've played with them before and I feel we should accept blacks and will you guys go along with it, and they said yes," Harrison said. King signed on October 15, 1946, the first day of training camp. At six-foot-four and 217 pounds he became a valuable reserve frontcourt man for Rochester. The Royals compiled the league's best record at 31-13, but lost the championship series to the Chicago Gears and their six-ten center George Mikan, later the NBA's first superstar.
Harrison said he had encouraged Ben Kerner and Danny Biasone to bring expansion teams into the NBL, but warned them both that he planned to sign some black players. "I said, 'Will you take a chance? We're breaking the color line. We'll have it difficult. Will you accept it?' They said 'yes.'" Kerner's team was the Buffalo Bisons, which, after four subsequent location changes, are now the Atlanta Hawks. Biasone's Syracuse Nationals were the forerunners of the Philadelphia 76ers.
"Then Ben called and said you only need a big man, Dolly King [because Rochester had outstanding guards in Red Holzman, Bobby Davies, and Al Cervi, all future Hall of Famers]. Why don't you sell me Pop Gates and we'll go through it together?" Harrison said. "I liked that, so I didn't sell him to him. I gave him to him, and they did play that season."
King experienced the usual problems finding restaurants that would serve him. Indiana especially stuck in Harrison's craw. "When we got into Indianapolis, I'll never forget the Claypool Hotel," Harrison said. "They served us in the utility room where the dirty laundry was." Harrison laughed about how when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1979, NBA great Oscar Robertson told him, "Don't worry about the Claypool Hotel. It burned down."
On September 28, 1946, Gates signed his contract with the Buffalo Bisons, a stark example of how much the financial nature of pro sports has changed. At the time Gates was one of pro basketball's elites, a star who had played on two World Championship teams. Yet his contract paid him $3 a day meal money on road trips, $5 a day during training camp, and $1,000 a month during the season.
After compiling a 5-8 record, the Buffalo team moved to the Midwest, where they became the Tri-Cities Blackhawks. Gates, listed as a six-two, 205-pound forward, played in forty-one of their forty-four games and averaged 7.6 points, the third best on the team. Yet the next year the Blackhawks wanted to cut Gates's salary
Gates heard rumors that he and King were dropped from the league because Gates had been involved in several fights during games. "But everybody else was fighting," he said, so those rumors didn't make sense to him. Eventually he was told a much different story. It wasn't until the 1980s that Gates was told that the NBL had
"Because Eric said, 'I can't get my team. You've got two of my best ballplayers [Gates and King] playing with this league. I want them back with the Renaissance,'" Gates said. Gates said he never mentioned it to Illidge. But the 1948-49 season lent credence to Gates's suspicions. The Detroit Vagabonds NBL franchise dissolved on December 17, 1948, with a 2-17 record. The franchise was awarded to Dayton, Ohio, and the New York
"We really didn't want Dayton, Ohio, as our home court, but the league insisted," Douglas said in Rust's book. "The people in Dayton just refused to attend our games. They would not accept an all-black club.
"Despite a lack of size, a lot of our players being over the hill, a thin bench, and DeZonie's illness, which caused him to miss the last eight games, our club – the only all-black franchise in the history of major league sports – built a competitive 14-26 record over the rest of the season. That season proved to be the last for the Rens."
While the NBL dabbled with integration, the Basketball Association of America remained white. It had a chance to integrate in the fall of 1947, when Douglas asked to have the Rens admitted to the BAA as a franchise. Despite strong support from his close friend, New York Knicks coach Joe Lapchick, Douglas's request was denied.
The NBL had the better players but the BAA was comprised of teams located in larger cities, and the 1948-49 season saw four of the strongest NBL teams – the Minneapolis Lakers, Rochester Royals, Ft. Wayne Pistons, and Indianapolis Krautskys – jump to the BAA. After the defection the NBL added four teams and survived the season, but the NBL was forced to disband and six of its teams were absorbed into the BAA on August 3, 1949.
The merged leagues were renamed the National Basketball Association, which began the 1949-50 season with seventeen teams and no black players. Did any of the white players notice?
"We should have," said Fred Scolari, a guard with the Washington Capitols. "The talk always came this way. The Minneapolis Lakers would play the Globetrotters in a series every year, and we would watch the game and then question whether those kids would be good enough to play in the league. I played against a guy in a Denver AAU [Amateur Athletic Union] tournament, a fella named [Ermer] Robinson, a great, great player who eventually
Ron Thomas is a journalist and has covered the NBA for 11 years
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