By Dan Magers
Where would basketball be today if it wasn’t for black players? They have changed the entire outlook on the game. If James Naismith, the inventor of basketball, watched a game today, he would be amazed at how different everything is. African-Americans have affected the game of basketball forever.
It’s the 1966 NCAA Basketball National Championship. The clock is winding down in the game and the score shows 72-65. One team was Kentucky, a powerhouse in college basketball. They were 27-1 coming into this game and had arguably the best player-coach duo in the country with Pat Riley and Adolph Rupp. Riley was averaging twenty-two points and nine rebounds a game and was the SEC Player of the Year that season. Rupp is one of the best coaches in college basketball history with a career record of 876-190. He was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame just two years after this National Championship was played. The other team was the Texas Western Miners, the unknown team that squeezed their way into the Final Four after a controversial regional final game against Kansas. The Miners were also 27-1 entering the title game, but didn’t have as tough of a schedule as Kentucky. They were a very inexperienced group when it came to the National Championship. However, as the clock hit zero, the Miners were celebrating their first ever National Championship as they completely stunned the Kentucky Wildcats. This game is considered the biggest upset in college basketball history, but there is much more to the story.
Don Haskins is a huge contributor to bringing African-Americans into basketball. Texas Western was coming off of a 12-12 season in 1961 under head coach Harold Davis.8 Davis was fired after the season, and Haskins was brought to the helm. He didn’t have any college coaching experience, but had coached girls and boys high school basketball. At the time, not many teams were playing a lot of black players, so Haskins used this to his advantage. He started recruiting them.18 This paid off as Haskins, in his fifth season, got his team a national championship. The special part about this though is that he started five black players for the title game. With a total of seven on the team, the Miners squared off against an all white team in Kentucky. Texas Western proved that African-Americans could play with anyone.
A lot of people who follow sports know about the Negro Leagues in baseball. Jackie Robinson played there before breaking baseball’s color barrier in the 1940s, but most people don’t know about the Black Fives. Beginning in 1904, this was the basketball league for only African-Americans. A man named Claude Johnson decided to dedicate an exhibit to the Black Fives. “There are ‘dozens and dozens’ of all-black teams that played basketball before 1950 — and that their legacy reflects the changing face of America at the time. They are in parallel with the evolution of black culture, black society — and they are a mirror of the way America evolved, the way the game evolved,” Johnson says. “You know, the pioneers of the game, for all of us, not just for black descendants, but anybody who loves the game and who loves sports.”
In 1945, Germany surrendered and World War II would soon be over. People began to think about a future of no war in America. Entertainment was in this future. That meant sports would be coming back. Baseball was the main sport of the time and people were looking forward to its return. Football, hockey, and horse racing were also looking to come back and make a huge splash in the sports world. Basketball however, did not have a professional league, but people wanted to take advantage of the excitement after the war. On June 6, 1946, they created the Basketball Association of America, which would later be called the National Basketball Association. The meeting was held in New York; they started with eleven teams and played sixty games a season. The future of basketball seemed bright.
For the first three years of the league, there were only white players. Then in 1950 the Black Fives ended and Earl Lloyd made history. Lloyd was the first African-American to ever play a game in the NBA. He wasn’t alone though. Chuck Cooper and Nat Clifton were drafted in 1950 along with Lloyd. Cooper was the first one to get taken with pick fourteen of the second round. These men are huge contributors to bringing equality between blacks and whites.
The 1950s were dominated by white players. Blacks were just starting to get their feet wet as there were only a couple that really made an impact. The one that stood out the most was Maurice Stokes. “Stokes was the NBA’s first great black player, but he played just three seasons before a devastating head injury left him afflicted with post-traumatic encephalopathy, paralyzed and tragically dead by 1970.” At this time fans came to see great fundamentals, defense, and hustle. George Mikan led the Minneapolis Lakers to five titles and created one of the first huge dynasties. This would be the only decade of white dominance as four black players, who are considered as some of the greatest of all time, entered the league in the late fifties and would dominate the sixties.
The 1960s was a decade that told whites to watch out. The best player was William Felton (Bill) Russell. He was a part of the Boston Celtics, who won nine out of the ten championships in the sixties. He was the key to their dynasty and he made everyone around him better. Don Nelson, a three-time NBA coach of the year, once said “There are two types of superstars. One makes himself look good at the expense of the other guys on the floor. But there’s another type who makes the players around him look better than they are, and that’s the type Russell was.” He played the game at a level no one had seen before. Russell had five Most Valuable Player Awards, was a twelve time All-Star, and had fifty-one rebounds in one game. With eleven titles to his name in thirteen seasons, Bill Russell undoubtedly changed basketball forever.
Wilt Chamberlain is another one of the greats of the sixties. Known for all the records he broke, he brought much interest to the game as people wanted to watch how dominant he was on the court. His scoring records were unbelievable. “Most games with 50+ points, 118; Most consecutive games with 40+ points, 14; Most consecutive games with 30+ points: 65; Most consecutive games with 20+ points: 126; Highest rookie scoring average: 37.6 ppg; Highest field goal percentage in a season: .727.” People said it was unfair for him to even be playing. He was one of the first seven-foot players ever and he used it to his advantage. The records were crazy and the man was fun to watch. People came to see him play. They didn’t care what his skin color was. Wilt is one of the greats that will never be forgotten.
Elgin Baylor was also one of the greats of this game. He didn’t have the kind of stats Wilt did, but his play did most of the talking. “‘He was one of the most spectacular shooters the game has ever known,’ Baylor’s longtime teammate Jerry West told HOOP magazine in 1992. ‘I hear people talking about forwards today and I haven’t seen many that can compare with him.’” Baylor made a mark in the game with his athletic style of play that some people might see in today’s NBA.
Another player from this great generation was Oscar Robertson. This man was a stats machine. Until 2017, he was the only player to ever average a triple double in a season. “During his 14-year NBA career with the Cincinnati Royals and the Milwaukee Bucks, Robertson became the top-scoring guard of all time, amassing 26,710 points.” Although he was great in the NBA, his biggest contribution to African-American sports history would have to be when he was a teenager. He played for Crispus Attucks, an all-black high school. They were the most dominant high school the country had ever seen. This Indianapolis high school took home three state championships in the late fifties. In 1955, they were the first ever all-black high school in the country to win a state title. The next year they took home another championship going 31-0 becoming the first high school from Indiana to have an undefeated season. Robertson was the leader of this great high school finishing his career with thirty-nine points in a 79-57 win to give him two state titles and a legacy that will be remembered forever.
These four men revolutionized the game of basketball. They were the ones that started a slow integration of black dominance into the league. In the next decade, the 1970s, players began to craft their game after these greats. There were two main players that everyone associates the seventies with.
One of these players was Julius Erving. Every kid wanted to be like Dr. J. His style of play was so unique that the NBA might never see it again. “‘As a basketball player, Julius was the first to truly take the torch and become the spokesman for the NBA,’ said friend and former coach Billy Cunningham. ‘He understood what his role was and how important it was for him to conduct himself as a representative of the league. Julius was the first player I ever remember who transcended sports and was known by one name — Doctor.’ He will always be known as the face of his era.
The other great of the seventies was a man who came into the league known as Lew Alcindor but later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. His accomplishments are by far some of the best of all time. He won his first NBA title in 1971 for the Bucks and later won five more championships with the Lakers in the 1980s. This man not only won six MVP awards in the seventies, he also has the most points all time by any player in league history. He is without a doubt a top five player of all time. If it wasn’t for Jordan, many would consider Kareem the greatest to ever put on a uniform.
The other story being played out during the eighties was the rivalry between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Bird was drafted in 1978 by the Celtics, and Magic was drafted in 1979 by the Lakers, but the rivalry had started before this. In the 1979 NCAA National Championship game, these two met for the first time. Bird was trying to lead his Indiana State Sycamores to an undefeated season, but Magic denied that opportunity as he led Michigan State to the title. It took these two a while to get going in the NBA, but they met in 1984 in the NBA Finals. Bird took this title home, but the implications were much greater. People were starting to realize that this was becoming more than a rivalry. It wasn’t just Bird vs. Magic, but it was also white vs. black.
Racism was very alive at the time as it has always been, but Bird vs. Magic brought a whole new aspect to the topic. Boston was known at the time for being a white city. Larry Bird came from French Lick, a small white town in Indiana, and had a blue-collar background. He seemed perfect for the Celtics. The Lakers on the other hand were seen as more of an African-American team with three black stars leading the way in Magic, Kareem, and James Worthy. These two players each came out with their own converse shoe. Each white kid wore Bird’s and each black kid wore Magic’s. They were helping the game of basketball but some might say they hurt the world around them.
The Lakers and Celtics met two more times in the eighties. Magic got back at Bird and took both of them home. Those were two of the greatest teams of all time in maybe the best era of all time. From the 1960s to the 1980s, blacks slowly came into the league and changed everything about it. By now black dominance was known in the game of basketball, and it set up perfectly what was next to come.
Michael Jordan is considered to be the greatest basketball player of all time. He played the game a way that no one will ever see again. His athletic ability and fundamental soundness to the game gave him a clear advantage over everyone. Almost every great player will praise his game. Magic Johnson once said, “There’s Michael Jordan and then there is the rest of us.” Larry Bird even called him “God disguised as Michael Jordan.” ESPN conducted a survey asking athletes, media members, and others related to sports to rank the greatest athletes of the twentieth century. Jordan beat out everyone including Babe Ruth and Muhammad Ali. This just shows how far ahead of his time Michael really was. There is no player that can compare to him; no one will ever be better than Michael Jordan.
In the twenty-first century basketball is known as an African-American sport. If someone were to look at the best players in the league, it would take a while to find a player that wasn’t black. As of December 11, 2016, Bleacher Report ranked the top twenty-five players in the league right now. Out of all twenty-five, only three players did not have African-American descent. The twenty-first century has seen some amazing players. Kobe Bryant, a black player who won five championships for the Lakers, is one of the greatest of this generation along with Shaquille O’Neal, Kevin Garnett, and Allen Iverson. The player that stands out the most though, is Lebron James. He is the only one that people think can be better than Jordan. It is hard to compare them at two different positions, but Lebron has a way of taking over the game that people love to watch. With so many blacks in the league, today’s NBA is a lot different from the NBA fifty years ago.
African-Americans are known as some of the best athletes the world has seen. In basketball, it is no different. In 2015 Bleacher Report ranked the top 100 greatest players of all time. Each player was given a score based on playoff performance, career contributions, MVP awards, and other important metrics. Out of the 100 players, sixty-eight of them were either African-American or were of African-American descent, and the top seven players were all African-American.6 This just shows how much of an impact blacks have had on the league.
African-Americans have affected the game of basketball forever. When they came into the league, they showed how great they really could be. Every decade got more dominant, and now today the league is almost entirely black. One of the best white players ever, Larry Bird, once said “It is a black man’s game and it will be forever.”