Chuck Cooper – First Black Player Drafted in NBA
April 25, 1950 – The NBA’s color barrier was officially broken when Celtics owner Walter Brown drafted Cooper, much to the dismay of fellow NBA owners.
According to a New York Times reporter, one owner said, “Walter, don’t you know he’s a colored boy?” To which Brown responded, “I don’t give a damn if he’s striped, plaid, or polka dot! Boston takes Chuck Cooper of Duquesne!”
Cooper made his Celtics debut on November 1, 1950 against the Fort Wayne Pistons, in a game that also featured the debuts of Hall of Famers coach Red Auerbach and guard Bob Cousy. Cooper averaged 9.5 points and 8.5 rebounds in 66 games during his rookie year. Ultimately, Cooper played four years with Boston, before one-year stints with the Milwaukee/St. Louis Hawks and the Fort Wayne Pistons. He finished his short career with averages of 6.7 points and 5.9 rebounds.
Harold Hunter – First Black Player to Sign with NBA Team
Harold Hunter was a stand-out guard from North Carolina College (now North Carolina Central University). Hunter led NCC to the title game of the CIAA. In the tenth round of the 1950 NBA draft, the Washington Capitols selected Hunter to join Earl Lloyd (the first African American to play in an NBA game) on the club. The next day, April 26, 1950, Hunter became the first African-American player to sign an NBA contract. Unfortunately, Hunter’s skill level was not enough to maintain a roster spot, and Hunter was cut during training camp.
Hunter would never get the chance to play in the NBA. Hunter would, however, go on to become the first African-American to coach the U.S. Olympic Team. Hunter would also send 17 players to the NBA while head coach of the Tennessee State University Tiger basketball program.
Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton – First Black Player in the NBA Finals
At the age of 27, Nathaniel "Nat" Clifton made the jump to the NBA. On May 24, 1950, Clifton signed with the New York Knickerbockers, becoming the second African-American player to do so. Unlike Harold Hunter before him, Clifton made the Knicks. In his rookie year, Clifton averaged 8.6 points, and 7.5 rebounds per game, while helping the Knicks advance to the franchise’s first NBA Finals. The Knicks would also advance to and lose the Finals in 1952 and 1953 as well.
After the 1957 season, one in which Clifton was named to the NBA All-Star team, he was traded to the Detroit Pistons. Clifton played only the Pistons’ inaugural season of 1958 in Detroit, averaging 7.7 points per game. In the summer of 1958 Clifton retired, and played baseball for the Detroit Clowns in the Negro Leagues. He played professional basketball again when he was coaxed out of retirement in 1961 for a short stint with the Chicago Majors of the American Basketball League.