NESN.com is celebrating Black History Month by honoring the first black players in the histories of the Bruins, Celtics, Patriots and Red Sox. Stop by each day this week for a new retrospective on a different barrier breaker.
Chuck Cooper broke the NBA color barrier — and he did it right here in Boston.
The Hall of Famer became the first black player to be drafted by an NBA team in 1950. Cooper went on to have a solid career, but it wasn’t without adversity, and those hardships started the moment he was drafted.
Back before the draft became a media spectacle, business took place in a smoke-filled Chicago room behind closed doors on Apr. 25, 1950. A struggling Boston Celtics organization, which was coming off a 22-46 season and had yet to finish above the .500 mark in any of its first four seasons, needed to make some serious changes.
The Celtics had just brought in new head coach Red Auerbach, and as far as he and then-owner Walter Brown were concerned, the mindset was simple: Do whatever it takes to win more games. In their eyes, that meant drafting Cooper — a 6-foot-5 Duquesne University All-American, who led the Dukes to two NIT championship appearances and a 78-19 record during his time there.
The moment Brown announced the decision, he was met with immediate backlash.
“One of the other owners said, ‘You can’t take him, he’s colored!’ ” Cooper’s son, Chuck Cooper III, recalled in an interview for the Chuck Cooper Foundation. “And Mr. Brown said, ‘I don’t give a damn if he’s striped, polka dot, or plaid. Boston takes Charles Cooper out of Duquesne University, because he’s the best player available to help our franchise.’ ”
Brown did just that.
Cooper helped the team turn things around in his rookie season, as the Celtics landed second in the Eastern Division with a record of 39-30. The forward was ranked No. 12 in the league with 8.5 rebounds per game. Boston ended up getting swept by the New York Knicks in the first round of playoffs, but the 1950-51 season was historic for much more valuable reasons than wins and losses.
“When the NBA started, it was segregated. By Chuck Cooper being drafted, it was the ownership of the NBA saying that ‘we can accept integration in the NBA,’ ” Kareem Abdul-Jabbar recalled in an NBA interview.
That same year, Earl Lloyd became the first player of color to compete in an NBA game, and Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton became the first player of color to sign an NBA contract. Together, Lloyd, Clifton, and Cooper broke the NBA color barrier.
However, just because Cooper was drafted and playing in the NBA doesn’t mean the adversity stopped there.
During his time in the NBA, Cooper faced an enormous amount of racism. There were times when he wasn’t allowed in the same restaurants, hotels or cabs as the rest of his team. The hardwood didn’t offer much protection, either, as the crowd often shouted racial slurs at him during games.
But Cooper knew what he was doing was bigger than basketball, and with the support of his teammates, he forged on for a six-year NBA career (four years with the Celtics), during which he averaged 6.7 points and 5.9 rebounds per game. Cooper also played for the Milwaukee Hawks, the St. Louis Hawks, the Fort-Wayne Pistons and the Harlem Globetrotters.
Following his time in the NBA, Cooper returned to his hometown to continue work toward civil rights in Pittsburgh. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2019.
Thumbnail photo via Orlando Ramirez/USA TODAY Sports Images