How Chuck Cooper became the first African-American player to break the color bar in the NBA

On April 25, 1950, Celtics owner Walter Brown selected Cooper for his team, famously saying he didn’t care if Cooper was 'striped, plaid or polka dot,' and that he was the most talented player in the draft.


                            How Chuck Cooper became the first African-American player to break the color bar in the NBA

Basketball was a white man's game when it was first invented in 1891. Historical records claim it was devised by a future Presbyterian minister, who was, at the time, teaching a physical education class to a bunch of unruly students at a YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts. When it first started, the game featured peach baskets and incorporated elements of rugby. Furthermore, basketball was originally played indoors, before it gained popularity in colleges and lead to the formation of an all-white league around it.



 

African American players constitute 72.2 percent of the NBA today, according to the Unofficial 2013 NBA player Census. However, the National Basketball Association had zero black athletes at one point.

It was only four years after the league's inaugural season that league bosses decided to break the color barrier, taking inspiration from Major League Baseball, who did it first. The man who did it was  Charles "Chuck" Cooper, who became the first African American player to be drafted by an NBA team on this day in 1950. 

Boston Celtics Coach Red Auerbach (L) talking to Chuck Cooper. (R) (Chuck Cooper Foundation)

While talking about pioneering Basketball legends from the African American community, we immediately think of stalwarts such as Bill Russell in 1956, Wilt Chamberlain in 1959, or Oscar Robertson in 1960. However, there were a select few groundbreakers who laid the foundation for the growth of these aforementioned stars. These renegades possessed the courage to join the NBA and brave the socio-political backlash, both on and off the court. One can arguably say athletes like Cooper, using their unwavering determination and grit, changed the cultural landscape forever and made a lasting impression on the game

Prior to landing a spot on the Boston Celtics, Cooper, a  Pittsburgh native, became a star for the Duquesne University Dukes while attending Westinghouse High School.

And now after years, Cooper was listed to be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame class of 2019 - an accolade long overdue.

Cooper was selected by Boston Celtics owner Walter Brown on April 25, 1950. (Chuck Cooper Foundation)

Until his graduation from high school in 1944, Cooper was an All-City player in Pittsburgh. He went on to serve in the military during World War II and later returned to enroll at Duquesne University, where he scored more than 1,000 points for the Dukes as an All-American, and lead the team to several national tournaments. In 1950, he graduated from university and joined the all-black Harlem Globetrotters. 

Cooper was selected by Boston Celtics owner Walter Brown on April 25, 1950. At the time, he famously said he didn't care if he was “striped, plaid or polka dot,” but he wanted Cooper on the team owing to his extreme talent. Cooper would become the first of three black players to play professionally that year.

In his NBA debut on November 1, 1950, Cooper played against the Fort Wayne Pistons. He went on to play for four years with the Celtics before he was traded to the Milwaukee Hawks. Nearing the end of his career, he also played for the Pistons and the Harlem Magicians before ultimately breaking his back in a car crash. 

Prior to landing a spot on the Boston Celtics, Chuck Cooper became a star for the Duquesne University Dukes while attending Westinghouse High School. (Chuck Cooper Foundation)

During his NBA career, Cooper played a total of 409 games, scored 2,725 points for an average of 6.66 points per game, had 2431 rebounds for an average of 5.9 per game, and had 733 assists for an average of 1.79 per game.

Post his retirement from the game in 1956, Cooper attended the University of Minnesota and earned his masters degree in social work. He then returned to his hometown in Pittsburgh and decided to give back to society, running anti-poverty organizations and serving on the school board.

In 1970, Cooper crossed another milestone in the ongoing societal revolution when Mayor Pete Flaherty appointed him as the head of Parks and Recreation, making him the first African American to lead a city department.

Charles "Chuck" Cooper died in 1984.



 

The Chuck Cooper Foundation was established in 2013 to provide graduate-level scholarships to students who completed service projects and gave back to society. It is run by his son Cooper III, who told WESA the "service element is an important tenet of his father's illustrious legacy."

Chuck Cooper will be officially inducted into the Hall of Fame this September for breaking the color barrier that was instrumental in launching the NBA to unimaginable heights. Cooper is considered to be one of the most influential players in the sport's history. He is now set to be immortalized in Duquesne, where the board has plans to name its new field house after him.