Color Commentary How African-Americans broke into pro basketball and changed it forever

June 09, 2002

On Nov. 7, 1902, Harry (Bucky) Lew was paid $5 to play for a team
from Lowell, Mass., in the New England Basketball League, making
him the first African-American professional basketball player.
There were no backboards in those days, so Lew's deadeye set shot
was quite an asset to the club. But there was no fouling out,
either, and that gave every white bigot on the floor a license to
go after him. "I took the bumps, the elbows in the gut, knees
here and everything else that went with it," Lew remembered with
satisfaction more than 50 years later, "but I gave it right back.
It was rough but worth it."

It certainly was. Basketball today is globally popular and a
multibillion dollar business in no small part because
African-Americans like Lew insisted on taking the court despite
decades of resistance and abuse. In They Cleared the Lane
(University of Nebraska Press, $29.95) San Francisco sportswriter
Ron Thomas has produced a tribute to these men that is full of
surprises.

Perhaps the biggest is how smoothly the NBA was integrated in
1950, as compared with major league baseball three years earlier.
Chuck Cooper, the first black player drafted, says, "There
certainly was never any racial problem within the Celtics," the
team that picked him. Earl Lloyd, the first African-American to
play in an NBA game, says he "didn't have one problem with one
player overtly." Name-calling from opponents was rare, and when
it did happen, a guy could depend on his white teammates to back
him up.

The chief issues these pioneers faced were abuse from fans and
the refusal of some restaurants and hotels to serve or house
them. Sometimes the players were stared at in sheer disbelief by
wide-eyed white kids who'd never seen an African-American. "Go
ahead and touch me," Cooper used to say. "The black won't run
off."

The book's most intriguing point is that African-Americans have
not only contributed to the game of basketball but also
transformed it. Baseball is played much the same today as it was
when Jackie Robinson broke in, but Wilt Chamberlain introduced an
entirely new way of playing center, forcing the league to change
the rules to take away some of his advantages. Bill Russell
similarly revolutionized the position on defense. Elgin Baylor
all but invented the above-the-rim game, and Oscar Robertson
patented the triple double.

All of this is old news to old-timers, but plenty of younger
Americans could stand to learn it, including certain NBA players
who act as if they had invented dribbling. While walking through
the Detroit airport in the early 1980s, Lloyd happened to pass
the Indiana Pacers. Not one player recognized him. Lloyd says he
wasn't insulted but rather saddened to think of "the past passing
by the present...and they both know nothing about each other."
Perhaps Thomas's book will help the two get acquainted.

COLOR PHOTO: DINO VOURNAS/EXAMINERFRESH TAKE Thomas's book offers up surprises. COLOR PHOTO: UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS B/W PHOTO GROUNDBREAKER Lloyd integrated the NBA in '50.

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