Black History Month is an intentional time of honoring and celebrating the journey of African-American men and women whose lives and accomplishments transformed America in the face of a cultural divide.
Since basketball’s inception 120 years ago, African-American’s have cultivated the sport into the modern professional game we know and love today as the NBA.
The heritage of the hardwood is synonymous with black history. From the peach baskets to breakaway rims, the evolution of professional basketball is rich with contributions from countless African Americans. These men and women opened doors in the face of uncertainty, challenge, and fear. Their greatness resonates in every corner of our culture and has inspired generations to do likewise.
This Top 25 list is a timeline highlighting men and women who pioneered the integration of professional basketball. There are many more people who deserve to be on this list, that are absent. Their names and faces are not forgotten. They will forever embody the soul of the game.
Top 25 African American’s who pioneered the integration of Pro Basketball
(In chronological order)
(1) 1902: First black professional basketball player: Harry Haskell “Bucky” Lew
Born in Lowell, MA on January 4, 1884, Harry Lew’s grandfather fought in the Revolutionary War. His parent’s home was a stop in the Underground Railroad. The 18 year old was a talented basketball dribbler and defender who led his Y.M.C.A. team to the Merrimak Valley Championship.
He became the first black professional basketball player when Lowell’s Pautucketville Athletic Club of the New England League signed him to their team. The racism at the time was so strong that the coach refused to let him on the court, and opted instead to play four against five. When he eventually got playing time opponents physically attacked him and were verbally abusive.
In the face of unimaginable conditions Lew played for 23 seasons and retired at age 41. He was the first African-American to play in a professional basketball game in 1902.
After his basketball career, he lived the rest of his life in Springfield, MA. It is a travesty that Harry Haskell “Bucky” Lew is not yet enshrined into the Basketball Hall of Fame! (First black Pro Basketball player, SportsHaze, Spencer)
(2) 1904: Founder of the first Black Athletic Conference – Edwin Henderson
Born in 1883, Edwin Henderson learned to play basketball at age 21 at Harvard University. Henderson earned his nickname the Grandfather of Black Basketball for his organizational efforts of introducing basketball to other African-American’s in Washington D.C. in 1904. He formed the first African American Athletic Conference called the I.S.A.A. (Interscholastic Athletic Association). Thus the District of Columbia is considered the birthplace of black basketball.
2011 marks the 100th anniversary of the first back-to-back championship run. In 1910 and 1911 Henderson led two undefeated seasons with National Championships. The first season his team represented the Twelfth Street Colored Y.M.C.A. The second season, his team was adopted by Howard University as their Varsity squad.
This basketball innovator was co-editor of Spalding’s first handbook of the late 1910’s.
I can’t imagine why Edwin Henderson is not enshrined into the Basketball Hall of Fame! (The Grandfather of Black Basketball, SportsHaze, Spencer)
(3) 1923: The first black team-dynasty: New York Rens
The all-black New York Rens were the best basketball team for 25 years from 1923-1948. Their record of 2,588 wins and 529 losses is amazing. They were nearly unstoppable, winning 88 games in 86 days at one point. Their rival during this period was the all-white New York Celtics (the origins of today’s Boston Celtics). The Rens are one of three entire teams enshrined into the Basketball Hall of Fame. When Abe Saperstein saw the Rens play he was inspired to start his own team, the Harlem Globetrotters four years later. It’s a shame the New York Rens were overshadowed the past 85 years and largely unknown to today’s basketball fans. John Wooden once said, they were the greatest team ever.
Bob Douglas worked as a Porter and Messenger at the Renaissance Casino Ballroom in Harlem for 23 years before earning a management position. The Casino became the home court for his basketball team, for crowds exceeding 1000+ fans. The Rens prime years from 1931-1936 were led by their Magnificent Seven; Clarence “Fat” Jenkins, Bill Yancey, John “Casey” Holt, James “Poppy” Ricks, Eyre “Bruiser” Saitch, William “Wee Willie” Smith and Charles “Tarzan” Cooper.
In 1947 the ABL (American Basketball League) voted and denied the Rens entrance to their all-white league. In 1948, the ABL reconsidered and the Rens were in. However, it proved to be their downfall, as whites refused to attend their games, causing a financial disaster and the end of the New York Renaissance basketball team. Their last game was March 21, 1949.
In 1976 Charles Cooper became just the third African-American inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
(4) 1927: The Birth of basketball royalty: The Harlem Globetrotters
Two thousand years ago Jesus chose a dozen teenagers to carry His message of loving redemption to the world. It didn’t matter that they were just fisherman. Their message was radical for its time, and continues to challenge the norm today.
In 1923 Abe Saperstein chose the Savory Big Five (as they were called then), a handful of teenagers from Wendell Philips High School, to carry the wonder of basketball around the world. It didn’t matter that they were from Chicago, the Harlem Globetrotters were born. Their style of basketball was radical for its time. 85 years later, they continue to spread the good news of basketball around the world, as the game’s leading innovators.
In 1940 the Globetrotters won the World Professional Basketball Tournament.
Inman Jackson, Geese Ausbie, Goose Tatum, Marques Haynes, Curly Neal, Meadowlark Lemon, and Tay Firefly Fisher, are just a few of the Globetrotter superstars of past and present. They are one of only three entire teams enshrined in the game’s holy of holies, the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
The Harlem Globetrotters are the most recognized basketball team in the world.
(5) 1929: Founder of the Harlem Clowns: Al “Runt” Pullins
Born Nov. 23, 1909, Al Pullins was one of the best athletes in Chicago when he led his High School to a league championship. The 5’8” star player began his pro-career as one of the original Harlem Globetrotters in 1929. When team owner Abe Saperstein reduced players pay from $40 to less than $8 per game, Pullins and several other players left the Globetrotters.
Pullins started his own team, the Harlem Clowns in 1934. For nearly 50 years he delighted fans around the world with his talented show until two years before his death in 1985.
In 2010 the Harlem Clowns were resurrected in Pullins honor. A new tour is in the works.
(6) 1931: First all-black, all-female professional basketball teams: Chicago Romas and the Philadelphia Tribune Girls
40 teams sponsored by businesses made up the AAU in the 1930’s. Two of those teams were all-black, all-women’s teams. The Philadelphia Tribune Girls consisted of; Tennis great Ora Washington, Gladys Walker, Virginia Woods, Lavinia Moore, Myrtle Wilson, Rose Wilson, Marie Leach, Florence Campbell, and Sarah Litimore.
The Chicago Romas team featured; Corinne Robinson, Mignon Burns, Lillian Ross, Virginia Willis, Lola Porter, and Isadore Channels, who led an undefeated schedule against both men and women’s teams for six straight years between 1939-1945.
(7) 1937: First black male to play in the AAU league: William “Dolly” King
William “Dolly” King was an all-American at Long Island University in the early 1940’s. He starred in track, baseball, football, and basketball. He played for African-American teams: the Scranton Minors, New York Rens, and the Washington Bears.
In 1945-1946 King helped lead the Rochester Royals to a National Basketball League Championship.
(8) 1939: First black recipient of Most Valuable Player Award: Clarence “Puggy” Bell
70 years before LeBron James(notes) won his first of two MVP awards, Clarence “Puggy” Bell was the first African-American recipient of such an award. For 9 seasons Puggy led the New York Rens. In his 1939 rookie season he led his team to The World Professional Basketball Tournament championship and was also chosen MVP.
In 1957-58 season Bill Russell became the first African-American recipient of the NBA’s MVP award.
(9) 1939: John “Wonder boy” Isaacs: First Pro Basketball World Title40 years before Darryl Dawkins became the first player to go straight from High School to the NBA in 1975; there was John “Wonder boy” Isaacs. In 1935 Isaacs led his High School team to the NY City Championship. With his mother’s permission, the following year the wonder boy began his professional basketball career with the NY Rens. During his first three seasons he led the Rens to 122-19, 121-19, and the greatest record in Pro-Basketball history of 127-15 record in 1939 en-route to winning the first World Championship.
In a profound statement, using a razorblade, Isaacs cut off the word “Colored” from his championship jacket, so it simply read “World Champions.”
He won another championship in 1943 with the all black Washington Bears. He also played for the Hazelton Mountaineers of the Eastern Pennsylvania League, the Utica Olympics of the New York State Professional League, and Brooklyn and Saratoga of the American Basketball League.
After his playing career, Isaacs worked for 40 years as a mentor at the Madison Square Boys & Girls Club in Bronx, NY.
He was the last surviving member of the famous Renaissance team, before his death in 2009. He was 93 years old. Seven of his Rens and Bears teammates are enshrined individually into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. Sadly, John Wonder Boy Isaacs has never been enshrined into the HOF. (Top 15 basketball champions not in the Hall of Fame, Yahoo Sports, Spencer)
(10) 1942: First integration of Professional Sports: Bill Jones & Sonny Boswell
Four years before Kenny Washington signed with the LA Rams, as the first black football player in the NFL, and 5 years before Jackie Robinson signed with the Dodgers, and 16 years before Willie O’Ree played for the Boston Bruins of the NHL, ten black men entered the National Basketball League as the first example of integration into any professional sport.
Bill Jones was one of four African Americans who joined the Toledo NBL team. Sonny Boswell was one of six African Americans to join the Chicago team. The year was 1942 and it opened the door for more blacks in a professional sports world dominated by whites.
(11) 1947: The greatest basketball player ever: Marques Haynes
Many basketball fans credit Michael Jordan as the greatest basketball player ever, because of his mega popularity in America and internationally. If promoting the game to the masses is the criteria for greatness, no one can match Marques Haynes. For 46 years, Haynes played in over 12,000 games, in more than 100 countries, an achievement unmatched in all of sports.
In 1941 Haynes led his Booker T. Washington High School to a National Championship. From 1942-1946 he led Langston University to a 112-3 record, which included a 59 game win streak. In his senior year Langston defeated the Harlem Globetrotters 74-70. And team owner, Abe Saperstein, offered Marques Haynes a contract. He resisted leaving college early, and joined the Globetrotters in 1948.
In his rookie year he led the Globetrotters to two victories against George Mikan and the Minneapolis Lakers (61-59, and 49-45).
In 1953 he turned down lucrative offers from the Philadelphia Warriors and the Minneapolis Lakers of the NBA, and left the Globetrotters to start his own team, the Harlem Magicians.
He led the Harlem Magicians around the world from 1953-1972, and 1983-1992.
As a child I watched a Harlem Wizards game at my High School in 1988. I’ll never forget his amazing dribbling. He autographed two pictures for me after the game. Today, they are some of my most prized possessions.
The man who could dribble 6-times per second, was the first Harlem Globetrotter inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1998. He is also enshrined in 6 other Halls of Fame. He is a recipient of the Harlem Globetrotters Legends Ring. They retired his number 20 in 2001.
Legendary coach Bob Knight believes Marques Haynes is the greatest basketball player of all time, and he often invited him to practices to meet his players. Every kid playing the game today should know who Marques Haynes is…. the greatest basketball player ever. (Marques Haynes: The greatest basketball player ever, SportsHaze, Spencer)
(12) 1948: First Black Olympic Basketball Gold Medalist & 1953: First Black NBA All-Star – Donald Barksdale
“Who?” that is the sad response most basketball fans give, when the name Donald Barksdale is mentioned. Like every person on this list, Barksdale is a name worthy of honor and tribute.
At UCLA Barksdale became the first black All-American in NCAA history.
In 1947, after college, the all-white NBA was not an option for Barksdale. Instead, he played for the Oakland Bittners, winning the 1949 AAU Championship, and being selected as an AAU All-American 1948, 1949, and 1950.
In 1951 at the age of 28 he broke into the NBA with the Washington Bullets.
In 1953 he became the first black NBA player to play in an NBA All-Star Game.
He finished his 4-year NBA career with the Boston Celtics.
Barksdale became the first African American Disk-Jockey in the Bay Area, and the first black person to own his own beer distributorship in America.
In 1983 he established the Bay Area’s, Save High School Sports Foundation.
Barksdale has been enshrined in the UCLA Athletic Hall of Fame, PAC-10 Basketball Hall of Honor, Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame, and the Berkley High School Athletics Hall of Fame. However, Donald Barksdale is yet another hero on this list who has never been enshrined into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. (Black History: First NBA All-Star Donald Barksdale, SportsHaze, Spencer)
(13) 1950: Charles Chuck Cooper: First African American signed in the NBA Draft
2,725 points (6.7ppg) and 2,421 rebounds (5.9rpg) are not Hall of Fame worthy numbers. However considering those numbers came from the first African American to be chosen in the NBA draft in 1950, those stats bear extreme significance in hardwood history. Charles Cooper played just six seasons (409 games) after being drafted in the second round by the Boston Celtics April 25, 1950. He averaged nearly 10 points and 9 rebounds his rookie year, paving the way for the Kobe Bryant(notes), Lebron James, and the majority of players in the NBA today. The 6’5” forward played 4 years in Boston, one season with the Milwaukee / St. Louis Hawks, and finished his career in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Cooper passed away in 1984.
(14) 1950: Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton:first African American to sign an NBA contractNat Sweetwater Clifton was the first African American to sign a contract with an NBA team andplay in the NBA.(Harold Hunter signed a contract with the Washington Capitals on April 26, 1950 but was cut from the team in training camp.)
After serving his country in the Army, Sweetwater, a 6’7” forward, played two years with the storied Harlem Globetrotters. In 1950 he signed a contract in the NBA with the New York Knicks where he played for seven seasons.
Clifton averaged 10 points and 8 rebounds per game in his career which was highlighted by playing in the 1956 All-Star Game.
Clifton passed away in 1990.
(15) 1950: Earl Lloyd: First African American to play in an NBA gameLike Clifton and Cooper, Earl Lloyd paved the way for an NBA dominated today by black superstars.
3 years after Jackie Robinson broke major league baseball’s color barrier Earl Lloyd, Chuck Cooper, and Sweetwater Clifton ended the ban of black players in the NBA. Earl Lloyd played his first game with the Washington Capitals just one day prior to Cooper’s debut with the Boston Celtics.
6’6” Lloyd earned the nickname Big Cat as a defensive specialist at West Virginia State College the Washington Capitals drafted Lloyd in the 9th round but the team folded his first year, and so he joined the Syracuse Nationals.
Along sideNBA Hall of Famer Dolph Schays, Lloyd led the Nats to the 1955 NBA Championship. It was also the first year the shot-clock was implemented in the NBA. Lloyd averaged 10 points and 7.7 rebounds that season.
After he retired in 1960 at the age of 32 with the Detroit Pistons he became an Assistant Coach and later became the Pistons first African American Head Coach in team history in the 1971-1972 season.
I met Lloyd in 2005 at a special dedication ceremony honoring the invention of the shot clock, hosted by the Basketball Hall of Fame, in downtown Syracuse, New York. During a question and answer time Lloyd was challenged by a fan who questioned the legitimacy of the racism he endured during his career. The fan that was white jarred Lloyd who is in nature by all accounts a humble person who doesn’t flaunt his place in hardwood history. An intense Lloyd explained how he was spit on by fans of his own team even after wins. He shared how he was often not allowed to eat in the same hotel he slept in because of the color barrier.
Lloyd is the only living member of the trio of men who changed basketball history in 1950. He is enshrined in the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame (1993) and in 2003 he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a contributor.
(16) 1961: John McLendon: First Black Coach in Professional SportsIn many aspects the cultural divide in America was as evident in 1961 as ever before. The venue of professional sports was not without blemish. When George Steinbrenner hired John McLendon to be the Head Coach of the ABL Cleveland Pipers, it was the first time an African-American was named Head Coach of any professional sports team in America. This historic move transcended the sport of basketball and reverberated throughout society.
Prior to this breakthrough in professional sports, McLendon also made history as the first African American coach to win an integrated national collegiate championship in 1957, followed by two more consecutive championships, becoming the first coach to 3-peat as NAIA champions.
Also in 1964 McLendon was the first African-American coach to be appointed to the U.S. Olympic committee.
And in 1966 McLendon became the first black coach at a predominantly white university. He led Cleveland State University to their best record in school history.
John McLendon’s groundbreaking coaching career began in 1961 thanks to the ABL.
(1961: The Year Pro Basketball changed forever, Yahoo Sports, Spencer)
(17) 1966: Bill Russell: first black NBA coach to win an NBA Championship
Bill Russell is the greatest champion in Professional Basketball history with eleven rings in thirteen years. As a player few could argue that Russell is one of the ten greatest of all time. Russell’s 21,620 rebounds is second in all-time only to Wilt Chamberlain.
After Red Auerbach retired in 1966, Russell took over as player / coach of the Boston Celtics, becoming the first African American Head coach in the NBA. He led Boston to a 60-21 regular-season record before losing to the Philadelphia 76ers team in the Eastern Division Finals. The next year, the Celtics struggled to a 48-34 regular season record, but still won the NBA Championship. In his 3rd and final season in the role of player / coach Russell and his Celtics defeated Wilt Chamberlain and the Los Angeles Lakers in 7 games for his 11th and final NBA Championship.
In 1973 Russell’s coaching career was resurrected briefly for two years in the mid 1970’s with the Seattle SuperSonics. Despite leading the team to the playoffs Russell retired in frustration.
Russell would make one last cameo appearance as a coach with the Sacramento Kings during the 1987-1988 season before hanging up the whistle for good.
Few will mention Russell’s name in the talk of greatest coaches ever. But he may be the best player / coach (combo position) ever. Doc Rivers and many other black NBA champion coaches have followed in Russell’s footsteps of greatness.
(18) 1968: Jackie White & Ken Hudson First black male referees in the NBA
Nearly half of the referees in the NBA today are African-American. In 1967-1968 season Jackie White and Ken Hudson became the first black male referees in the NBA.
On Feb. 11, 1968 former Harlem Globetrotter Jackie White officiated a game in Cleveland, Ohio between the Cincinnati Royals and the Chicago Bulls. It was the first time an African American officiated in an NBA game.
Ken Hudson officiated 60 games his first season. He earned $90 per game. His officiating career lasted just four years.
(19) 1971: Wayne Embry: first black general manager in the NBAWayne Embry’s 40 year career in the NBA began as a player for 11 years. 6’8” forward nicknamed The Wall for his ability to set sreens, played in 887 combined regular and post season games for the Cincinnati Royals (1958-1965), Boston Celtics (1966-1968) and the Milwaukee Bucks. He averaged 12.5ppg and 9.1rpg.
In 1972 Embry became the first African American General Manager when he was hired by the Milwaukee Bucks.
In 1985 Embry became the vice-president and General Manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
In 1994 with the Cavs, he became the first African American NBA team President and Chief Operating Officer.
He has been awarded Executive of the Year, twice by The Sporting News (1992, 1998), and once by Sports Illustrated (1998).
Embry was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1999.
(20) 1972: Robert J. Douglas: First African American inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball HOFRobert J. Douglas was born November 4, 1881 and died July 16, 1979. Basketball Hall of Fame. Douglas was the founder of the greatest basketball team in hardwood history, the New York Rens. (see #3 for more history of Rens).
(21) 1997: Lisa Leslie & Sheryl Swoops: First black females in WNBALisa Leslie was the seventh pick of the WNBA’s first draft in 1997. The 6’5” four time basketball Olympic Gold medalist appeared in seven WNBA All-Star Games and won two WNBA Championships during her eleven seasons with the Los Angeles Sparks. She is also the first woman to dunk in the WNBA.
Sheryl Swoopes was the first woman to be signed in the WNBA when it was created. During eleven years with the Houston Comets (and one season with the Seattle Storm) Swoops became the first WNBA player to earn three MVP awards along with three Defensive Player of the year Awards in the same years (2000, 2002, 2003). The four time WNBA Champion earned more than 2,000 points, 500 rebounds, 300 assists, and 200 steals in an amazing career. She is the first female basketball player to have a shoe named after her; Air Swoops.
Both Sheryl and Lisa continue to be role models for young ladies around the world.
(22) 1996: “Jumpin” Johnny Kline: Founder of the Black Legends Foundation
In 1996 Harlem Globetrotter legend Jumpin Johnny Kline began the Black Legends of Professional Basketball Foundation to provide pensions for other living Harlem Globetrotters legends.
The All-American from Detroit, Michigan became the Athlete of the Year at Wayne State University in 1952.
From 1953-1959 Kline toured the world with the Harlem Globetrotters. In 1959 he helped the Globetrotters win the World Series of Basketball against the College All-Americans.
After his Globetrotters career, Kline earned a doctorate in history and philosophy of education. He also received his Globetrotters “Legends” ring in 2002.
He continues to give back through his foundation, to recognize those who pioneered the integration of professional basketball.
(23) 1997: Violet Palmer: First black female referee
On October 31, 1997 in the first game of the NBA season, in British Columbia, Canada featuring the Memphis Grizzlies and the Dallas Mavericks Violet Palmer (African American) and Dee Kantner (Caucasian) became the first female referee’s in any major professional sport.
On April 25, 2006 in a game between the Indiana Pacers and the New Jersey Nets Violet Palmer became the first woman of any race to officiate an NBA playoff game.
If there was ever any doubt of a woman’s place in officiating men’s basketball, that was answered in 2006 when she was one of the referees who officiated during the brawl between the New York Knicks and the Denver Nuggets and fans in the stands; one of the darkest days for the NBA.
For the past 10 years Palmer has run the “Violet Palmer’s Official Camp” to provide kids the opportunity to learn how to become a basketball official.
(24) 2003: Robert L. Johnson:First black owner of a professional sports team
January 10, 2003 Robert L. Johnson became the first black owner of a professional sports team when the NBA Board of Governors granted Johnson the Charlotte Bobcats franchise. At the time the ownership also included African American’s and former NBA players Michael Jordan, M.L Carr and music artist Nelly.
Johnson made his wealth stemmed from the success from his BET. In 1991 BET became the first black-owned company traded on the New York Stock Exchange. In 2000, he became the first African American billionaire when he sold BET for $3.2 billion dollars.
(25) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
There are many African American players who could fill this 25th spot. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar earns this spot due to the continual impact his life and career has had in his creation and consummation of Black History.
Abdul -Jabbar’s storied career has served as a platform for him to be a leading teacher of black history. This past year he released the book and movie On the Shoulders of Giants: An Audio Journey through the Harlem Renaissance. In 2010 I attended one of his lectures on the topic. His passion for upholding the legacies of the teams, coaches, and players who pioneered the integration of basketball and laid the foundation for the professional game we know and love today is masterful!
Abdul-Jabbar is also a best-selling author who first gave us autobiographies Giant Steps in 1983 and Kareem in 1990. Since then he has published A Season on the Reservation: My Sojourn with the White Mountain Apaches (2000), and Brothers In Arms: The Epic Story of the 761st Tank Battalion, WWII’s Forgotten Heroes; a history of an all-black armored unit that served with distinction in Europe (2004), Black Profiles in Courage: A Legacy of African-American Achievement (1996), and On the Shoulders of Giants: An Audio Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance (2010).
From High School to UCLA to 20 seasons in the NBA, Abdul-Jabbar dominated and changed how the game of basketball was played. Statistically he is the greatest player ever, having scored more points than anyone else in NBA history. The 3 time NCAA champion (1967, 1968, 1969) 6 time NBA Champion (1971, 1980, 1982, 1985, 1987, 1988) , 6 time MVP award recipient (1971, 1972, 1974, 1976, 1977, 1980) was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1995.
Resurrecting the soulIt is imperative that the complete history of the hardwood be passed down to this generation of basketball fans. The next time you hear kids talking about Kobe Bryant or LeBron James, tell them about the legends on this list. Remind them that the foundation of today’s NBA is the soul of the game.