The National Basketball Association’s 2021-2022 season is also the league’s 75th anniversary. As such the league is using a variety of methods to celebrate the season. Specialized uniforms, callbacks to the league’s history during national broadcasts, and other methods are being used to educate the public about the NBA’s long history. At the same time, with the surge in protest by NBA players during the Black Lives Matter movement of the last two years, the NBA is also using the occasion to inform the public about its own relationship to race relations and American history. The last decade has seen the NBA showcase its history, one that is not as well known as the desegregation of Major League Baseball by Jackie Robinson in 1947.
In September 2021, NBA.com ran a feature story on the first African Americans to play in the NBA: Earl Lloyd, Chuck Cooper, and Nat Clifton. All three entered the league in 1950, three years after the desegregation of Robinson. One key element of how the NBA has commemorated their own desegregation has been how they—and the basketball players who integrated the NBA—all contrasted the experience of Lloyd, Cooper, and Clifton to Robinson. In an older interview, Lloyd argued that there were key differences between his experience and that of Robinson. He said, “In basketball, folks were used to seeing integrated teams at the college level. There was a different mentality.” Later, the writers at NBA.com made another connection, noting that Robinson’s path into baseball blazed a trail for athletes in other sports, including professional basketball.
When considering the history of Black basketball players in the NBA, it often comes as a surprise to people that there was a time when the league did not allow Black players. For example, Ebony magazine briefly noted in its August 1992 issue this surprising factoid: “As wild as it may seem, Black basketball players were once oddities in a White man’s game.” And while such education among casual sports fans is important, others who are more familiar with the history of basketball are concerned that this erases the rich history of Black involvement in basketball before the NBA.
While it is true that the first Black players in the history of the NBA joined the league in 1950, the contention comes with dating the actual origins of the NBA. The league was formed out of a merger of the Basketball Association of America (BAA), which itself was formed in 1946, and the National Basketball League (NBL), which had been playing ball since 1937. Claude Johnson, the founder and director of the Black Fives Foundation, points out that the NBL had Black American players since 1941.
It would also be a mistake to forget about the Black pro basketball teams that existed in the decades before the desegregation of the NBL and the NBA. The aforementioned Black Fives Foundation has as its mission “to research, preserve, showcase, teach, and honor the pre-NBA history of African Americans in basketball.” The Black Fives Foundation is leading a grassroots effort to remember as many of the players of the pre-NBA era as possible, ensuring that future generations of sports fans understand just how far back this history goes.
The legacy of these pre-NBA teams is with us—the most notable example being the Harlem Globetrotters. Although known for their fancy athleticism and on the court antics, the Globetrotters represent the last vestige of the old barnstorming Black basketball teams that were known across the nation in the 1920s and 1930s. Existing concurrently with the heyday of the Negro Leagues in baseball, these barnstorming squads were another example of how Black America’s movement north during the Great Migration was reshaping American culture in a variety of ways, including sport.
In a broader sense, how the NBA celebrates its own history reflects how Americans think about the past and moments such as—for an example—the Civil Rights era. Arguing over which Black first in basketball is the equivalent to reminding fans that Jackie Robinson was not the first Black baseball player to play in professional baseball, merely the first one of the twentieth century. Or, to think of it from another perspective, how do we get more Americans to know about the contributions of people such as Maria Stewart, Octavius Catto, or John Roy Lynch (as just a handful of examples) when we’re so conditioned to think about Civil Rights activists in the vein of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, or Angela Davis?
None of this is to condemn the NBA and its attempts to shape public perception of its history. In fact, more people should be aware that even a sport as associated with Black America as basketball has had its own share of problems revolving around race. Further, this argument about when to properly celebrate the NBA’s desegregation should lead interested people to think deeper about Black firsts in American history. What do we gain, for example, when we think of the desegregation of colleges and universities in the South not as a twentieth century phenomenon, but as something that had precedent during the Reconstruction era in South Carolina? Such questions about race, memory, and history should continue to guide historians and lay people alike as arguments about the fabric of American memory continue to dominate national headlines.