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MLK Day

The history behind the NBA's first all-Black starting five

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Bill Russell, Willie Naulls, Satch Sanders, Sam Jones, K.C. Jones: The first all-Black starting five in NBA history [@Celtics Twitter]

December 26, 1964: a significant day in the history of the National Basketball Association.

Fresh off of a Christmas Day win over the Detroit Pistons, the first-place Boston Celtics advanced to 27-7 on the season. But a foot injury to starting forward Tommy Heinsohn left head coach Red Auerbach with a void to fill in the team's starting five against the St. Louis Hawks the following night.

Auerbach had four of his usual five starters - Sam Jones and K.C. Jones in the backcourt, Tom "Satch" Sanders at one forward spot and Bill Russell manning the middle - but a decision was to be made on who to insert into that other forward spot.

Auerbach had two choices: he could go with a young, up-and-coming player in John Havlicek who was already beginning to make a name for himself in just his second season in the league, or, an established veteran, four-time All-Star and former 25-point-per-game scorer in Willie Naulls, who was acquired by the Celtics in the 1963 offseason to help bolster their roster in pursuit of extending their six-year championship streak.

At the time, there was said to be an unwritten "gentleman's agreement" among the league to assure each team had one white player on the floor at all times. Auerbach, however, believed Naulls gave Boston its best chance to win games with Heinsohn out and that's the player he elected to go with.

When the Celtics rolled out a starting five of the two Jones, Sanders, Naulls and Russell for their game in St. Louis, history was made as the first all-Black starting five in the NBA.

In a recent interview from 2020 with Celtics' legend Cedric Maxwell, two members of the all-Black starting five, Sam Jones and Satch Sanders, recalled their memory of the day in league history. Jones, in particular, was surprised by the head coach's decision to start Naulls.

"Red shocked me," Jones stated. "I really thought that Red was going to start Havlicek as the fifth man in place of Heinsohn. But Red Auerbach is just different. So there's five of us (Black starters) and I said 'my gosh, we better win.' And we did win."

The game got out to a less than ideal start with Boston going down by as much as 15 points in the first quarter, but the team would rally in the second half to come away with a victory. The Celtics would go on to rattle off 12 wins in a row with their new starting five, giving that lineup a perfect 12-0 record. Boston would finish the 1964-65 season with a league-best record of 62-18, and that core group of players would propel the franchise to its seventh consecutive title and league-leading eighth championship.

And even though it is now recognized as a historic moment in the NBA, coach Auerbach stated in the past that history had nothing to do with the decision.

"I wasn't even aware of it," Auerbach once said about the first all-Black starting five (according to an ESPN story written by J.A. Adande). "They brought it to my attention later on. All we were trying to do here, all the time, is play the guys that, in our opinion, whether I'm coaching or someone else is coaching, is going to win the ballgame. That's all."

Sanders doubled down on Auerbach's unawareness of the history being made in the aforementioned interview with Maxwell, stating, "When we got Willie Naulls from the Knickerbockers, any time Heinsohn was tired, which sometimes occured [he said while laughing], when he stepped out of the game, Naulls, who was a 20-point-per-game scorer with the Knickerbockers, was automatic."

"So when Heinsohn got hurt, Auerbach, naturally, started Naulls," Sanders continued. "The fact that the media and a whole lot of other people made a lot of noise about it made it big. But for us, it was business as usual."

Whether it was a move to win basketball games or 'business as usual', it was a pivotal day for racial progression in the NBA.

In 1950, the Celtics became the first franchise to draft a Black player when they selected Chuck Cooper.

In 1964, they became the first franchise to start five Black players when Naulls replaced the injured Heinsohn in the starting lineup.

In 1966 when Auerbach retired, Boston appointed Bill Russell as its head coach, becoming the first Black head coach in the history of American pro sports.

The Boston Celtics are tied to three monumental milestones for Black history in the NBA.

The views on this page do not necessarily represent the views of the NBA or its clubs.

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