NBA

Jackie Robinson the ... basketball player? How baseball's colour barrier breaker could have turned pro in a different sport

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Jackie Robinson [Getty Images]

When you hear the name Jackie Robinson, you probably think of the Major League Baseball player that broke the sport's colour barrier in 1947, and rightfully so.

Robinson was a superstar on the diamond, putting together a Hall of Fame career despite going through all of the injust repercussions that came along with breaking down the walls of the United States' most racially divided sport during the country's most socially divisive time.

But did you know that Robinson had the skill level and opportunity to go pro in basketball instead of baseball?

While April 15th is always celebrated as Jackie Robinson Day by MLB, with all players and coaches of each team wearing his retired No. 42 to honour his everlasting impact on the game, this is to shine light on a different aspect of Robinson's playing career you may not be aware of.

That he was arguably better at basketball than he was at baseball.

Robinson was a generational athlete, so that statement shouldn't surprise you too much. He is, still to this day, the only four-sport letterman in UCLA history, playing baseball, basketball, football and track and field during his four years on campus.

He was an electrifying forward on the court, leading the Pacific Coast Conference Southern Division (now Pac-12) in scoring in both 1940 and 1941.

The quotes surrounding his playstyle sound tailor-made to that of what the NBA would become years down the line.

"Scoring is the least of the dusky marvel's accomplishments," noted The Chicago Defender, according to BlackFives.org. "A lightning dribbler and glue-fingered ball handler, his terrific speed makes it impossible for one man to hold him in check."

"Robinson formed the nucleus of a fast-breaking attack," stated the 1941 UCLA Yearbook.

"The first player who I ever saw dunking as part of his game was Jackie Robinson," former New York Renassaince player John Isaacs stated.

Once Robinson's college basketball eligibility was up following the 1941 season, he elected to leave UCLA's campus to pursue a professional career playing football. He did so for the time-being, until he reported for military duty with the United States in the midst of World War II. Upon returning from the war, Robinson elected to take up professional baseball. He played in the Negro Leagues for the Kansas City Monarchs until he was scooped up by the Brooklyn Dodgers organization in 1946 to play for their minor league team, the Montreal Royals.

He was a star in his one season with Montreal but when he returned home to California for the summer, it was basketball that was next on Robinson's list of pursuit in professional sport.

He joined a lesser-known pro team called the Los Angeles Red Devils, who were seeking to join the National Basketball League (NBL).

Robinson was the starting forward for a Red Devils roster that included a number of talented players such as Indiana Basketball Hall of Famer George Crowe, a former Harlem Globetrotter Everett "Ziggy" Marcelle, USC All-American Eddie Oram, Stanford star centre Art Stoefen and a local college basketball star Irv Noren.

With this loaded roster, Robinson and the Red Devils put themselves on the map against some of the finest professional teams the United States had to offer.

When they dominated the NBL's Sheboygan Redskins twice, it drew the desire for other professional teams to want to face off against LA's newest independent pro team. The famous New York Renaissance (Rens) even flew out to Los Angeles to take on the Red Devils, making them the first all-Black team to fly on an airplane for what is now commonly known as a road game.

MORE: New York Renaissance - the first all-Black pro basketball team

When the Rens got to Los Angeles, they were run out of the gym by Robinson's Red Devils.

The Red Devils even got a shot at the NBL's reigning champions, the Chicago Gears, who were headlined by Hall of Famer George Mikan. Mikan and the Gears defeated Los Angeles, but only by a slim deficit of four points.

At the time, the NBL was in talks of merging with the National Basketball Association (NBA), and the NBA had interests in acquiring a West Coast franchise. But despite having a roster loaded with talent, the Red Devils' games didn't bring in enough of a crowd.

"There were some exceptionally good basketball players with name value on the squad. We had, I think, a really fine team," Robinson stated, according to BlackFives.org. "There was a reasonable amount of publicity as well, and yet the promoters took a real bath in the this venture. Our games just didn't draw."

When things didn't work out for the Red Devils in joining either pro league, Robinson received serious consideration from professional basketball teams all around the country. Harlem Globetrotters' owner Abe Saperstein offered the multi-sport star $10,000 to join his franchise - which was double what he would end up making playing pro baseball - but Robinson declined. He also received offers from other pro franchises like the all-Black Canton Cushites, the Detroit Wolverines or even the New York Rens, but Robinson turned them all down.

When he left the Red Devils in January of 1947, it was said to have caught people by surprise. He could have starred on any of the aforementioned pro basketball teams and he was so talented on the hardwood that he may have even accelerated the NBA's racial integration that occurred in 1950 if he stuck with it.

MORE: The NBA's Black pioneers: Earl Lloyd | Chuck Cooper | Nat Clifton

But basketball was already making progress in that aspect. White teams had been playing Black teams for years and Black players were already receiving opportunities in pro leagues around the country.

Later that year, in April of 1947, it would become clear why Robinson walked away from hoops. He had his heart set on paving a pathway for African Americans in professional baseball, a sport that was significantly behind basketball in terms of racial progression.

When Robinson made his debut at Ebbetts Field for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947, he became one of the most paramount pioneers for Black athletes in the history of American pro sports. Electing to play baseball would end up making cultural shockwaves, leaving an eternal impact on all professional leagues.

But just know that while he would go on to be one of the greatest players in baseball history, he just may have left a similar mark if he chose basketball instead.

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