Civic Engagement

The everlasting legacy of Charles 'Chuck' Cooper, the first Black player drafted in the NBA

When the Boston Celtics selected Charles "Chuck" Cooper with the No. 14 pick in the 1950 NBA Draft, it should have been cause for celebration.

Instead, it was questioned.

"After the draft, one of the owners [of the Celtics] in the room said, 'Don't you guys know Chuck Cooper is African-American?'" Celtics legend Bob Cousy recounted.

In response, Celtics owner Walter Brown famously said that he didn't care if Cooper was "striped, plaid or polka dot."

"All I know is the kid can play basketball and we want him on the Boston Celtics," Brown explained.

MORE: Celebrating Black History Month

Brown's interest in Cooper shouldn't have surprised anyone considering the success he had at Duquesne University, where he blossomed into an All-American and started to make a name for himself. Unfortunately, based on the racial climate in the country at the time, the pushback from some of the team's owners shouldn't have surprised anyone either.

Remember, it wasn't until 1954 that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, implying that segregation in other public facilities was unconstitutional as well. The following year, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a public bus, leading to her arrest.

All of which is to say that the United States was still segregated at the time of the 1950 NBA Draft.

To boot, Cooper was a pioneer. In being selected with the No. 14 pick, he became the first Black player ever drafted in the NBA, breaking the league's colour barrier. A pioneer in his own right, Earl Lloyd became the second Black player drafted with the 100th pick in the same draft, but he believes he would not have been drafted were it not for Cooper.

"I truly believe that if Chuck had not been taken in the second round, which is a monumental thing, I would not have been taken," Lloyd said.

Cooper felt a similar way, telling Celtics Insider that he was convinced "no NBA team would have made the move on Blacks in 1950 if the Celtics hadn't drafted me early."

MORE: The lasting legacy of Earl Lloyd

It didn't take Cooper long to prove himself in the NBA. As a rookie, he ranked 12th in the league with 8.5 rebounds per game to go along with 9.3 points and 2.6 assists. He helped the Celtics win 39 of their 69 games in the regular season, marking their first winning season in franchise history. (The Celtics were a combined 89-147 the four seasons prior). That was one of only four seasons Cooper spent with the Celtics, but Boston finished with the second-best record in the Eastern Division in three of those seasons and made the playoffs each season.

Following the 1953-54 season, the Celtics traded Cooper to the Milwaukee Hawks. He was then waived by the Hawks during the 1955-56 season, paving the way for him to sign with the Fort Wayne Pistons, where he finished his career.

Over those six seasons, Cooper recorded 2,725 points, 2,431 rebounds and 734 assists. He made the playoffs in five of his six seasons in the NBA, including a run to the Finals with the Pistons.

Despite his success in the NBA, Cooper felt as though his skills were marginalized because the league was not ready for a Black star. Cooper did more of the dirty work, establishing himself as a rebounder and strong defender.

"He was someone that was extremely confident in his abilities, so it was tough because he thought he could have put up better numbers and been more of a focal point with the teams he played for," Cooper's son, Chuck Cooper III, recently told NBA.com. "But at the same time, he was incredibly grateful to the Celtics organization."

Off the court, Cooper said he didn't have the "race-biting" of Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball's colour barrier in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers, but that doesn't mean he didn't face racism. According to ESPN, Cooper often had to stay in a different hotel or eat at a different restaurant than his teammates because of the colour of his skin. Once in North Carolina, he wasn't allowed to stay at the team hotel, resulting in him taking the "sleeper" train back to Boston with Cousy, a close friend of his on the Celtics who went with him.

That only scratches the surface of some of the discrimination Cooper faced during his playing days.

"You think about today's basketball world and teams hire psychologists and motivational speakers to bring teams together and back then, these people were ostracized from their teams," Chuck Cooper III said. "They couldn't go eat with the team at the team dinner, couldn't catch a cab ride to go watch a movie together while they had some off time in many of the cities.

"So for my father and Earl Lloyd, Sweetwater Clifton, Don Barksdale and all those early African-American pioneers, for them to perform at the level that they did while dealing with all the hatred and the racism, to endure that and still perform at the level they did is pretty incredible."

MORE: How Nat 'Sweetwater' Clifton made NBA history

Cooper passed away of liver cancer at the age of 57 on Feb. 5, 1984. He was inducted into The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame posthumously in 2019 in a class that featured Al Attles, Vlade Divac, Jack Sikma and Paul Westphal. His legacy lives on today through the "Chuck Cooper Foundation," a non-profit that awards "graduate-level scholarships" and provides "comprehensive leadership development, professional skills, and opportunities to underserved students."

Even though he is no longer with us, Charles "Chuck" Cooper's impact will never be forgotten.

"He overcame the barriers of that time," Hall of Famer Chet Walker said of Cooper. "And he created a legacy that we benefited from."

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