In a smoky room during the 1950 NBA Draft, the Boston Celtics selected a slick, ball-handling defender and relentless rebounder who changed the dynamics of the game. Duquesne University graduate Chuck Cooper, the 14th pick, and fellow black players Earl Lloyd and Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, were drafted that year as the league was integrating.
Following a distinguished but brief NBA career, Cooper was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2019. In seven pro seasons, he helped to end segregation in professional sports while laying a foundation for the era of professional athletes who’ve earned generational wealth by demanding fair market value for their services.
Lloyd was the first black player to log meaningful playing time in an NBA game. But Cooper was the first to be drafted into the league and Clifton was first to sign a contract. Cooper was the Celtics’ first holdout in a contract dispute during which he asked for salary commensurate with his impact on the team. His place in history came with a hefty price, as it did for others who were integrating professional sports during the segregationist Jim Crow era.
“His close friends tell me he paid for it with his life,” said his son Chuck Cooper III, President and CEO of the Chuck Cooper Foundation, a non-profit organization in his hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that provides college scholarships for minority students. “Anytime you’re breaking barriers, it comes with a great deal of stress.”
“I’d say it took its toll.”
The Celtics have been viewed by some as a racist franchise, which is historically inaccurate. Scores of African-American basketball fans have bought into the narrative that the franchise was inherently prejudiced. However, the organization was arguably more progressive and forward-thinking than any other team in the league.
Legendary coach Arnold “Red” Auerbach understood the caliber of talent that was being denied its opportunity to compete, and he knew that talent could help the Celtics win championships. Ultimately, their success would define their legacy as one of the greatest dynasties in sports history. Cooper benefited from Auerbach’s innovative leadership, and his success on the court opened the door for other black players.
“The Celtics changed the game forever,” Cooper III said. “Red Auerbach was just a great person who was so forward-thinking. His whole thing was about winning.”
In 1964, the Celtics were the first NBA team to start five black players at a time when those athletes couldn’t stay at the same hotel on road trips. Two years later, they named Bill Russell player-coach, making the All-Star center the league’s first black head coach.
Hall of Famer K.C. Jones, M.L. Carr and current Philadelphia 76ers head coach Glenn “Doc” Rivers are a part of the Celtics’ 17-championship legacy as leaders from the sidelines. Rivers was the last to add a Celtics banner to the rafters in 2008. (The Celtics are tied with the Los Angeles Lakers for the most championships in the league’s history.)
On this season’s version of the Celtics, Cooper would have been a cross between Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart. They are making a combined $36 million this season, as Smart prepares for free agency after the campaign. In his day, Cooper was the original NBA swingman. He played both guard and forward and became one of the best rebounders and defenders of his era.
However, Cooper wanted to be compensated as one of the best players at his positions because of the impact he made in helping to transform the Celtics into contenders. In Cooper’s rookie season, Boston went from “worst to — nearly — first.” Before Cooper’s groundbreaking season, the Celtics went 22-46 to finish last in the Eastern Division. However, after helping the Celtics finish 39-30, Cooper became the first African-American to earn NBA All-Rookie honors, and the Boston dynasty was born.
Understanding his value and demanding industry-standard compensation ultimately derailed his NBA career. Cooper did the dirty work with his defense and rebounding that allowed the Celtics’ stars to thrive on their way to championship glory, but he stood his ground to be paid accordingly.
In the book he co-authored, “Breaking Barriers: The Chuck Cooper Story,” Cooper’s son writes how his dad’s life away from the court was often more difficult than it was on it. After dealing with the insults, epithets and societal disrespect of that era while playing, Chuck Cooper entered the business world and faced greater obstacles as he tried to break new ground.
Lost in this scrapbook of black sports history is the parallel Chuck Cooper shares with a trailblazer from another sport. Both he and Major League Baseball’s Jackie Robinson died while they were still young men. Cooper was 57 when he died of liver cancer in 1984. Robinson, the first black to play Major League Baseball, died of diabetes and other complications in 1972 at the age of 53.
Cooper was the atypical professional athlete of his era. Both his parents were college graduates who put a premium on the value of education. After retiring from the NBA, Cooper earned a master’s degree in social work and returned to Pittsburgh, where he became the first African-American department head in city government, serving as Director of Parks and Recreation.
Like Robinson, Cooper also worked in the banking industry when his playing days were done. Both were educated men who understood that generational wealth for all minorities began with financial literacy and homeownership. Robinson and a group of investors founded the black-owned Freedom National Bank in Harlem, New York.
Cooper had just begun charting a new path as a banking executive with the old Pittsburgh National (now PNC) Bank before his passing. He was the bank’s first Urban Affairs officer and is credited with creating policies for community banking that are standard today.
“His business career was just starting to take off — not just getting paid but generating wealth — when he got sick,” Cooper III remembered. “Many of the policies that he introduced are still in place today.”
Like most trailblazers, Chuck Cooper was ahead of the curve and recognized the value that he brought to the team. Despite black stars’ impact on the court — and statistics to back them up — the NBA wasn’t ready for them, and many were reduced to being limited-role players. However, Cooper was an advocate for fair market value for his talent and wasn’t afraid to ask for it. The Celtics eventually traded Cooper to the Milwaukee Hawks, and he ended his NBA career with the Fort Wayne Pistons (that team would later move to Detroit).
“He was never going to be a token,” said Cooper III.
(Edited by Stan Chrapowicki and Matthew B. Hall)
CORRECTION: March 1, 2021, 1:40 PM.
An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the first black athlete to sign an NBA contract; it was Nat Clifton, not Chuck Cooper. Zenger regrets this error.
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