Basketball was invented in 1891 by James Naismith. 60 years, later the National Basketball Association(NBA) was formed after WWII. Since then, the NBA has undergone changes and struggles that have shaped the league into what it is today. But how has racism shaped the NBA? How have the racist times the NBA went through in the 1950s affected and shaped the league into what it is now?

Chuck Cooper – The first black man to be drafted into the NBA

A lot about the sports in the 50s was controlled by racism. The MLB had recently lifted its “color barrier”, so a massive influx of African American baseball players began to dominate the league. This was nearly the opposite for the NBA. Starting off, basketball was a mainly white sport. Following the BAA and NBL merge in 1950, the first black basketball players began to enter the league, and with them a massive surge of racism and discrimination followed. 

Bill Russell and his coach Red Auerbach

One specific team, the Boston Celtics, was both a racial trailblazer and a massively racist team. In 1950, the owner of the Celtics drafted Chuck Cooper, an African American player. Immediately, fans were critical of the pick, thinking it was a mistake because of Cooper’s race. 6 years later, the legendary Red Auerbach would trade two white players for future superstar Bill Russell, who was black. Russell would lead the first all black starting lineup to 11 national championships; a record that still stands today. Despite this, Russell and his teammates were victims of ruthless racism. Houses were vandalized with racial slurs, cars damaged, and lots of verbal abuse were directed to the Celtics players. 

This didn’t just happen in Boston. The New York Knickerbockers, as they were known at the time, also had an all black starting lineup. The racism towards this team was brutal. Many newspapers referred to the team as the New York Ni****bockers. A lot of fans across the country refused to go to games that had an African American playing in it, no matter the team. Even though many of the superstars of the league were black, many fans were extremely racist towards them.

John Havlicek and Dave Cowens

Lets go back to the Boston Celtics. Following their domination of the 1950s and 1960s, Russell and his legendary team would retire. To fill his place came two new stars: John Havlicek and Dave Cowens. Immediately the number of fans attending Celtics games increased. It wasn’t because this new generation of players were better than the previous. In fact, Russell’s generation was much better. It was because the Celtics were now led by two white players. Havlicek and Cowens were less dominant, less successful, and yet more popular than the 60s Celtics, all because of race.

Larry Bird and Magic Johnson fight for a rebound

In the late 70s and early 80s, you had the battles between Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Larry Bird. With Magic leading the Los Angelos Lakers, Bird was the head of the Boston Celtics. Since the times of Havlicek and Russell, the NBA had transitioned to a “black league.” Over 75% of the players were black. So many of the racist white NBA fans were looking for someone to root for, preferably someone who was white. Larry Bird fit that description. Now Larry wasn’t racist himself. But being on a team in a historically racist city was just unlucky for him. To add onto this, the Celtics signed two white superstars named Kevin McHale and Danny Ainge. Quickly, the Celtics began to be seen as “the white mans” team, even though they had black stars like Cedric Maxwell and Robert Parish. Across the country, the Lakers were seen as the “black mans team”, with stars like Magic, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and James Worthy. So you can see the problem with two teams constantly meeting in the NBA finals, with each team “representing” a race. 

Kobe Bryant warms up before a game – 2016

Racism like this has considerably dropped today. The NBA has made steps to fix the past of the league. Many teams and players will now warm up in “Black Lives Matter” shirts, and a majority of players and coaches are now black. This is a massive change to the 50s obviously, as the first black coach was Bill Russell in 1966. In 2020, playoff games were postponed in protest of police brutality. 

LeBron James warms up in a BLM shirt

This doesn’t mean racism is gone in the NBA though. Players today still receive racial slurs and threats, from fans and players alike. Even though it has gotten better since the past, there is still a lot of work to do in the NBA, and sports in general to eradicate discrimination and racism. I think the steps being taken by commissioners of the major sports leagues are good steps, but something I think we need to remember is that racism is not just focused on one race. Eugene Chung is an asian man who was interviewed by a number of NFL teams for a coaching position. In one of these interviews, he was told that he was “not the right minority.” Obviously, this is a racist comment in itself but it shows how the the idea of racism can be put under one minority, or that the support of these ideals like BLM is trendy or beneficial to organizations. I support these movements, but racism does not just affect one minority.