Lloyd, Clifton and Cooper helped pave the way for diversity in basketball

February 2, 2015

By Paul Corliss & Cory Dugan

This is the first in a four-part series of ‘Legends Reflect’ features celebrating Black History Month, February, 2015. Wells Fargo Advisors, LLC is the presenting partner for the NBRPA’s Black History Month Celebration.

Few people, if any, could argue that today’s pro basketball community doesn't embody diversity. African-Americans comprised 77 percent of all NBA players in 2014, while 80.5 percent of players were people of color. Further, 40 percent of the league’s coaches were African-American in 2014. The NBA received an A+ for racial hiring practices from the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport.

But it wasn’t always that way – and many members of the National Basketball Retired Players Association (NBRPA) can offer first-hand accounts of the segregated nature of our great game. As recently as 1950, not a single African-American had played in an NBA regular season game. That all changed on Halloween night that year, when Earl Lloyd – a rangy rookie from West Virginia State – took the floor for the Washington Capitals. History was made; basketball’s color barrier had officially been broken. Earlier that same year, Chuck Cooper became the first African-American player drafted and Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton was the first African-American to sign an NBA contract.

While baseball’s Jackie Robinson singularly receives credit for breaking that sport’s color barrier in 1947, basketball had three pioneers that led to the diversification of NBA rosters. Lloyd, the only member of the trio still living, pulls no punches at 86-years old – speaking with the same honest grit and spirit that characterized his nine NBA seasons as a fearless defender and rebounder.

Earl Lloyd at his Hall of Fame Enshrinement

“If you were a black baby born in segregated Virginia in 1928, your prospects were slim and none,” Lloyd said when asked to look back more than six decades to his NBA debut. “I call it an incredible journey. To me, it was just a basketball game. Now as years wear on, things crystalize as you climb that chronological ladder.”

Lloyd, a ninth-round draft pick from West Virginia State, where he was twice named an All-American, entered the league alongside Cooper and Clifton. Cooper may have been the first African-American drafted by an NBA team and Clifton was the first African-American to sign an NBA contract, but Lloyd made it into a game before either of his counterparts after an inspired training camp performance under player-coach Horace Albert “Bones” McKinney in Washington (whom Lloyd refers to glowingly as a “giant of a man”).

“People try to compare me with Jackie Robinson, but I don’t know about that,” Lloyd said. “He was one of my heroes. There was a totally different attitude in basketball than baseball. It was going to be somebody sooner or later.”

But despite Lloyd’s modesty, he Cooper and Clifton will always remain trailblazers for professional basketball players. Fighting for an NBA roster spot in pre-civil rights America was a mean task, but Lloyd, Cooper and Clifton proved up-for-the-challenge and opened the gates for future generations to play in the greatest basketball league on Earth.

Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton

Given his nickname for a love of soft drinks, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton traveled a much different path than Lloyd to becoming one of basketball’s original African-American ambassadors. As a multi-sport professional athlete, Clifton was able to showcase his jaw-dropping athletic ability both on the baseball field in the Negro Leagues and on the basketball court, playing for the Harlem Globetrotters. Known for incredible ball-handling skills and exceptionally large hands, Clifton’s talent was recognized by New York Knicks head coach Joe Lapchik, leading to an eventual NBA contract (ironically, Lapchick’s son – Dr. Richard Lapchick – is the lead of the aforementioned UCF diversity report card and one of the foremost diversity experts in the country.)

“He was the first guy to really cuff a ball without the stickum,” said former Knicks teammate Al McGuire in an NBA.com story. “He even cleared his rebounds with one hand most of the time.”

During his rookie campaign, Clifton would go on to average 8.6 points and 7.5 rebounds per game, while also becoming the first African-American to play in the NBA Finals. Playing a key role for the successful Knicks’ teams of the early 1950’s, Clifton’s flashier style of play resulted in greater fame and media attention than the workmanlike Lloyd.

Chuck Cooper

Cooper had the most pedestrian career of the three trailblazers. He actually started his college days playing alongside Lloyd at West Virginia State before finishing an outstanding collegiate career at Duquesne. Cooper was signed by the legendary Red Auerbach of the Boston Celtics after being drafted  with the first pick of the second round in 1950. He played four years with the Celtics, then was traded to the Milwaukee Hawks before ending his career as a member of the Fort Wayne Pistons. During his NBA career, Cooper averaged 6.66 points per and 5.9 rebounds per game.

Lloyd, Clifton and Cooper were strong men from a different time. Fast-forward to 2015 and the basketball community is a leader in racial diversity. More than 70 percent of the NBRPA’s membership is African-American. Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, Chuck Cooper and NBRPA Member Earl Lloyd helped blaze the trail and open doors for young basketball players of color.

Breaking the Color Barrier Timeline

April 25, 1950
-Chuck Cooper drafted by Boston Celtics in second round
-Earl Lloyd drafted by Washington Capitols in ninth round

May 24, 1950
-Nat Clifton signs with New York Knicks

October 31, 1950
-Earl Lloyd debuts with Washington Capitols

November 1, 1950
-Chuck Cooper debuts with Boston Celtics

November 4, 1950
-Nat Clifton debuts with New York Knicks

Diversity at Wells Fargo Advisors
This is the first in a four-part series of ‘Legends Reflect’ features celebrating Black History Month, February, 2015.

Wells Fargo Advisors, LLC is the presenting partner for the NBRPA’s Black History Month Celebration.
Wells Fargo Advisors wouldn't be successful without the dedicated individuals driving it. We believe it takes individuals from all backgrounds and cultures to fuel this success, and we value our team members as our most important asset.

That's why we focus on creating an inclusive environment where all people are treated fairly, recognized for their individuality, promoted based on performance, and encouraged to reach their full potential.

"At Wells Fargo Advisors, we are intensely focused on building and sustaining an environment that enables all of our team members to be wildly successful. We believe that our diversity makes us stronger and helps us better understand the unique needs of our clients. We invest in the unique needs of our Financial Advisors so that they can be best positioned to make that same investment
with clients."
-- Mary Mack, head of Wells Fargo Advisors