He is important to NBA history and to Russell having that ring because Chuck Cooper was the first African-American player to be drafted by an NBA team.
Do you remember Chuck Cooper of the Boston Celtics? If you do, you've got a lot of gray in your hair -- assuming, that is, that you have any hair at all.
Chuck Cooper is the reason that Bill Russell has a Hall of Fame ring. Not that Russell needs any more rings; he's already got more championship rings -- 11 -- than he has fingers. Cooper was a good, if not great, NBA player with the Celtics (1950-'54), the Milwaukee (later St. Louis) Hawks (1954-'55), and the Fort Wayne Pistons (1955-'56). His career statistics are not overly impressive: 6.7 points per game and 5.9 rebounds in just over 22 minutes a game. He was six feet, five inches tall, and weighed 210 pounds, about average for an NBA player back then. His NBA career was over by the time that Russell broke in with the Celtics the following season.
It is not clear that Cooper and Russell ever even met.
He is important to NBA history and to Russell having that ring because Chuck Cooper was the first African-American player to be drafted by an NBA team. He was chosen by the Celtics in the second round, 14th overall, in the college draft of 1950, out of Duquesne University in his native Pittsburgh. When Walter Brown, the owner of the Celtics, was asked about the then-controversial move of drafting a black player, he famously answered, "I don't care if he's striped, plaid, or polka dot," as long as he could play.
It's hard to imagine that there was ever at time when the NBA was a lily-white league, but that's just what it was in the '40s -- which probably explains why professional basketball back then was considered to be only a backwater sport.
Although Cooper was the first black player to be drafted, he was not the first black to play in an NBA game. That honor goes to Earl Lloyd, chosen 100th overall by the soon-to-be defunct Washington Capitols in the same draft that produced Cooper. The Capitols' season-opener was on Oct. 31, 1950; the Celtics, and Cooper, opened the following night. Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton, whose contract had been sold to the New York Knicks by the Harlem Globetrotters shortly after Cooper and Lloyd had been drafted, made his debut a few days later on Nov. 3. Together, the three of them broke the NBA color barrier.
Bill Russell had all of that history in mind when he was announced as an inductee into the Naismith Hall of Fame in 1975, the first African-American to be so honored. He didn't think it right that he be honored when the players who blazed the trail for him had not been enshrined.
So he didn't show up for his own induction.
Famously independent-minded, he'd insisted that, when his Celtics number SIX was retired before a game in 1972, the ceremony be held before the gates were opened and fans allowed into the old Boston Garden. Russell and the city of Boston were essentially not on speaking terms in those days. He was outspoken about some of the openly hostile treatment he'd been subjected to here, and the citizenry did not like hearing itself criticized. Out of deference to Red Auerbach, he'd agreed to having his number hoisted to the rafters of the Garden -- but he'd be damned if he'd let anyone in the place to see it happen. (Twenty-seven years later he relented, and his number was retired for a second time before a packed house of adoring fans. But that's a story for another time.)
At any rate, it was not a shock when he was a no-show at the Naismith Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 1975.
He did show up at the Hall of Fame this past September 5th, though. He was one of the presenters at the long over-due induction of Chuck Cooper. Other presenters of Cooper included Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Julius Erving. It closed a circle for Russell; Earl Lloyd had been enshrined in 2003 and Sweetwater Clifton in 2014.
Cooper was not present for his induction, either. He died of cancer 35 years ago, at the age of 57. Playing in the NBA had not been a pleasant experience for him; he was not one of those guys who dined out on stories of his glory days. He had been frustrated by what he saw as his misuse as a player. The Celtics, for example, used him to set screens and otherwise clear the way for high scorers like Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman, not to shoot on his own. He'd endured more than his share of prejudice and out-and-out bigotry, although he bristled when people compared him to Jackie Robinson. Robinson, he pointed out, had to go through the pressure-cooker totally alone while he, at least, had the muffling effect of sharing his hardships with Lloyd and Clifton.
Once his basketball-playing days were over, he put them in the rear-view mirror and moved on with his life. He earned a master's degree in social work from the University of Minnesota and became actively involved in community life in Pittsburgh, the city of his birth. He eventually became head of the city's parks and recreation department. He later spearheaded affirmative action programs as urban affairs officer of the Pittsburgh National Bank. He seldom even talked about his time in the NBA.
But when pressed to reflect on his playing days, it was the tough times that endured in his mind, not the games. Ron Thomas, author of "They Cleared the Lane," quoted him as saying, "People say I look pretty good for 50. But all the damage done to me is inside. That's where it hurts."
Perhaps he would have felt better about his NBA experience had he known that this past November 14th, at his home in Mercer Island, Washington, the great Bill Russell would, 44 years after the fact, finally accept his own Hall of Fame ring in a private ceremony that was attended by, among others, basketball legends Bill Walton and Alonzo Mourning. He was happy to do so because Chuck Cooper, who had helped to pave the way for him, was in the Hall of Fame, too.
- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox "Poet Laureate" and The Pilot's recently minted Sports' columnist.