On April 25, 1950, the Boston Celtics make Chuck Cooper, an All-American forward from Duquesne University, the first African American picked in NBA draft. With the selection, the first pick in the second round, Cooper breaks the NBA’s color barrier and changes the league for the better.
The pick was met with skepticism by some in the NBA, including some of the Celtics’ owners. But Celtics founder and original owner Walter Brown famously said that Cooper could be “striped, plaid or polka dot … All I know is the kid can play basketball, and we want him on the Boston Celtics.”
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Cooper’s selection provided a pathway for other African American players to play in the league. Earl Lloyd, who became the first African American to play in an NBA game, with the Washington Capitols, was selected later in the same draft as Cooper.
Cooper averaged 9.3 points and 8.5 rebounds in his rookie season, the best of his eight in the league.
When he played on the road during the Jim Crow era, Cooper often had to eat and sleep in different locations than his white teammates. Cooper never thought of himself as a pioneer: “Jackie Robinson took care of that when he broke the color line in baseball,” he said in a 1976 interview.
Bob Cousy, who starred with the Celtics in the 1950s and early 1960s, roomed with Cooper. Cousy, a white player, hung out with him socially. Both liked jazz. “We bonded, become friends and remained so for years,” said Cousy in a 2019 interview.
Cooper, who died of cancer on February 5, 1984, was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2019.
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