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*American Professional Basketball is entering its All-Star break and on this date, we look at its Black history. As a team sport, it has been transformed by the presence of African Americans. This story has progressed with the cultural, political, and social changes in the United States for more than 100 years.
The game was created in 1891, by 1898, the game was played professionally in Trenton, New Jersey. It was not until 1902, though, that the first African American played basketball in an organized white league. Harry "Bucky" Lew became the first Black to play in a professional basketball game when he played for Lowell (vs. Marlboro) of the New England Basketball League in 1902. After one season with Lowell, Lew played the next few seasons with Haverhill, where he developed into a defensive player and a set shooter. After the league disbanded in 1906, Lew organized his own team and played for another 20 seasons. Collectively, Blacks entered the ranks of professional players (the NBA) in Hi the 1950s. Since then, it has become one of the most popular and exciting games in the world. Black players in the NBA have helped to transform the game into a billion-dollar industry.
The games culture has become important as fashion, with logos of American professional teams found on the clothing the world over. But with the elegance and power of black athleticism capturing the respect and admiration of the world, for years it was isolated, as segregation split America along racial lines. Some of the earliest all-black club teams were the Smart Set Athletic Club of Brooklyn, New York, the St. Christopher's Club of New Jersey, and the Loendi Club from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which produced high-scoring, action-packed games. Eastern club teams in New York, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, astonished crowds. Two of the most famous African American club teams were the Harlem Renaissance Big Five (known as the Rens) and the Savoy Big Five (now known as the Harlem Globetrotters).
The Rens dominated for 16 years, between 1923 and 1939 they won more than 1,500 games and lost fewer than 240. After Chuck Cooper joined the Boston Celtics in 1950, becoming the first African American to play in the NBA, blacks took what was once a highly mechanical and rigid game and developed it into a forum for their self-expression. Bill Russell, and Wilt Chamberlain—who both stood close to 7 ft tall—elevated the game with their thunderous slam-dunks and graceful lay-ups. In college Russell led the University of California at San Francisco to two national titles and as a professional helped to lead the Boston Celtics to nine NBA titles. Chamberlain played 14 years in the NBA (1959-1973) and was an all-star for 13 of those years. He set a single-game scoring record in 1962 when he scored 100 points against the New York Knickerbockers. Chamberlain amassed more than 31,000 points and 23,000 rebounds during his career, second only to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
While Russell and Chamberlain set new standards for the position of center, players such as Elgin Baylor and Oscar Robertson introduced speed and agility to the NBA. Baylor led the Los Angeles Lakers to the 1968 finals and scored 71 points in a single game. Robertson played on the 1960 gold-medal-winning U.S. Olympic basketball team, became an all-star in the NBA, and had almost 10,000 assists during his career. Still, the most dramatic effect of integration on the game was an increase in the number of players from urban environments. These men played what some call street basketball. The influence of this style was most obvious during the 1970s with a number of players from urban backgrounds. Earl "The Pearl" Monroe, Julius "Dr. J." Erving, and Abdul-Jabbar pushed the game into a faster pace, and higher scoring.
Monroe, a classy dribbler, and a great passer was named rookie of the year after his first season with the Baltimore Bullets. Julius Erving led the New York Nets of the American Basketball Association (ABA) to consecutive titles in 1974 and 1975 before joining the Philadelphia 76ers in the NBA. Dr. J, as Erving was known, was one of the most creative players in the league. Abdul-Jabbar, a conscientious and innovative athlete easily dunked the ball over his opponents and developed a new and virtually unstoppable move known as the Sky-Hook. He helped lead the Los Angeles Lakers to five NBA titles during his 25-year career and set the standard for contemporary centers to this day. Other standouts of this era included Willis Reed, who played with a broken leg during the seventh game of the 1970 NBA finals, his teammate Walt Frazier, and Elvin Hayes of the Washington Bullets, each of whom were also products of street basketball.
Together they helped to bring new energy, excitement, and confidence to professional basketball. By the late 1980s basketball stardom belonged to players such as Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. Johnson left college after his sophomore year to join the Los Angeles Lakers, and during his rookie season played a pivotal role as the Lakers closed the season as NBA champions. Jordan also left college early to join the Chicago Bulls. Many describe him as the best basketball player of all time. His energy, enthusiasm, and last-minute heroics produced six NBA crowns for Chicago before he retired in 1998.
Currently, the game is poised to extend farther geographically and teams may come in from the Far East, Europe, and South America. Familiar names like Westbrook, Curry, LeBron, Durrant and others are “Star” players. The youth movement of Karl Anthony Towns, James Harden, Anthony Davis, Kawahi Leonard, and others continue a trend of younger and younger players turning professional. The history of American basketball tells a compelling story about athletic competition in a nation struggling to live up to its ideals of freedom and democracy through business.
Segregation forced Black basketball players to develop a unique game that is distinctly urban, relentlessly innovative, and always stylistic. Today pro basketball is about the head fake and the swagger, the finger roll, the skyhook and the step-back three; it's about the jump shot and the crossover dribble. It has seen player use more of the top of the backboard with underarm layups too. It still requires movement without the ball and being a team player. The sport requires more athleticism, as men are bigger and stronger over the years.
Basketball is also about wearing the latest shoes and having the nicest haircut, Short or Curley Blowout, dreds, beards or braids, Mohawk or Textured High Top. It is about playing the game above the rim and using all of the backboards too. Also, it is not just whether or not points are scored, but the way in which they are scored and the game is played. Basketball has been transformed by the presence of Blacks, and is an indicator of the cultural, political, and social changes in the United States.
After the 2020 George Floyd murder the league has tried to support the oppression from American law enforcement and Black communities. In 2021 Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said not playing the national anthem at the team's home game was the product of ongoing conversations with members of the community who felt the tradition "did not fully represent them." In response, the NBA reiterated its long-standing policy that "all teams will play the national anthem,"
The Encyclopedia of African American Heritage
by Susan Altman
Copyright 1997, Facts on File, Inc. New York
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