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NBA, now 66 years old, has come a long way

NBA, now 66 years old, has come a long way



Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes

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SALT LAKE CITY ‐ The NBA, now 66 years old, has grown, is exciting to watch and is dominated by the black athlete.

Today players are getting younger, faster, stronger and more athletic than ever before. But it wasn't until the NBA was four years old before it got its first black player.

The Washington Capitals' Earl Lloyd became the first black player in the NBA on October 31, 1950. Two other African American players entered the NBA in 1950. Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton became the first black player to sign an NBA contract when he joined the Knicks. Chuck Cooper became the first black player drafted when the Celtics chose him in the second round.

Before the NBA there was the ABL, a little known league that lasted from 1925 to 1931. Then there was the ever popular Harlem Globetrotters and the NBL (precursor of the NBA) that existed in the thirties and forties. In 1946 there were only 11 teams, but that number grew to 17 teams in 1950.

For 20 years the NBA took a back seat to baseball, an American sport that everyone loved and played. I grew up playing baseball and looking up to home-town hero Bob Gibson who played for the St. Louis Cardinals. We graduated from the same high school. Bob played basketball as well, and even played for the Globetrotters.

In this Dec. 12, 1964 file photo, the Boston Celtics' Bill Russell, left, is congratulated by coach Arnold "Red" Auerbach after scoring his 10,000th career point during a basketball game against the Baltimore Bullets at the Boston Garden. (AP)
In this Dec. 12, 1964 file photo, the Boston Celtics' Bill Russell, left, is congratulated by coach Arnold "Red" Auerbach after scoring his 10,000th career point during a basketball game against the Baltimore Bullets at the Boston Garden. (AP)

So baseball was our number one sport and basketball was something we played in our spare time. Black pioneers like Bill Russell, who started his career in 1956 played his entire 13-year career for the Boston Celtics, inspired many other black athletes to pursue basketball — like the late Bob Boozer, another player out of Omaha, Neb. and my high school (Tech High). He started his career in 1960 in Cincinnati playing eleven years.

In the 60's black basketball players started to get more opportunities to play in the NBA. In 1960, Oscar Robertson entered the league with the Cincinnati Royals. The reason he is in the Hall of Fame? In 1,040 games he averaged 25.7 points, 9.5 assists, 7.5 rebounds. He also averaged a triple double in the 61-62 season.

Elgin Baylor, another member of the Hall, started his career in 1958 and ended his 14-year career with the same team (L.A.Lakers). He averaged 27 points, 4 assists and 13 rebounds.

How about Wilt Chamberlain? He started his career in 1959, ending in 1973. He owns probably the best numbers of any player, and is arguably the best player that's ever played the game. Chamberlain ended his career averaging 30 points, 23 rebounds and 4.4 assists.

The 60's were good for the black athlete with Lew Alcindor, Walt Frazier, Earl Monroe, Willis Reed and many others. But it was the new league (ABA) that started in 1967 that gave the black basketball player even more opportunities to play professional basketball.

The New York Nets' Julius Erving battles for the ball against the Nuggets during the final ABA game. AP Photo/Richard Drew
The New York Nets' Julius Erving battles for the ball against the Nuggets during the final ABA game. AP Photo/Richard Drew

The ABA, with its difference style of play, started to capture the attention of the NBA. Players like George Gervin, Artis Gilmore, Connie Hawkins, Roger Brown, Julius Erving played in that league, and let's not forget the red, white and blue ball at one point was the more popular of the two.

When bidding wars started to happen for players, the ABA convinced star players like Zelmo Beaty and Rick Barry to jump leagues. NBA officials started to jump to the newly created league as well.

In the mean time, the number of African American basketball players continued to increase. Teams started to have any where from five to six players on each team; something you definitely didn't see in the early to late 60's.

The 70's were very good to the black players. More teams meant more opportunities to go alone with the increase in talent. But it was the matchup between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird that actually helped increase the popularity of the NBA.

The black-white rivalry between the two separated the country on who was the best. Black pulled for Magic. White pulled for Larry. The competition between the two caused more young black players to practice harder to make it to the NBA level.

In 1979 Larry and Magic started what we are seeing today on the court, including the fashion show with sneakers. Converse designed a green Larry Bird shoe and a gold and purple for Magic.

There are pioneers in everything we do. I applause the players before me. I witnessed a lot of what they had to go through and the struggles they had just getting a fair chance. The college game put players in a position to be seen by everyone.

The NBA has made a lot of black players rich, with average salary around $5 million. That's a few thousand more than the $15,000 non-negotiable contract I got in 1968 with the Dallas Mavericks.

It goes to show that with hard work, anything is possible.

Ron Boone

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