Harlem Globetrotters basketball team against Washington Generals, Budapest, Hungary, March 23, 2010 (Shutterstock)
The National Basketball Association’s 2021-2022 season is also the league’s 75th anniversary. As such the league is using a variety of methods to celebrate the season. Specialized uniforms, callbacks to the league’s history during national broadcasts, and other methods are being used to educate the public about the NBA’s long history. At the same time, with the surge in protest by NBA players during the Black Lives Matter movement of the last two years, the NBA is also using the occasion to inform the public about its own relationship to race relations and American history. The last decade has seen the NBA showcase its history, one that is not as well known as the desegregation of Major League Baseball by Jackie Robinson in 1947.
In September 2021, NBA.com ran a feature story on the first African Americans to play in the NBA: Earl Lloyd, Chuck Cooper, and Nat Clifton. All three entered the league in 1950, three years after the desegregation of Robinson. One key element of how the NBA has commemorated their own desegregation has been how they—and the basketball players who integrated the NBA—all contrasted the experience of Lloyd, Cooper, and Clifton to Robinson. In an older interview, Lloyd argued that there were key differences between his experience and that of Robinson. He said, “In basketball, folks were used to seeing integrated teams at the college level. There was a different mentality.” Later, the writers at NBA.com made another connection, noting that Robinson’s path into baseball blazed a trail for athletes in other sports, including professional basketball.
When considering the history of Black basketball players in the NBA, it often comes as a surprise to people that there was a time when the league did not allow Black players. For example, Ebony magazine briefly noted in its August 1992 issue this surprising factoid: “As wild as it may seem, Black basketball players were once oddities in a White man’s game.” And while such education among casual…