Masters of the game
THE blacks – or specifically African-Americans – have become the masters of the game of basketball.
Earl Lloyd broke the color barrier in the National Basketball Association (NBA) by becoming the first black man to suit up in the American professional league on Halloween night in 1950.
And more historic firsts by African-Americans were later registered in the world’s ultimate cage forum.
Hall of Famer Bill Russell, my choice as GOAT, became the first black head coach in NBA history (and all of North American pro team sports leagues) when the Boston Celtics named him player-coach on April 18, 1966.
Russell, a defense-oriented 6-foot-10 center, concededly also was the first black player to achieve superstar status in the NBA. However, he was only the fourth choice of then-retiring Arnold (Red) Auerbach to replace him on the Celtics bench after the University of San Francisco product’s former Boston mates Frank Ramsey, Bob Cousy and Tom Heinsohn rejected the post.
It was Heinsohn who proposed to Auerbach that Russell would be an ideal candidate as player-coach. Russell agreed to become the first black head coach in NBA annals, declaring “I wasn’t offered the job because I am a Negro, I was offered it because Red figured I could do it.”
Indeed, Russell was as capable as anyone for the job, having already won nine championships – including eight in a row from 1959 to 1966 – as the Celtics’ meal ticket in his 10 playing seasons in Beantown at the time. He had led Boston to the NBA Finals each time, losing only once in 1958 as a sophomore pro when co-Hall of Famer Bob Pettit and the St. Louis Hawks (the harbinger of the Atlanta Hawks) beat the Celtics, 4-2, in the title round that year even as Russell was nursing an injury.
In Russell’s first year as Celtics player-coach, Boston lost to arch nemesis (but close friend off the court) Wilt Chamberlain and the eventual NBA titlist Philadelphia 76ers, 4-1, during the 1967 East Division finals. He quickly redeemed himself in the next two seasons, capturing the crown in 1968 and 1969 while becoming the first black head coach in NBA history to hoist the championship trophy in 1968.
Russell, who hung up his jersey in the summer of 1969, also was the first black player to be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on February 8, 1975. The opinionated and outspoken (until now) five-time NBA Most Valuable Player, however, boycotted the enshrinement ceremonies after charging the organization of racism. At the time, all the members of the Honors Committee that voted for the Hall honorees were white.
More history-making feats in the NBA by African-Americans next time.
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