Cooper no draft dodger

February 26, 1999

Cooper no draft dodger

   The risk was enormous. The Celtics stood on the cutting edge of history 49 years ago, but also on the brink of financial ruin. They were losing money and by making history, they were about to lose even more.

But team owner Walter Brown and coach Red Auerbach were undeterred. They were determined to stock their team with the best available players and, in the second round of the 1950 NBA draft, Brown told his fellow owners that the Celtics were going to take 6-foot-6-inch Chuck Cooper of Duquesne. Auerbach, who technically had not even been hired yet, had seen Cooper play and thought he'd be a perfect complement.

When Brown announced Cooper's selection, the other NBA owners, gathered for the draft in Chicago on April 25, were set aback. Finally, one of them said what the others were all thinking. "Walter, don't you know he's a colored boy?" 

Of course, Brown did. He also didn't care.

"Walter Brown was 100 percent for it," Auerbach said. "Without his decision, it never could have happened. I couldn't have done it without him. If he could play, he was going to take him, no matter what color he was, what religion he practiced. If he could play, Walter didn't care."

The Celtics made history with the pick, becoming the first team in the NBA to draft an African-American player. The Washington Caps, emboldened by Boston's historic move, went for another African-American, Earl Lloyd, in the ninth round and the Knicks later signed Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton, then with the Harlem Globetrotters. When the 1950-51 NBA season opened, there were three African-Americans where there had been none before.

Last month, almost 50 years after the fact, Lloyd and Auerbach attended a panel discussion in New York on the history of African-Americans in the NBA. When it was Lloyd's turn for an opening remark, he offered the following.

"I've never said this to Red, but he needs to know this. I believed then, and I believe now, that if Red Auerbach and Walter Brown had not drafted Chuck Cooper, I truly believe, because of the times, I don't think the Washington Capitals would have drafted me," said Lloyd, who was the first African-American to play in an NBA game. "We have allowed [ Cooper] to slip away much too quietly because his contribution to the league is outstanding. And anywhere I go, when they call me the first, I clarify that."

Asked about Lloyd's comments, Auerbach said, simply, "I took it as a compliment."

Crossing the 'Trotters

There was no small gamble in taking Cooper, due solely to the omnipotent presence of the Globetrotters and their owner founder, Abe Saperstein, who had a vice hold on all the black basketball players. The Globetrotters also represented the biggest draw in basketball - their summer tours in Europe would draw more than 100,000 to stadiums - and NBA teams would schedule them for doubleheaders, simply to get people through the turnstiles and into the arenas.

"The Trotters outdrew all the NBA teams, by far," said former Globetrotter Marc Hannibal, who runs a television and motion picture production company in Connecticut and has been working on a documentary on the subject for years. "The league was petrified of Abe. And Abe knew that. That's why he held such power over the owners."

Saperstein logically thought Cooper was his and an obvious candidate for the Globetrotters, having been named an All-American at Duquesne. Cooper even toured with the Trotters in the summer of 1950 and, in a telegram to Cooper, Saperstein said, "To me, you were, you are, and you always will be a Harlem Globetrotter." Auerbach didn't think so.

"He was too straight for them," Auerbach said. "He wasn't a clown. He was a basketball player first and some of the Globetrotters were clowns first and basketball players second."

In addition, the Celtics couldn't afford to anger Saperstein. They already were more than $400,000 in debt, according to some accounts and the league itself was a wobbly enterprise. Auerbach said later that summer he tried to sign Clifton, but the league would not allow the deal, lest it upset Saperstein. Soon thereafter, the Knicks were allowed to sign Clifton, but only because New York owner Ned Irish finally allowed Saperstein an entree to Madison Square Garden, the one major venue the Trotters had not been able to play in.

In one of his many books, Auerbach wrote that Brown was unfazed by the likely Globetrotter boycott if he drafted Cooper.

"You coach the team and I'll worry about the money," Auerbach said Brown told him. "If I can't stay alive in this league without those clowns, I'll pack it in. We're going to make it with a winning team, or wind up broke anyway."

Once the Cooper pick was made, Saperstein crossed Boston off the Globetrotters' itinerary, not to return until after Brown died in 1964.

Some trying times

Auerbach says now that Cooper's transition to the NBA was relatively placid - "it was totally unlike baseball," he said - but there are stories galore of how it was anything but. Cooper had to stay in a different hotel than his teammates in places like Baltimore and St. Louis. In a game in Raleigh, N.C., there were threats that the Celtics would not be allowed to participate because they had a black player, although the game eventually went on as scheduled. Auerbach recalled getting turned away at a train station restaurant, so he ordered sandwiches to go and everyone ate on the platform.

Bob Cousy says to this day one of the most embarrassing situations he has ever confronted was when he and Cooper decided to use the rest room at a train station, only to discover there was one for whites and one for blacks.

"What do you say to a friend faced with that kind of stupidity and racism? I didn't know how to handle it," Cousy said.

Added former teammate Bob Brannum, "There was a lot of stuff, but Chuck handled it. He was a gentleman, not an aggressor."

However, there was a legendary brawl in February 1952, at Moline, Ill., in a game against the Milwaukee Hawks. It was ignited by a racial epithet from a Milwaukee player, spilled over to the benches and eventually to Auerbach and his Milwaukee counterpart, Doxie Moore.

"Chuck went over to Red and said, 'I'm not going to take that stuff,' " Brannum recalled. "And Red said, 'Then don't take it.' That was permission to bust him."

Teammates offered to room with him, the first being southerner Bones McKinney. Auerbach switched roommates by the month. Brannum noted teammates loved rooming with Cooper because the team would have to order room service and the players could keep their per diem, which amounted to $6.50.

Cooper died in 1984, but said in a New York Times story in 1980 that the worst part was having to deal with the segregated hotels, restaurants, and even taxicabs.

"I had good support from the Celtics," he said. "There were never any racial problems with the team. I felt a strong relationship with them all."

Added Cousy, "There was never any problem on the team. Arnold [ Auerbach] handled it by not handling it, by treating everyone the same. And that's what everyone wants, to be treated like everybody else."

Impact beyond the court

Lost in much of the attention about being the first African-American drafted and signed by the NBA was Cooper's brief, relatively uneventful history in the league. He's not known today for his talent or sweeping successes - "a five on a scale of 1 to 10," Cousy said. Lloyd and Clifton had much more success and are better known today.

Cooper lasted only six seasons, four with the Celtics and one each with the Hawks and the Fort Wayne Pistons. He was never regarded as a scorer or an indispensable piece of the puzzle and averaged 6.7 points a game. He was one of many Auerbach role players.

"He was a rebounder, period," Hannibal said without equivocation. "He wasn't a shooter or a scorer. He wasn't what you'd call a dynamic player."

Brannum said, "I loved the guy. But he didn't play all that much. He didn't have the meanness."

Auerbach said he sensed that Cooper always had a greater ambition than basketball.

"His mind was set on becoming a good teacher, in social work, that kind of stuff," Auerbach said.

Cooper earned a masters degree from the University of Minnesota. He returned to his native Pittsburgh, where he had been raised as the son of a postal worker and graduated from Westinghouse High School. He worked for the city's recreation and parks commission and became an officer at the Pittsburgh National Bank, a position he held until his death.

His athletic achievements prior to joining the Celtics have not gone unrecognized. He has been named to Duquesne's All-Time team and was inducted into the school's Hall of Fame in 1970. He also was inducted into the Pittsburgh Hall of Fame, the Western Pennsylvania Hall of Fame, and, six years before his death, was selected as one of Duquesne's 100 Most Distinguished Living Alumni. The Chuck Cooper Award is presented to Duquesne's most outstanding underclassman basketball player.

But his main contribution to basketball was one which he did not choose, but which he endured. But he saw himself not as a trail blazer, not as the NBA's Jackie Robinson, but as one of a handful of individuals, white and black, who combined to integrate the game.

He lauded Brown, who "made it possible when no one else would." He lauded Cousy "for not having a hint of racism." And he included himself in a roundabout way that now seems almost ridiculously understated.

"I feel a sense of accomplishment in a very modest way and can't help feeling very proud," he said. "But when I was playing, I never thought about all that. I was more preoccupied with just making the team."

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