Basketball’s battle for racial equality
In an excerpt from ‘Basketball: A Love Story,’ former players discuss their experiences with racism
Dr. James Naismith’s final student before he retired from the University of Kansas was John McLendon, the pioneer of fast-break basketball, the full-court press, and the four corners offense. Yet McLendon never received the credit he deserved because the majority of his work was accomplished at historically black colleges and universities when basketball was still segregated in the United States.
Long before civil rights legislation began to rid America of the scourge of segregation, McLendon was utilizing basketball to break down racial barriers. In March 1944, McLendon orchestrated a “secret game” between his team, North Carolina College for Negroes (now North Carolina Central University), and a collection of white former college basketball stars from Duke University Medical School, who had handily beaten the Duke varsity team in a scrimmage. McLendon planned the game for a Sunday morning, when most people would be in church. The medical students borrowed cars from friends and drove a circuitous route to the school to avoid being detected, arriving with their jackets pulled over their heads. They hustled into a locked gym, where McLendon’s Eagles trounced them 88-44. There were no spectators.
“Coach Mac” went on to mentor countless African-American coaches, among them Southern University coach Ben Jobe, Clarence “Big House” Gaines (who led Winston-Salem State University to a Division II NCAA championship in 1967 on the strength of a young guard named Earl Monroe), and former Georgetown coach John Thompson, who became the first African-American coach to win a Division I championship.
SONNY HILL (Philadelphia Basketball Legend; Found of Sonny Hill Community Involvement League): Coach McLendon didn’t sit at the knee of Dr. Naismith to play basketball. He sat at the knee of Dr. Naismith because Coach McLendon’s father wanted him to further his education. So he took him to Kansas, where Dr. Naismith was the athletic director.
JOHN THOMPSON (Center, Boston Celtics; Head Coach, Georgetown Hoyas, 1972-99): His style of play, pressing and running, was considered to be undisciplined — until white coaches started doing it.
EARL MONROE (Guard, Baltimore Bullets/New York Knicks; 4-Time NBA All Star): I played for Coach Gaines at Winston-Salem. People revered him not only as a great coach but as a great man. He helped turn the tide in terms of how people perceive black colleges and black coaches.
TOM “SATCH” SANDERS (Power Forward, Boston Celtics; 8-Time NBA Champion): It always amazed me when people asked me, “How can you play in Boston?” I’d say, “How can I play in America? I have problems all over the place.”
JULIUS ERVING (Small Forward, New York Nets/Philadelphia 76ers; 3‑Time ABA MVP; 1981 NBA MVP): I learned a lot about race relations during my trips to South Carolina in the ’60s. There was always the crossing of the Mason-Dixon Line, and there would be a big sign when you got past Virginia and into North Carolina that said, “Welcome to Klan Country.”
PATRICK EWING (Center, New York Knicks; 11‑Time NBA All-Star): One of the first times I experienced racism was when I moved to Boston. A lot of racial things happened with my Cambridge Rindge and Latin team. Our bus got broken into, our tires got slit, and the names that they called us … I just used it to fuel myself to be better.
SHAQUILLE O’NEAL (Center, Orlando Magic/Los Angeles Lakers; 2000 NBA MVP): My junior year, 1988, I’m a high school All-American, playing at a small high school in Texas. We’re on the bus and we’re going through this town, and we’re undefeated and everybody’s talking about who is this Shaq kid? As soon as we hit the town, it’s “Beat Cole High School,” “Beat Shaq,” “Beat the Monkey,” “Beat the Gorilla.” Right before we get to the school, there’s a tree, and there’s a black, 7‑foot scarecrow hanging from the tree with my jersey on it. Boy, was I upset. I was so upset that my coach called a play and I said, “No, we’re not doing that today. Give me the ball.” I dunked so many times that by the end of the first quarter, the rim was bent halfway to the floor.
In the early 1950s, after Celtics owner Walter Brown broke the color barrier by drafting Chuck Cooper, there was an unspoken agreement that an NBA team could not have more than two black players on its roster. (Later, that number was expanded to three.) Too many African-Americans, the owners believed, were bad for business. When Cleo Hill became the first overall pick of the St. Louis Hawks in 1961, he led the team in preseason scoring but saw his role abruptly reduced. The Hawks determined they needed their top scorer to be white — so Cleo Hill was frozen out by his own team.
OSCAR ROBERTSON (Point Guard, Cincinnati Royals/Milwaukee Bucks; 14-Time NBA All-Star; 1964 NBA MVP): I was the No. 1 draft choice in 1960. We had three black guys on the team. When they had a room report, they’d put an asterisk next to the black guys’ names.
BILL RUSSELL (Center, Boston Celtics; 5-Time NBA MVP): Every single team in the NBA had three black players. And I called them out. I said, “Is there a quota or is this an accident or what?” And I get a call from the commissioner, Walter Kennedy, who said, “What are you trying to do to us?” I said, “Listen, if you catch me in a lie, you should kick me out of the league. But as long as I’m telling the truth, you can go to hell.”
JOE RUKLICK (Power Foward, Philadelphia Warriors): I asked [Philadelphia Warriors owner] Eddie Gottlieb, “Why do you keep me on the team? Three years on the bench, why?” And Eddie said these words: “Fans won’t buy tickets if you have too many Negroes.” I went home to my wife, who was smart, and I said, “Do you wanna go to San Francisco?” I said, “They told me that ’cause I’m white, I’m valuable.” And she said, “You mean you are on this team because you are white?” I said, “Yeah.” And she said, “That’s not fair.” And I realized, “She’s right.” So I quit.
DAVID STERN (NBA commissioner, 1984–2014): The NBA led the way, not by some artful purpose, but by the talent of our players and the exposure we were able to give them. They had [an] enormous impact on society. I remember thinking that the perfect thing was if a white kid would dunk and say, “I’m Dominique Wilkins,” and a black kid steps back to take the three and says, “I’m Larry Bird.”
Excerpt from BASKETBALL: A Love Story by Jackie MacMullan, Rafe Bartholomew, and Dan Klores. Copyright © 2018 by My Three Sons production Inc. Published by Crown Archetype, an imprint of Penguin Random House.