(EDITOR’S NOTE: Richard E. Lapchick shares some of the backlash his family felt towards his father, former Knicks coach Joe Lapchick, for signing the first black player to an NBA contract in 1950. The experience l ‘led to his work today; Richard heads the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida.)
In 1947, my father and the owner of the legendary all-black New York Rens basketball team made a presentation to the owners of the BAA, which would become the NBA, to join the league by admitting the Rens into as a team.
The Bobby Douglas Rens had a rich rivalry with the Celtics in the 1920s and 1930s. For my father, Joe Lapchick – the coach of the New York Knicks in 1947 and whom I think was anti-racist a century ago – that made perfect sense.
There were those in the league – and more than a few fans – who disagreed.
When my dad was the star of the Original Celtics in the 1920s, there were no built-in teams. No white team played against black teams, but the Celtics wanted to change that and developed a rivalry with the Rens which was one of the biggest in the history of the game.
No white team could beat the Celtics and no black team could beat the Rens. They have faced each other tied for over a decade and both have been inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
In 1947, my father thought because of his position as coach of the Knicks that the Rens would be admitted. But Knicks founder and president Ned Irish came out and told my dad and Bobby that the vote was against the Ren’s admission. My dad told Bobby he was considering quitting because he didn’t want to coach a league team that didn’t allow everyone to play. But the owner of Rens berated him, saying “you can’t quit because one day you might have the opportunity to make changes.”
Three years later, in 1950, my father signed Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, the first black player to sign a contract with an NBA team. In the draft a week later, Chuck Cooper became the first black player drafted shortly before Earl Lloyd, who by the fate of the calendar became the first black player to play in the NBA.
Not everyone was happy with the historic moment.
My first memory of the backlash as a child was looking out of my bedroom window in Yonkers, New York, where I grew up. I was five years old. I saw the image of my father swinging from a tree with people under the tree picketing.
For several years, I took the extension phone into the house. My dad didn’t know I was listening to angry people yelling racial epithets at my dad. I didn’t know what it meant but I knew a lot of people didn’t like this man who was my best friend. I also learned that there was something terribly wrong with this world I was raised in.
My dad learned about racism in America during Celtics-Rens matches. He saw it up close when he saw the Rens board the luxury bus their owner bought them because Bobby knew hotels in most cities wouldn’t accommodate his black players. My father watched the Rens bring food on the bus while the Celtics could eat wherever they wanted.
On three occasions, he saw, in horror, the Rens enter a gas station on their way to the next venue where they would play against the Celtics. The Celtics car was in the back of the bus and he saw the gas station owner come out with a gun because he wasn’t about to pour gasoline from his white pumps to this group of black players.
There were race riots in three games when angry fans stormed the courts because they didn’t want to see white and black players go head to head.
Because of the violence, nothing but the net had a different meaning back then. It didn’t refer to the sound of the ball going through the basket.
The owners of some arenas built nets around the pitch when violence was threatened so angry fans couldn’t reach the players. Players sometimes packed knives in their socks for protection.
My family’s experience is a small part of the story that has led to the possibility that the NBA will be run on the court by almost 80% black players, many of whom are led by the 15 head coaches of color.
As the league celebrates its 75th anniversary, my father’s efforts continue to be a prelude to all the sports and social justice metrics and records set by the NBA along the way.
Let us never forget that it was not an easy path to reach this great moment.
Richard E. Lapchick is the President of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program at the University of Central Florida. Lapchick also heads the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at UCF, is the author of 17 books and the annual report on race and gender, and is the president of the Institute for Sport. and social justice. Follow him on Twitter @richardlapchick and on Facebook.
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