The average basketball fan probably does not know Chuck Cooper from Chuck Norris or Chuck Connors.
But every fan should, and props to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., for recognizing Cooper who deserves a place of honor among the greatest players who ever lived.
Cooper does not have the statistics to ordinarily classify him as worthy of enshrinement. However, contributions to a sport can be measured in more than numbers.
Cooper was born in 1926 in Pittsburgh and averaged 13 points a game in high school. When he graduated in 1944 he enrolled at West Virginia State, but soon transferred to the U.S. Navy.
In 1946, Cooper, a 6-foot-5 forward, began playing for Duquesne in his home town. A four-year starter, he set the school record with 990 points and was a second-team All-American.
Cooper’s first professional stop was with the Harlem Globetrotters. Owner Abe Saperstein sometimes recruited highly regarded African-American athletes for short stays with his team.
Post-World War II, as an early element of the Civil Rights Movement, baseball and other major pro sports integrated. Jackie Robinson broke the Major League Baseball color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
On April 25, 1950, Cooper became the first African-American drafted by an NBA team when chosen by the Boston Celtics.
When Boston owner Walter Brown announced his pick in the closed-door meeting, other owners cleared their throats and asked Brown if he realized Cooper was African-American.
“I don’t give a damn if he’s striped or plaid or polka-dot, Boston takes Charles Cooper of Duquesne,” Brown retorted in an unusual civil rights speech.
This made Cooper an NBA pioneer. However, the league as a whole was awakening. Almost simultaneously the New York Knicks signed Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton and the Washington Capitols drafted Earl Lloyd. Cooper was chosen 14th and Lloyd 100th.
It was Lloyd, though, among the three, who made his debut first, marking him as the first African-American to play in an NBA game.
Lloyd was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2003. Clifton went into the Hall in 2014. Cooper was selected last month, 69 years after being drafted.
Cooper spent four seasons with the Celtics and three more with other teams. He was not much of a scorer, but was a solid rebounder, his best year averaging 8.6 boards a game.
Kenny Sailors, the Wyoming All-American guard who led the Cowboys to the 1943 NCAA title and invented the jump shot, spent a brief part of his NBA career with Cooper on the Celtics.
Cooper was subjected to racial slurs and once Sailors asked Cooper how he put up with it. Cooper was more stoical than angry in his response.
Bob Cousy, the Celtics guard who basically invented the point guard position, sympathized with Cooper’s plight. In interviews over the years, including in a recent book called “The Last Pass,” Cousy recounted occasions where he witnessed Cooper coping with unnecessary on-court fierceness, opponents picking on him because of his skin color.
In the early 1950s, the NBA was a fledgling pro league still trying to sell itself to the public. One method was to schedule regular-season games in neutral cities.
The Celtics met the Rochester Royals (now the Sacramento Kings) in a 1952 game in Raleigh, N.C. The Celtics hotel was segregated and would not allow Cooper to stay there. Cooper told coach Red Auerbach he would instead take a train to New York where they next played. So Cooper did not have to travel alone, Cousy joined him.
At the train station, when they felt the urge to visit the men’s room, they were appalled to see “White” and “Colored” signs pointing them in different directions.
As their own act of unity defying convention as well as Raleigh and the South, they stood next to one another at the end of the platform, creating their own bathroom.
Given that Chuck Cooper’s stats were nondescript, it is clear his selection for the Hall of Fame was an act of respect and righteousness and an acknowledgment that yes, back in the early 1950s, Cooper had to negotiate a racist basketball world.