NBA: Black Lives Matter – Part 4

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by Henry L. Liao

Robert Johnson
Robert Johnson

African-Americans have become the masters of the game of basketball, be it at the U.S. college level or pro basketball scene.

Earl Francis Lloyd suited up for the Washington Capitols on Halloween night of 1950 to become the first Black to play in the National Basketball Association.

Nearly 16 years later, Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics became the first African-American head coach in NBA history when the league founding franchise named him as playing coach on Apr. 18, 1966.

A defensive-minded 6-10 center, Russell concededly also was the first Black athlete to achieve superstar status in the NBA.

Bill Russell
Bill Russell

Then again, 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 alum’s former Celtics mates Frank Ramsey, Bob Cousy and Tom Heinsohn rejected the gig.

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.”

Bill Russell is one of five men to be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a player and as a coach.
Bill Russell is one of five men to be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a player and as a coach.

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-future Hall of Famer Bob Pettit and the St. Louis (now Atlanta) Hawks defeated the Celts, 4-2, in the title round that year even as Russell was nursing an injury.

In Russell’s maiden campaign 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.

Russell quickly redeemed himself in the next two seasons, capturing the crown in 1968 and 1969 while becoming the first Black bench boss in NBA history to hoist the championship hardware in 1968.

Robert Johnson: The first African-American ever to own an NBA franchise.
Robert Johnson: The first African-American ever to own an NBA franchise.

Russell, who quit as a player in the summer of 1969, also was the first African-American to be elected to 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 Hall’s Honors Committee that voted for the Hall honorees were white.

Russell has since made amends with Hall officials, receiving his HOF ring in a private ceremony on November 15, 2019.

And last September 12, the 87-year-old Russell was again inducted into the Hall as a coach this time.

The distinction of being the first African-American to be the majority owner of an NBA franchise belongs to billionaire Robert Louis Johnson, who purchased the Charlotte Bobcats franchise (now known as the Charlotte Hornets) in December 2002. The Black Entertainment Television (BET) founder was succeeded as the Bobcats/Hornets majority owner in the summer of 2010 by another African-American, the iconic Michael Jordan.

Currently, there are three former NBA players with minority stakes in an NBA franchise – Grant Hill (Atlanta), Shaquille O’Neal (Sacramento), and Dwyane Wade (Utah).

Henry Liao
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