They Cleared The Lanes: The NBA Black Pioneers

By Michael Hudson
Updated: March 12, 2005


By Ron Thomas. University of Nebraska Press. $29.95. Reviewed By Michael Hudson

ROANOKE, VIRGINIA–For years, sportswriter Ron Thomas had wanted to find out about the men who had broken the NBA’s color line. But the crush of daily news kept him busy. The line on his Things To Do list — “Contact Cooper”– went unheeded.

Then in 1984, wire-service reports carried sad news. Chuck Cooper, the first African American ever drafted by the National Basketball Association, had died in Pittsburgh. He was 57.

Thomas told himself: Better get started. Pro basketball’s other pathfinders might not be around much longer.

So he embarked on an 18-year odyssey. Thomas burned up countless hours of his spare time interviewing forgotten pioneers who had played in the 1950s, including Earl Lloyd, a Virginia native who, on Halloween Night, 1950, became the first black man to take the floor in an NBA game.

Thomas decided he wanted to do a book documenting their contributions. But he had a problem. Publishers prefer hype about the high-flying superstar of the moment over thoughtful books about the truggles of the uncelebrated. He endured 33 rejection letters before the University of Nebraska Press agreed to publish the book that became “They Cleared the Lane: The NBA’s Black Pioneers.”

The book is a tribute to the determination of the men who changed the NBA and to the tenacity of its author. It’s readable, fast-moving and full of arresting details. We learn how Celtics owner Walter Brown opened the door during the April 1950 NBA draft with six simple words: “Boston takes Chuck Cooper of Duquesne.” After Boston made the first move, the Washington Capitals drafted Lloyd out of West Virginia State College.

Because of the quirks of scheduling, Lloyd played in a regular-season game before Cooper or Sweetwater Clifton, the former Harlem Globetrotter who jumped to the New York Knicks. Lloyd came off the bench to score grab a game-high 10 rebounds to lead the Caps past the homestanding Rochester Royals.

The NBA’s color barrier had fallen, but racism persisted. For years, the league had an unspoken quota of one or two blacks per team. Mostly, black players were expected to do the dirty work, rebounding and playing defense. They weren’t welcomed as scoring stars until Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain arrived in the late 1950s.

Those who blazed the trail had to put up with racist epithets from the fans and other indignities that came with being a black man in that era. Problems often arose when teams headed south for exhibition games. Cooper, who was traded from the Celtics to the Milwaukee Hawks in 1954, was held out of an exhibition game in Jim Crow Baton Rogue, La., the metown of Hawks star Bob Pettit. Cooper had to sit on the press row rather than with his teammates. He would later say that all his teammates came over to shake his hand, as a gesture to the crowd, except for one: Pettit.

In 1961, Russell, K.C. Jones, Sam Jones and other black Celtics and Hawks boycotted an exhibition game in Lexington, Ky., after a hotel restaurant refused to serve them. It was a sign of changing times, a harbinger of greater activism that would help drag the league – and the rest of the country — into the modern era.

This spring, as the NBA playoffs dominate sports pages and highlight shows, the NBA is a powerful industry elbowing its way into international markets. It’s gone from crackerbox arenas and fetid lockerooms to luxury boxes and $150 Air Jordans.

But the black men who brought pro basketball into the modern era get little credit. In April, Earl Lloyd was finally nominated for a spot in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Here’s hoping the Hall of Fame voters give Lloyd what’s due him — and that today’s fans will pick up Thomas’ book and educate themselves about the men who cleared the lane and changed the game.

Michael Hudson is staff writer with The Roanoke (Va.) Times. He can be reached at