Hoops History And Civil Rights

By Carrie Budoff
Updated: January 31, 2006

PHILADELPHIA–Professional basketball wasn’t always this way.

Decades before African Americans came to dominate the NBA and women scored a league of their own with the WNBA, basketball in the first half of the 20th century reflected society: segregated and unequal. But just as the civil-rights movement evolved, so did the game, nudged toward integration, at first, by a handful of players and owners.

That history is highlighted in a traveling exhibit – “The Quest for Equality: African Americans as Pioneers in the Sport of Basketball” – that opened yesterday at the National Liberty Museum in Old City.

“Today, the NBA is 80 percent black. They think that is the way it has always been,” said Sonny Hill, a local basketball icon and an executive adviser to the Philadelphia 76ers who toured the exhibit yesterday. “Maybe we can awaken some of the African American basketball players who are reaping all of the good from what people have done before them.”

The exhibit tells the history across eight eras, from the sport’s introduction on playgrounds and at YMCAs in the early 1900s to the birth of the New York Renaissance and the Harlem Globetrotters in the 1920s to the integration of college teams through the 1960s and the arrival of today’s multiethnic and multiracial NBA.

The story is weaved together by historical artifacts. A white wool basketball jersey from 1910, canvas high-tops from 1920. A 1930s basketball that better resembles a soccer ball.

A copy of The Negro in Sports, a 1939 book by Edwin Henderson, who was instrumental in introducing the sport to the African American community. A picture of the Philadelphia Tribunes, one of the first African American women’s basketball teams.

WNBA star Sheryl Swoopes’ size 11 shoes. Former NBA star Michael Jordan’s size 13s. And the 22s of the Miami Heat’s Shaquille O’Neal.

“People broke down barriers,” said Barbara Andrews, curator of the National Civil Rights Museumin Memphis, where the exhibit originated in 2002. “It took individual courage by athletes and players. There was a lot of mistreatment and second-guessing.”

At the beginning, African American players barnstormed the country, sleeping in their buses when banned from hotels and playing multiple games in one day to earn enough money to get by.

The turning point came during World War II, when white players left their teams to join the military.

Sid Goldberg, owner of the Toledo Jim White Chevrolets, took the first step, filling openings on his team with black athletes, Andrews said.

“He was very much alone,” Andrews said. “Some owners said, ‘This will be the end of your team.’ But other owners saw the wisdom of it.”

Others eventually followed, but the inequality persisted, she said.

“While these teams were traveling, the black players couldn’t eat with their teams,” Andrews said. “They were paid differently. They were second-class citizens.”

By the late 1940s and early 1950s, African Americans slowly began earning more rights; in 1948, for example, President Harry Truman signed an executive order integrating the military. And in 1950, Earl Lloyd became the National Basketball Association’s first black player to appear in a game.

The Memphis Grizzlies originally approached the National Civil Rights Museum with a request to design an exhibit marking the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. After touring the exhibit, David Stern, commissioner of the National Basketball Association, decided to put it on the road, Andrews said.

The exhibit spent several weeks in Los Angeles before coming to Philadelphia, where it will be on display through Feb. 6.

“As a museum, we look at issues of civil rights, diversity and respect,” said Amanda Hall, a spokeswoman for the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia. “This gets visitors to look at it in a different