Celtics have played instrumental role in breaking color barrier in NBA


Throughout the month of February, NBC Sports Boston will be celebrating Black History Month across all our platforms.

BOSTON — No NBA team has won more titles than the 17 claimed by the Boston Celtics, something in which their fans and the organization take tremendous pride. 

But what really sets the Celtics apart from others is what they did during the infancy stage of the league. 

Back in 1950, the Celtics did the seemingly unthinkable — they drafted a Black player. 

They weren’t done. 

The Celtics would go on to become the first NBA team to have an all-Black starting five — K.C. Jones; Sam Jones (no relation); Tom Sanders; Willie Naulls and Bill Russell — in 1964.

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And Russell would later become the first Black head coach in the NBA in 1966 and go on to win a pair of NBA titles (1968 and 1969) in that role, another first for black coaches in the NBA. 

So with the league and its players currently sharing tales and stories of the past and present in honor of Black History Month, the narrative about Black athletes and coaches in this league would be incomplete without the inclusion of the Celtics, whose role as an agent of change impacted the league in ways that are still felt to this day. 

Celtics great Bob Cousy recalls the story of how then-Celtics owner Walter Brown handled picking Chuck Cooper from Duquesne as the first Black player drafted by an NBA team, and the undeniable shock that his selection had on fellow owners. 


“Walter Brown gets up at the owners meeting in 1950 and says, 'Celtics draft Chuck Cooper from Duquesne,’” Cousy told NBC Sports Boston in an exclusive interview. “And I was told that Philly’s Eddie Gottlieb (head coach and General Manager) got up and said, ‘Walter, don’t you know he’s a Negro?’ To Walter’s credit, he gets up and says, ‘I don’t give a  (beep) if he’s polka-dotted. (Red) Auerbach says we need him to win. We’re taking Chuck Cooper.”

The groundbreaking selection of Copper by the Celtics was recently recognized with his posthumous induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame Class of 2019.

His son, Chuck Cooper III, has never taken for granted the role that the Celtics played, not only in his family’s life but also their overall impact on the NBA — something that’s still felt decades later. 

“Today’s NBA players do owe a debt of gratitude to my father; and not just my father. Earl Lloyd, Nat Clifton and countless other pioneers who paved the way on and off the court,” Cooper III told NBC Sports Boston. “Even though they were held to a higher standard, those guys never faltered."

Cooper III added, “It truly amazes me how the early African-American pioneers played at such a high, professional level while having to sacrifice and withstand the racism and social injustice of that time period.”

Race relations were a major issue across the country, particularly in the south. 

But in time, things improved with more and more Black players entering the NBA and the color of their skin no longer being an issue. 

There were several groups and organizations through the years that played a role in the diversity of the NBA — the Celtics being among the league’s pioneers.

“We were blessed,” Cooper III said. “We could not have picked a better legacy partner to have. And their track record speaks for itself. They (Celtics) remain supportive of me and my family. We have a lot of respect and appreciation for that organization.”