Sports Halls of Fame often forget about pioneers in the rush to celebrate contemporary players and achievements. That’s especially the case as the ages of its electors get younger. But this year’s Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame deserves praise for its selection of two different and often overlooked trailblazers. Their choices included Chuck Cooper and the late 1950s Tennessee State Tigers team that set college records, but for too long were simply ignored when folks talked about the exploits of collegiate basketball players.
Chuck Cooper wasn’t the first Black player in the NBA, but he was the first to be drafted by a team in 1950. Walter Brown, the owner of the Celtics, famously told anyone who asked he couldn’t care less about Cooper’s color, only his ability. He was a second round draftee. but went through some rough times during his six seasons.
However numerous Blacks who came after him, including Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson, credited Cooper with making things easier for them. He averaged less than seven points (6.7) a game over his career, and was Bob Cousy’s roommate for a few years. Still, Cooper’s impact as a trailblazer was significant. When it was announced that Cooper had been chosen, former Celtics captain and All-Star Paul Pierce was shocked to discover his number isn’t among the many the team has retired. He’s publicly called for that to change.
Cooper’s selection came by way of the Early African American Pioneers Committee. The North American Committee is responsible for rightful honors finally being given the Tennessee State Tiger teams of 1957, 1958 and 1959 (the school was then known as Tennessee A&I). They were coached by the legendary John McLendon, also a Hall of Famer.
Those teams were known for relentless defense, a rapid-pace fast break offense, and extreme discipline. McClendon was a coaching guru, and there’s a famous story that one of his pupils once included Kentucky’s famous coach Adolph Rupp. McLendon reportedly demanded all observers keep that news a secret given the politics of the day. Rupp’s defenders point to that as evidence he wasn’t as racist as detractors claim, though his role in keeping the SEC segregated for decades has been well chronicled.
The two best known players from those teams were John Barnhill and Dr. Dick Barnett, who went on to NBA fame in the backcourt with Walt “Clyde” Frazier during the New York Knicks first championship run in the early ‘70s. The Tigers challenged racial barriers, playing in tournaments across the nation, even as they also battled against Jim Crow laws in their own backyard.
Others selected for this year’s Hall of Fame include former NBA players Sidney Moncrief, Jack Sikma. Vlade Divac, Carl Braun, and Bobby Jones, former players and coaches Al Attles and Paul Westphal, former coach Bill Fitch, former WNBA star Teresa Weatherspoon, and the groundbreaking women’s champions from Wayland Baptist University. That team won 131 consecutive games from 1953-58 and 10 overall AAU titles in an era when there was no NCAA women’s competition.
For TSU and Chuck Cooper, as well as Wayland University, last week their accomplishments finally got the exposure and recognition they deserve.