The ’60s were a turbulent time in our country – and in the NBA – as the battle for civil rights raged.
This battle reached my hotel room in Philadelphia in the spring of 1965, when my wife Terri called from Cincinnati to tell me that she and Oscar Robertson’s wife, Yvonne, were going to join the Dr. Martin Luther King march. from Selma to Montgomery.
“Are you insane?” I asked. It was less than two weeks after Bloody Sunday when mounted Alabama state soldiers attacked non-violent protesters with tear gas, batons and dogs after crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma .
Of course, I admired their courage and sympathized with the cause. But league leaders have made it clear that they don’t want us to get involved and the insecurity about our jobs has kept us away – and glued to the TV.
How wonderful 55 years later to proudly watch NBA players not only participate but also lead marches in the protests that erupted after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. The Milwaukee Bucks, upset by the shooting of African American Jacob Blake by a white policeman near Kenosha, Wis., Were ready to boycott a first-round playoff game and with five other teams ready to join the boycott, the league postponed all the games in support.
But things were so different in the NBA in the 1960s. The league was so insignificant that my aspiration was to play for the Harlem Globetrotters – or to go to business school. I wasn’t sure there was a place for me in the NBA. If not for Joe Lapchick, the head coach of the New York Knicks. He took me aside in a college all-star game, gave me insight into the league, and told me I can have a bright future in the NBA.
In 1958, I was drafted by the St. Louis Hawks, who did not have black players, and was almost immediately traded to the Cincinnati Royals, who did – Si Green. And he was traded on opening night, leaving me alone as Black until Oscar came in two years later. My first contract was for $ 6,300 per year – unsecured – which I signed up to without hesitation.
There were rumors of a quota system in the league – and I can tell you the rumors were true. Veteran Earl Lloyd, the first African American to play a game in the league, once told me to always do my best so my team can’t cut me off.
The league was made up of eight teams, with 10 players each. We often drove at road games, three or four of us crammed into the car. At the time, there were still hotels that did not accommodate black players or restaurants that would not serve us. Often when we played in Boston, we ate at Bill Russell’s. In other cities, we dined with other black players or received recommendations where we could eat.
After Lapchick’s initial efforts to enter what would become the NBA were thwarted in 1947, progress was made in the 1960s.
The Celtics trained five black players and Russell became the league’s first black coach. My Royals were providing a beautiful illustration of race relations every day when white Jack Twyman and his family became the primary caregivers of his black teammate Maurice Stokes, a powerful player brought down by a traumatic brain injury suffered during a fall during a crash. match. He came out of the coma paralyzed and unable to speak. Twyman and Stokes were an inseparable example of love and friendship.
We had all learned things from the nonviolent movement around us, and we put them to good use ahead of the 1964 Boston All-Star Game – the first to be televised nationally. At a players-only meeting called by Tommy Heinsohn of Boston, we voted not to play the game unless the owners recognize our newly formed union.
After a few moments of tension as the denunciation approached, the owners finally agreed. Our bold decision charted a course for the future that has benefited players and owners alike.
Progress was also made in the country with the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. We thought it might help ease the pain following the assassination of President John Kennedy in 1963, but not even five years later. King was later assassinated, as was Kennedy’s brother Robert, the former attorney general who ran for president in 1968.
At that time, I was playing for the Celtics, who were on their way to the 1968 NBA Championship. After King’s assassination in April, riots broke out again. As players, we were inclined not to play out of respect for Dr. King. But the league office has heard that the mayors of Boston and Philadelphia (our opponent in the East Division Finals) are begging us to play in an effort to keep people home and off the streets. So we played that game and postponed the next one, resuming the playoffs after Dr. King’s funeral.
After winning the NBA title in 1968, I was selected by Milwaukee in the expansion draft, played a season, and retired. My salary that season rose to $ 40,000 – almost seven times more than my first season. There had been so many changes in the league and away, on and off the pitch, progress and setbacks. The next decade would bring new challenges – and new celebrations – for me, the league and the country.