The game of basketball developed from a game called peach basketball to a beloved but competitive game today. Basketball was invented in 1891 at Springfield College, Springfield, Massachusetts by Dr. James Naismith. Peach baskets were first used as goals, but without any openings in the bottoms, the ball had to be retrieved by the use of ladders after each basket. Prior to the invention of basketball, Reconstruction was in effect from the late 1860s-1870s in an attempt to lift the United States out of the days of slavery. Reconstruction was a total failure because of radical groups such as the KKK and Jim Crows Laws that denied African legal rights they were obligated by the 13, 14, 15 amendments.
Reconstruction was a period between 1865-1877 where the United States government attempted to put the country back together after union victory in the Civil War. The 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments were instilled in an effort to oblish slavery and to effectively grant African Americans citizenship and the right to vote. Jim crow laws and white supremist groups attempted to deny African Americans these rights. According to Khan Academy, The KKK primarily performed brutal crimes against African Americans. “It is estimated that the KKK performed over 3500 racially-motivated lynchings between 1865 and 1900.” At its height in the mid-1920s, the KKK had four million members nationwide focused on torturing and killing African Americans. The KKK still exists today. African Americans continued to endure the effects of racism from slavery. Because the effects of slavery was largely still there, African Americans were not given the opporutnity to play basketball. Instead, most African Americans were still working in the fields for rich white owners after Reconstruction. This ultimately made basketball a white man’s game since its inauguration in 1891. When much taller and physically more defined black players joined the league in the 1950s, there continued to be extreme prejudice towards blacks in sports and a continuation of it can clearly be seen throughout the latter half of the 20th century until this present day. It is in this racist climate that the first black players played basketball in the NBA in the 1950s.
On October 31, 1950, in Rochester, N.Y., Earl Lloyd made his NBA debut, officially making him the first African-American to play in the league. He finished with six points and 10 rebounds after entering the game in the second half, but far more importantly, Lloyd marked a huge step forward for African Americans. The 6-foot-5 forward faced his share of racism, including fans asking to see his tail, people telling him to go back to Africa, and some spitting on him. Through determination and strength of character, LLoyd remained in the league amid the racism. Today, basketball is one of the most popular sports in the American community but when the game originally consisted of ten white players, it was never thought that one day it would be a game for blacks too. The development of the game since 1891 has forced rule changes but the racism is still prevalent even after reconstruction. In the 1950s, racism included everything from getting unfair calls from the referee and hard fouls to the racist names that blacks players were called by white players. The racial challenges black players faced are unfathomable.
When on March 2, 1962, three hundred pound, seven foot one tall center Wilt Chamberlain scored one hundred points, he was immediately discriminated against by the media, fans, players and coaches. Fans, coaches, and players debated whether he should be allowed to play in the league since he was 275 pounds and 7 foot 1. Chamberlain was not emphatic after he scored a historic 100 points. With a historic achievement like that, one would think that Chamberlain should be enthusiastic. Although The 14th amendment gave blacks equal protection under the law in 1868 and the 15th amendment gave blacks the right to vote in 1869, these amendments were not able to prevent prejudice inside and outside the sports world in the 1950-1960s. This clearly affected black players emotionally too. Although he appears to be happy in the photograph below, Chamberlain was not enthusiastic at all after a historic achievement because he heard a wash of racial slurs as he was leaving the arena that night. To make matters worse, Photographs of Chamberlain kneeling in the locker room with a one hundred point sign were taken by the media (below) which spread the news of the game rather rapidly.
The photographers clearly knew that this was a rare occurrence in history thus they seized the opportunity to take photos. Photographers knew this photograph would sell because it elevates the debate about black players having an advantage in basketball because black players are generally physically more fit for the game compared to their white counterparts. The media spread the photograph throughout the Civil Rights Movement where millions of others during this time period also faced racism enforced upon them by the American society. Glory Bound by David K. Wiggins states of all these events, none were more significant to black athletes than those that concerned their involvement in Civil Rights issues. During 1968, black athletes collectively protested against long-held frustrations against racial discrimmination through active protest. Although not always prepared for the rigor or consequences of racial protest, black athletes in large numbers became participants in the Civil Rights struggle. In this way, the Civil Rights Movement was not only centered around racism in the United States but it was also a fight that impacted black athletes in the sports society. This emphasizes that racism is intertwined between the sports world, and the political, social, and economical aspects of society, one of the reasons the photographer of this photo knew this photograph would sell well.
High School Basketball in Illinois by Taylor Bell discusses the racism high school black athletes faced during the mid 1900s in illinois. Integration was slow to come to Illinois. There was racial hatred that burned through the Deep South in the mid 1900s. Towns in Pulaski, Jackson, Franklin, and Williamson Counties were run by southern Baptists and rednecks that had antiblack feelings. Former NBA players were facing racism at this stage of their careers too. These people in illinois symbolize the same hatred the rest of the country felt towards blacks showing that racism exists towards blacks at all levels of basketball. Even extremely well known iconic American basketball athletes like shaquelle O’neal were discriminated against when they were in high school. He states: “My junior year, 1988, I’m a high school All-American, playing at a small high school in Texas. Everybody’s talking about who is this Shaq kid? As soon as we hit the town, it’s ‘Beat Shaq,’ ‘Beat the Monkey,’ ‘Beat the Gorilla.’ Right before we get to the school, there’s a tree, and there’s a black, 7‑foot scarecrow hanging from the tree with my jersey on it.” From the 1950-60s to the 80s, was no different. Comments like these were nothing new to African Americans. They had been hearing comments like these since the moment the United States became a nation in 17776 after gaining its independence from Great Britain. Racism took the league by storm when black players first entered the league and unfortunately remains an important aspect of the game ever since till this present day.
One of the aspects of why reconstruction was a failure that nobody talks about is that it also denied African Americans the opportunity to play in integrated athletic leagues. Segregation was enforced for public pools, phone booths, hospitals, asylums, jails, etc. Because blacks had little to no freedom until the Civil Rights Movement, when basketball began, it was only intended for whites in 1891. This in turn caused extreme prejudice towards blacks as the country attempted to lift its self out of the days of slavery. 60 years later when the first black basketball player entered the league on October 31, 1950, the racist mindset of the league still hadn’t changed and Earl Lloyd would go on to be discriminated against. 12 years later, when wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points, he faced the same fate. His teammate, Al Attles states, “After the game, Chamberlain didn’t seem to take a whole lot of pride in his new record. When he scored 100 points, he was probably the least excited about it.” Although he knew this was something to be proud of, Chamberlain wasn’t because he was sick and tired of the racist verbal abuse from inside and outside the league. The photograph of wilt chamberlain stands for a significant meaning in the history of basketball. Another 100 point game will probably never occur but the racism the game carries with it cannot be underestimated. This photo symbolizes more than just a significant achievement in the history of basketball—it has a historical context too—racism— which the continuation can still clearly be seen today. Famous athletes who even represented the USA basketball in the olympics such as Shaquille O’neil and Julius Irving also got discriminated against. Till this present day, it is in this racist climate that African Americans continue to live in.
In the modern era of the NBA, an owner named Donald Sterling was removed from the NBA for “‘deeply disturbing” racist comments. In this present day, racism is prevalent too. Americans have always been racists, but this is especially evident in the NBA during the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1950s, most of the fans that went to the games in the major areas were white; teams were owned and operated by white owners; There were only four black players in the entire NBA in 1950. Even the Lakers, the most famous franchise in NBA history originally had a policy of not allowing blacks on the team. The 14th amendment undeniably was taken for granted by white counterparts in the 1950s-1960s. Although there was less racial descrimmination towards blacks after the Civil Rights Movement ended in 1968, There was still racism going forward in the American society. Julius Irving, a former black NBA player talks about his experience as a black player in the NBA in the 1970s-1980s. He states, “I learned a lot about race relations during my trips to South Carolina in the ’70s. There was always the crossing of the Mason-Dixon Line, and there would be a big sign when you got past Virginia and into North Carolina that said, ‘Welcome to Klan Country”. Some of the injustice these iconic black athletes had to endure is outright cruel. In the latter half of the 19th century, blacks worked hard to gain equality. Regardless of what they did, they did not have the same degree of independence white athletes of similar abilities had. To maintain an identity while also participating in sports was not an easy task for black athletes. In a country that still embraces racism, it’s truly a shame that the achievements of black athletes have done little to change racial attitudes in a white-dominant American culture.
According to the Unofficial NBA Player Census, African American players make up 72.2 percent of the league. Although the league has come a long way today in terms of integration, at one point, the National Basketball Association had zero black athletes on the court. Four years after its inaugural season, the league decided to follow Major League Baseball’s lead and break its color barrier. Well before the emergence of legends like Bill Russell in 1956, Wilt Chamberlain in 1959, or Oscar Robertson in 1960, there were a select few athletes who possessed the courage to join the NBA and break the color barrier. These brave individuals made a lasting impression on the game, and through their determination and strength of character, changed the cultural landscape forever. In sum, the achievements of black athletes has done little to change racial attitudes in the dominant white culture, but their successes has served as symbols of possibility for members of the black community “who strive for recognition with the same earnestness as their white counterparts and who attempt to forage their own identities in an America that hold fast to radical stereotypes. In a white dominant racist society, there will never be true equality between African Americans and Whites. Just recently, an NBA player named Russel Westbrook filed a complaint to the league about racism. He states, “A white man and his wife in the stands told me ‘to get down on my knees like I’m used to,’ Westbrook said. ‘For me, that’s just completely disrespectful.” There are millions of fans, players, and coaches with that similar mindset. The league began as a white league and clearly there are still people out there who would like to keep it that way. In this way, racism has been prevalent since the birth of the United States to the 1950s when black players first joined the league up all the way till this present day because Whites seem to think that blacks have come by their athletic performances naturally and not through hard work, dedication, and other character traits admired in America. Equality will never be reached in basketball and more importantly in American society.