Everyone knows about Jackie Robinson. I was curious about the black men who integrated what is today America’s most black-identified sports league, the NBA. And I was delighted to learn that Earl Lloyd, the very first black man to play in a regular-season NBA game, in the fall of 1950, was alive and well in Tennessee. So in 2001, I went down to his house to spend some time with him, and I also interviewed most of the other surviving black players who broke into the league in the 1950s. As it turns out, this story didn’t have the deep drama of Robinson’s, but for a fascinating reason: Whereas the white world of baseball was heavily populated by poorly educated yokels unused to being around blacks (and more inclined to be openly racist), the NBA in the 1950s was largely the domain of educated urbanites, what you might call white ethnics–Jews, Italians, Irish and Polish Catholics–who were used to being around blacks and less inclined to make a big deal of integration. Still, it was a tough road for most of the black guys who played professional basketball in the ’50s, as this story–inexplicably, one of the most obscure in my back catalog; no one read it–shows.
P.S. The headline for this story was devised by the late Art Cooper, then GQ’s editor, as a wink to Robert Peterson’s history of baseball’s Negro Leagues,Only the Ball Was White.