As Black History Month comes to an end, many of us would be remiss to think that only about sixty years ago, names like Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, or Lebron James wouldn’t exist, or in essence they wouldn’t. Approximately 80% of players that make up the African-American National Basketball Association would not even be allowed on the court, if it weren’t for the efforts of 3 individuals who have truly changed the face of the game.
A New York Times piece covered the 50 year commemoration of the first 3 African-American players to play in the NBA, which took place at a Knicks game in 2000. The article spoke about the men’s struggles with playing an integrated game in a segregated world. Earl Lloyd, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, and Chuck Cooper endured the ugly side of social capital on an everyday basis in the still separated America. Jeering fans often taunted the men when they played well, but ignored them if they played terribly. Lloyd said he “took special pains in those towns” to make sure he was called names.
Though there were many negative aspects of social capital they experienced while in their early days as NBA players, there were also some positive aspects. NBA legend Bob Cousy was one of the white players who created positive social capital as a teammate to Chuck Cooper. Cooper’s widow stated that without Cousy’s continuous support, Cooper’s career wouldn’t have been near as long. She shared “once, they were down south, and the people at the restaurant put Chuck’s food out by a railroad track and Bob went out there and ate dinner with him.”
These historic events happened without much fanfare at all. It happened after Jackie Robinson’s entrance into baseball and the NBA was nowhere near as popular as it is today. The impact of the positive and negative social capital experienced by these 3 players has truly affected the way we come together in sports. Many basketball fans couldn’t really imagine the game without flashy alley-oop passes from the Canadian star Steve Nash or a slamming Amare Stoudemire. Well just think, if the positive and negative social capital between Cousy and Cooper never brought them to a railroad track for dinner some time ago, what would the face of basketball look like today?