In observance of Black History Month and the 50th anniversary of the integration of the NBA, the Boston Celtics and John Hancock hosted a reception and panel discussion at the FleetCenter on Wednesday, Feb. 7th to celebrate the contributions of African-American athletes.
NBA coaching legend and Celtics Vice Chairman of the Board Arnold “Red” Auerbach, Boston Celtics legends Bill Russell and Bob Cousy, Celtics swingman Adrian Griffin, Dr. Richard Lapchick of Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society and Harvard Law School Professor Charles Ogletree were panelists. United Way of Mass Bay President and CEO Marian Heard moderated the discussion. Invited guests included Chuck Cooper, Jr., son of the late Chuck Cooper, the first black player drafted in the NBA, as well as community and business leaders, politicians, and a select group of students from colleges and universities in and around Boston.
“This is an extraordinary gathering of community leaders and athletes that will discuss the ongoing issue of integration. I would like to congratulate the Celtics and John Hancock for hosting this event and encourage everyone here to continue on the path of equal participation and support. We congratulate all those involved and look forward to another fifty years of progress,” remarked Marian Heard.
Harvard Professor Charles Ogletree, one of the nation’s leading experts on legal issues relating to race and society, and Dr. Richard Lapchick, founder of Northeastern’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society, complemented the panel of athletes by addressing the role of African-American athletes in society and their important contributions off the court.
“I think it’s important that the Celtics and the league are not only celebrating Black History Month, but looking at critical issues of race in both society and sport,” said Lapchick. “We can’t simply celebrate what has been accomplished, but look to finish the job by providing full opportunity in coaching and front office positions.”
The panel discussion, entitled “Changing the Game: Contributions of the African-American Athlete,” covered a variety of issues. First the panel addressed the NBA integration process and the role the Celtics played in the integration. The next segment focused on the responsibilities and expectations of professional athletes including status as community role models, team representatives, representatives for African-Americans and heroes for young children. The discussion concluded with the panelists’ thoughts on the legacy of this generation of players, given the opportunities that exist for professional athletes inside and outside the sport.
In delivering opening remarks, Celtics COO/CFO Richard Pond said, “The Boston Celtics have played a prominent role in the integration of sports in America and in the NBA. It’s important for us to celebrate the contributions of this organization and its members as we look back on the past fifty years and look ahead to the future of sports.”
The panel discussed the role the Celtics played as the first NBA team to draft an African-American player (Chuck Cooper, 1950) and the first team in professional sports to have an African-American head coach (Bill Russell, 1967).
Auerbach, Russell and Cousy shared their personal experiences of the integration process and its various struggles and triumphs. Auerbach recalled the day he selected Duquesne’s Chuck Cooper in the second round of the 1950 NBA Draft, making him the first African-American player drafted by an NBA team. (Cooper debuted for the Celtics on Nov. 1, 1950 and played for five seasons with Boston before finishing his career with the Milwaukee/St. Louis Hawks and Fort Wayne Pistons).
At the end of the discussion, questions were presented to the panel by the audience, which included more than one hundred students studying issues of diversity. Participating colleges included: Boston College, Boston University, Roxbury Community College, Northeastern, UMASS Boston, Emerson College, Suffolk University, and Brandeis University.