About the Foundation
The Chuck Cooper Foundation is a 501 (c) 3 non-profit dedicated to honoring the legacy of Chuck Cooper by helping further the education of our young people. The mission of The Chuck Cooper Foundation is to continue the legacy of Charles “Chuck” Cooper, the first African-American drafted into the National Basketball Association, by awarding graduate-level scholarships and by providing comprehensive leadership development, professional skills, and opportunities to underserved students.
Our goal is to propel our students to success in higher education in order to achieve their highest potential in their careers and ultimately, in life.
Charles “Chuck” Cooper officially broke the NBA’s color barrier on April 25, 1950 when the Boston Celtics selected him with the 13th overall pick of the NBA draft. When Celtics owner Walter Brown was asked shortly after the selection if he knew Cooper was Black, Brown exclaimed, “I don’t give a damn if he’s striped or plaid or polka-dot, Boston takes Charles Cooper of Duquesne!”
Cooper became an historic American sports figure and the first piece of basketball’s “Holy Trinity” that day as the first Black player drafted into the NBA. Cooper is joined in the Holy Trinity by two current Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famers, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton (2014), the first African-American player to sign an NBA contract, and Earl Lloyd (2003), the first African-American to play in an NBA game. Many years later, Lloyd remained grateful to Cooper and the precedent that Mr. Brown had established in the draft when he stated, “If the Celtics had not taken Chuck [in] the second round, I cannot see the Washington Capitols stepping up to make me the first Black draftee in the NBA.”
Prior to breaking the color barrier in the NBA, Cooper first won Pittsburgh’s city championship during his senior year at Westinghouse High School and was chosen as the first team All-City center.
Cooper continued his winning ways in college. He scored over 1,000 points in his college career and led Duquesne University to a 78-19 record and two NIT appearances.
Out of high school, Cooper enrolled at the historically black West Virginia State College, but he left school after just one semester to proudly serve his country in the Navy at the tail-end of World War II. Following his tour of duty, Cooper returned home to Pittsburgh to find that Duquesne was reinstating its basketball program to resume play for the 1946-47 season after disbanding in 1943 while Chuck was in high school. Cooper’s freshman season was a massive success, as he helped the upstart Dukes pile up 19 straight victories en route to a 21-2 record. After declining an invite to the NCAA tournament, Duquesne fell to the eventual champion Utah Utes in the quarterfinals of the NIT. Earlier in the season, Tennessee was scheduled to play at Duquesne, but the Volunteers refused to take the court if Cooper, the lone black player, participated in the game. Cooper told his teammates that he would not be offended it they played without him, but the entire team and University rallied around Cooper and refused to play the game without Chuck. Tennessee was sent home with a forfeit loss.
Cooper led Duquesne in scoring in each of his next two seasons before he gained widespread national recognition during his senior campaign. He was selected as a Consensus Second Team All-American, including First Team All-American honors from Look Magazine. Cooper captained the 1949-50 Duquesne Dukes team, averaging 12.0 points per game. The team rose as high as the No. 2 ranked team in the AP poll, and finished with a No. 6 national ranking and 23-6 record. The Dukes again declined an invite to the NCAA tournament and received a first round bye in the NIT, advancing to the semifinals before losing to the eventual champion of both the NIT and NCAA tournaments, but the later disgraced, City College of New York.
Following his graduation in 1950, Cooper signed with the Harlem Globetrotters. Prior to the NBA draft, he helped lead the Globetrotters to the inaugural World Series of Basketball championship, winning 11 games to 7, over the College All-Americans. Globetrotters owner Abe Saperstein, who had a monopoly on professional African-American basketball players at the time, eventually reluctantly released Cooper from his contract so that he could sign with the Celtics. But Saperstein’s decision did not come without hard feelings, as he boycotted playing at the Boston Garden for several years. Despite missing only four games in his first three NBA seasons, Cooper faithfully rejoined the Globetrotters at the end of the grueling NBA regular season and postseason to help Harlem win three more World Series championships each spring through 1953.
Cooper made his NBA debut in the Celtics season opener on November 1, 1950, scoring seven points. Due only to the fact that Earl Lloyd’s Washington Capitols opened their season one day earlier, Cooper missed the distinction of being the first Black player to play in an NBA game by one day. Lloyd left to serve in the military after appearing in just the first seven games of the season, but Cooper played in 66 of 69 regular season games. He finished his rookie campaign averaging 9.3 points per game, 8.5 rebounds per game, and 2.6 assists per game, all of which were higher than the per game averages of the other two members of the Holy Trinity. Cooper helped the Celtics improve from 6th place to 2nd place in the Eastern Division and advance to the playoffs for the first time since the 1947-48 season.
Cooper played four seasons for the Boston Celtics, one season for the Milwaukee Hawks, and split his final season between the St. Louis Hawks and Fort Wayne Pistons. Cooper’s Celtics finished second in the Eastern Division in three of his four seasons with the team and advanced to the playoffs in all four seasons. In his sole season with the Pistons, Cooper helped the team win the Western Division and advance to the NBA Finals. In six NBA seasons, Cooper recorded 2,725 points, 2,431 rebounds, and 734 assists.
Cooper joined his friends from the Globetrotters, and future Hall of Famers, Reece “Goose” Tatum and Marques Haynes, for one season with the Harlem Magicians before retiring from basketball after an injury from a car accident ended his playing career.
During his career, Cooper faced the fans of opposing teams on the road with dignity and class. He often had to stay in a different hotel or had to eat at different restaurants than the rest of the team. He once even had to sleep on the train instead of the team hotel in North Carolina. Playing in Boston meant he often dealt with discrimination in the very city he represented. Cooper himself often felt that his skills were being marginalized in the NBA because the League was not ready for black stars. Instead, he was forced to do the dirty work of playing hard defense and getting rebounds. His former coach, Red Auerbach, summed it up best when he said that Cooper “had to go through hell” as an NBA player. Cooper’s courage and strength in the face of adversity earned him a high degree of respect from his NBA teammates and coaches at every stop.
Cooper continued his pace-setting off the court upon his retirement. He earned a Master’s Degree in Social Work from the University of Minnesota in 1960. In 1970, he became the City of Pittsburgh’s first Black department head and later served as Pittsburgh National Bank’s first Urban Affairs Officer.
Cooper was elected to the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame in 1974. Duquesne University has honored him by awarding the ‘Chuck Cooper Award’ to a talented underclassman since 1983, retiring his jersey in 2001, playing a ‘Chuck Cooper Classic’ game each season since the 2009-10 season, naming a building on campus, the ‘Chuck Cooper Building’, after him in 2011, and naming him as an automatic selection to its All-Century Team in 2016. The Boston Celtics posthumously awarded him with a ‘Heroes Among Us’ award in 2016.
In an ESPN.com article about Cooper from 2016, two-time NBA MVP Steph Curry admitted to not knowing much about the NBA’s black pioneers, stating, “The roots of the game, especially the guys that broke barriers … [t]hat is definitely something I would be interested in learning about, because I don’t know much about that story at all.” Charles “Chuck” Cooper remains the true embodiment of an Early African-American Pioneer. He broke the color barrier and helped clear a path for African-American players to make an impact on the NBA.