56 years ago was the start of something big, really big… the Big 4.

In recognizing, honoring and celebrating the month of February as Black History Month, we should proudly remember four gentlemen who made a name for themselves and for the National Basketball Association: Chuck Cooper, Earl Lloyd, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton and Hank DeZonie. These four gifted athletes, in essence, became the NBA’s first black players or pioneers of the sport in 1950.

As history has revealed and taught us that in 1947, the great Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier by being the first black baseball player. Three years later, Cooper, Clifton, Lloyd and DeZonie brought the same distinction and tribute to professional basketball.

As noted in the wonderful book, “They Cleared the Lane”, written by Ron Thomas (University of Nebraska Press, 2002), the Big 4 were just that – the Big 4. Of the 135 NBA players in the 1950-51 season, just these four men were the only black players or 3% of the leagues players. Chuck Cooper played for the Celtics, Lloyd for the Washington Capitols, Clifton with the New York Knickerbockers and DeZonie with the Tri-Cities Hawks.

What is even more revealing and noteworthy about these four men, not that they gave birth and eventual rise to black players in the NBA, was the fact that each man offered a special place in the history of the game.

Cooper was the first black player to be drafted in 1950. The Celtics compiled just a 22-46 record in the 1949-50 campaign, third-worst in the league. However, the two worst teams, Waterloo and Denver had both been dropped from the league, thus (early signs of Celtics mystique?), the Celtics received the first pick in each round of the 1950 Draft. Celtics owner Walter Brown selected Charlie Share (a 6-11 center) on the first round and then on the second round, Brown stunned everyone by announcing, “Boston takes Charles Cooper of Duquesne.”

The date was April 25, 1950. (Two days later, Brown named 32-year old Arnold ‘Red’ Auerbach as head coach).

Cooper was an All-American player at Duquesne, a steady two-way player but whose real strengths were defense and rebounding. Cooper’s first professional coach liked what he saw in him, “Chuck was an athlete first of all,” said Auerbach. “Was I concerned that he was black? Sure, but I knew things would be fine. I grew up in Brooklyn where kids of all nationalities played together and we just didn’t even think about it.”

The legendary Auerbach, Cooper and future Hall of Famers Bob Cousy and Ed Macauley all made their debut for the Green and White on November 1, 1950 at Fort Wayne, Indiana. Cousy led the Celtics with 16 points, Cooper and Macauley with 9 points apiece.

Not to be outdone by Boston, on the ninth round of the same 1950 Draft, the Washington Capitols selected Lloyd, a 6-6 forward from West Virginia University. It was Lloyd who earned the distinction of being the first black player to play in an NBA game, besting Cooper by one day, on October 31, 1950 in Rochester, New York.

Washington’s next pick was another black player in collegiate star Harold Hunter of North Carolina College. (Hunter became the first black player to sign a professional basketball contract, however, he would never play in an NBA game as he was cut during training camp).

Thus, Nat ‘Sweetwater’ Clifton enters the history books as having been the first black player to sign an NBA contract (with the New York Knickerbockers) and play in the league. Clifton had been a star with the famous Harlem Globetrotters for a few years when the Knicks came calling for him in May 1950.

Clifton and Hank DeZonie had both played for the Rens (New York Renaissance, a touring team) in the late 1940’s. In early December 1950, the Tri-Cities Hawks purchased DeZonie from the Harlem Yankees.

He would play just five games for the Hawks and for his NBA career. DeZonie quit the sport he loved due to the disgust over off-court racial remarks and discrimination that he faced.

The Big 4 — each man gave back, each contributed, each man laid down a foundation and each of them became a winner.

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