(Column was written
TIMES THEY HAVE CHANGED
By Shelly Saltman
I was watching the Dallas Mavericks defeat the Miami Heat and realized I have been around long enough to see many dramatic changes in sports and in particular in the NBA. I was a kid in college when, in 1950, Chuck Cooper became the first black player drafted by an NBA team, the Boston Celtics. Until 1950, there were no black players in the league.
In the recent playoffs, 80 percent of the players were black, indicating how many superior athletes had been kept off rosters for too long a time. This anti-black attitude not only deprived the black athlete an opportunity to make a superior living, but also to make an outstanding contribution to the sport of basketball.
In 1950, however, there was a black team capable of winning championships. They were exciting and had a roster that even challenged the best the NBA had to offer. As a matter of fact, in 1948 and 1949 they even defeated the NBA's premier team, the Minneapolis Lakers, two years in a row. They, of course, were the Harlem Globetrotters. It was a hallmark in professional basketball history... an all-black team had beaten the best white team around.
Along with some other college ballplayers at the time, I had a chance to play against them. I didn't play that much, but for the short time I was in, I had the misfortune of guarding Marquis Haynes who was considered the best dribbler of his time. ... How embarrassing. In front of 6,000 fans, all there for support of the Damon Runyon Cancer Fund, I could find nowhere to hide.
They were that good! Until then, they were mainly introduced to the basketball fan as the Clown Princes of Basketball. Besides having a group of sensationally talented basketball players, Globetrotters owner Abe Saperstein understood they needed something different to appeal to families. The team developed the use of a theme song, "Sweet Georgia Brown."
They added humorous antics that became part of their trademark ... the confetti-filled bucket, the drop-kick basket, the mimicking of the officials, the ball under the jersey etc. Then they signed with
In a short time, with the NBA struggling for survival and trying anything to get people to fill their arenas (they tried doubleheaders, two-for-one nights, and door prizes -- which all worked with a minimum of success), when they announced the Harlem Globetrotters were part of the bill, invariably they sold out. Soon the Globetrotters were not just part of the bill, they were the headliners.
The Globetrotters were first formed in 1928 while they played exhibitions before dances at the
Saperstein recruited the most talented black athletes he could find. With nowhere else to sell their wares, the tryouts featured thousand of aspirants. Many future NBA greats played for the Globetrotters. Among the many were Wilt Chamberlain, Willis Reed and Connie Hawkins, who after Chuck Cooper and the Celtics broke the barrier down, were able to enter the NBA.
In the NBA until this day, retired players who played before 1965 do not have a pension. Only one player, and a great one at that, who played in that era, Bob Cousy, has a pension. I have been involved with the West Coast NBA Alumni and one of the goals, just as the color barrier was torn down, is to get these men who had to hold two jobs, pay for their own car fare to games and many times dress in the men's rooms of antiquated arenas, a pension. Cousy got his because when he was coach of the Kansas City Royals after 1965, he put himself in one game, thus, he became pension eligible.
In the meantime, because of the hard road paved by both black and white players who barely eked out a living, the Mavericks/Heat playoff combined payroll exceeded a quarter of a billion dollars. The NBA Players Association, made up of many millionaires, has refused to supports benefits for these older players who are now diminished in numbers and many infirmed.
It is time to give back and say thank you to all the pioneers in one of