How Basketball Became a Black Sport

From Chuck Cooper to LeBron James

Baqsam Behbehani
3 min readJul 27, 2021
A black male wearing a Derrick Rose Chicago Bulls jersey
Photo of a black male wearing a Derrick Rose Chicago Bulls jersey by Eddy Lackmann on Unsplash

UUpon watching an NBA game, one cannot help but notice that the league is primarily dominated by African American players, which is not a phenomenon that happened haphazardly. Intricate steps led to what is perhaps the runner-up to black cultural expression after hip hop.

The first instances of black basketball

James Naismith invented basketball in the 1890s. On January 15, 1892, the sport debuted in Springfield, Massachusetts. Initially, the game spread around universities that mostly whites attended, but in post-Civil War America, blacks started to join the fray. Initially, peach baskets on barns were used to score, but inner-city ghettos used chain nets on courts covered in broken glass.

By 1898, the game was being played professionally in Trenton, New Jersey. It was only until 1902, though, when the first African American, Harry “Bucky” Lew, played in an organized white league. He played for Lowell vs. Marlboro of the New England Basketball League.

The elevation of black basketball

It was in 1916 when blacks posed a serious threat to the talent pool of basketball. In other words, they started playing at the college level. That same year, nine educators, coaches, and faculty members from the Hampton Institute, Shaw, Lincoln, Virginia Union, and Howard universities formed the first black college conference, which is the Central Interscholastic Athletic Association (CIAA). There was a mixture of organized black leagues as well as unorganized matches on the streets.

Very soon after, basketball became a cultural identity for lower-class blacks in the States’ inner cities, and it went hand in hand with other cultural expressions from music to fashion.

The downpour of black basketballers

Some of the earliest all-black clubs were:

  • The Smart Set Athletic Club of Brooklyn, New York;
  • St. Christopher’s Club of New Jersey;
  • The Loendi Club of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Also, two of the most famous clubs were the Harlem Renaissance Big Five, known as the Rens, and the Savoy Big Five, known as the Harlem Globetrotters.

By the 1950s, black pros poured into the NBA in menacing numbers. Chuck Cooper joined the Boston Celtics in 1950, debuting melanin in the NBA. Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, who both stood close to seven feet tall thundered the States with their vicious dunks complemented by their smooth layups.

Chamberlain set the record in 1962 when he scored 100 points against the New York Knickerbockers. Eventually, he amassed more than 31,000 points, second only to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a fellow black legend.

From Lebanon, former Orlando Magic center Rony Seikaly said:

“If 80% of the league is black, that means that black players are better than white players…”

As for William Ellerbee, former head coach at Simon Gratz High school in Philadelphia, which is a national basketball powerhouse, believes that:

“Suburban kids tend to play for the fun of it…but inner city kids look at basketball as a matter of life and death.”

In some ways, basketball became a way of pronouncing racial achievement against social barriers toward cultural performance. When basketball is mentioned, the black man immediately comes to mind. Regardless, basketball, especially outside the US, is still a hub for many talented players of other ethnicities, and skin color has not been a barrier for any talent playing on the world stage.

While there is nothing inherently good about any race dominating any sport, the blackness of basketball is an ode to the struggles that blacks had to endure as they assimilated into American culture, and whether or not blacks continue to dominate the sport will not take away from their pioneering efforts.