October 31 is the anniversary of the date in 1950 when Earl Lloyd became the first African American to play in an N.B.A. game. Though media coverage of this inevitability leading up to that historic date was limited, there was enough of it to get a glimpse of what the milestone meant at the time.
From the Chester (Pa.) Times, on October 20, 1950:
Several Negro basketball stars will be members of the teams in the National Basketball Association for the first time this winter.
Nat (Sweetwater) Clifton of the Harlem Globetrotters, and Chuck Cooper, Duquesne great last year, the most prominent. Clifton is with the New York Knicks and Cooper with the Boston Celtics.
Others include Johnny Rucker, New York schoolboy, with the Knicks; Rabbit Walthour, of the Harlem Yanks, with the Celtics; Bucky Hatchett, of Rutgers, with Baltimore; and Harold Hunter, North Carolina College, and Earl Lloyd, West Virginia State, with the Washington Caps.
If you’re a basketball aficionado, you likely have heard of Clifton, Cooper, and Lloyd. And, possibly Hunter.
But you may be surprised by the other names on this list: Rucker, Walthour, and Hatchett.
You may also be surprised that Hank DeZonie isn’t mentioned in the Chester Times account.
Ike “Rabbit” Walthour was an electrifying ball handler and “set shot specialist” with the Sarasota (N.Y.) Harlem Yankees of the American Basketball League. He and DeZonie both played for the Yankees before trying out for the N.B.A.
William “Bucky” Hatchett was Rutgers’ all-time individual season scoring leader in basketball. He was also one of the finest all-around athlete-scholars in the college’s history (he was Class President in 1950), and was enshrined in the Rutgers University Basketball Hall of Fame in 1994.
The Baltimore Bullets signed Hatchett after trying him out along with three other “Negro cagers,” namely Davage Minor of U.C.L.A. and the Amateur Athletic Union’s Oakland Bittners, Ben Bluitt of Loyola University and the Globetrotters, and Lenny Rhodes of the University of Toledo.
From the Charleston (W. Va.) Gazette:
The Bullets are following Boston, Washington and New York in giving Negroes their first chance to play in the major league of basketball.
But we know of course that Hatchett didn’t make it past pre-season camp and never saw action in the N.B.A.
Walthour didn’t last long with the Celtics, who announced on October 11 that he’d been dropped from the roster and replaced by a guy named Bob Cousy.
Walthour returned to the Yanks, where he led the American Basketball League in scoring for 1950-51, and eventually made it to the N.B.A. in 1953.
Historians often focus only on the three players that made it to the National Basketball Association in 1950. But we ought to remember Rucker, Walthour, Hatchett, Minor, Bluitt, and Rhodes — all of whom were probably good enough to play in the N.B.A. that year too.
(For much more background on this topic, please see They Cleared The Lane: The NBA’s Black Pioneers, by Ron Thomas.)