To celebrate the publication of The NBA in Black and White: The Memoir of a Trailblazing NBA Player and Coach by Ray Scott, we are proud to share an excerpt from his book, a memoir of hard lessons learned in the racially segregated NBA of the early 1960s. In this passage, Scott offers some stats about the racial demographics of the 1960s NBA as a lead-in to sharing one of his favorite memories of his fellow player, perhaps the most iconic basketball player of all time, Wilt Chamberlain.
On November 8, 1960, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was elected the thirty-fifth president of the United States. In his speeches, before and after this occasion, JFK’s “New Frontier” signaled that African Americans could now be included in the American Dream. By themselves, JFK’s words and the sentiments behind them improved the quality of lives for millions of people of color by encouraging us to feel better about who we were and what we could possibly achieve.
He didn’t live long enough to legislate what he sought, so it was left to his successor, Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson, to fulfill JFK’s dreams.
Also, at the conclusion of the 1959–60 season, ninety-nine players appeared on the rosters of the eight NBA teams. Twenty-four of these players were African American, with the easy math coming to virtually 24 percent. However, subtracting the minuscule on-court time credited to the Celtics’ Maurice King (who only played 19 minutes in a single game), and Cal Ramsey (who played four games in St. Louis and seven with New York), the meaningful number is reduced to slightly less than 22 percent. This percentage increased every year while JFK was still in office, eventually reaching 38 percent in the year he was assassinated.
A huge step was also taken with the record number of African American players named to the 1964 Olympic team, which I believe had a great deal to do with the words and deeds of both JFK and LBJ. The 1960 team had only three Black players—Oscar Robertson, Bob Boozer, and Walt Bellamy. Four years later, Jim Barnes, Joe Caldwell, Walt Hazzard, Luke Jackson, and George Wilson constituted nearly half of the twelve-man squad.
This major change in the Olympics signaled a similar change in the NBA. In the subsequent 1964–65 season, 48.7 percent of NBA players were African Americans. This represented an increase of 10.7 percent over the previous 1963–64 campaign.
Even so, the African American presence back in that 1959–60 season was particularly revealing and important. The Celtics were in the early stage of their dynasty, yet two franchises—Cincinnati and St. Louis—demonstrated their continued resistance to this new wave of outstanding players.
Here’s a list of the total population at the time:
Boston: Bill Russell, K.C. Jones, Sam Jones, and Maurice King
Cincinnati: Wayne Embry
Detroit: Walter Dukes, Earl Lloyd, and Shellie McMillon
Minneapolis: Elgin Baylor, Alex “Boo” Ellis, Ray Felix, Ed Fleming, and Tom Hawkins
New York: Johnny Green, Willie Naulls, and Cal Ramsey
St. Louis: Sihugo Green
Syracuse: Dick Barnett, Hal Greer, and Bob Hopkins
Philadelphia: Andy Johnson, Guy Rodgers, Woody Sauldsberry, and the most impactful rookie in the history of the NBA—Wilt Chamberlain