As Black History Month officially comes to a close today, we’re taking a look back at one of the most historic, progressive and monumentally significant moments in NBA history – the first game to feature an all African-American starting five.
After Chuck Cooper officially broke the NBA’s color barrier by being drafted by the Boston Celtics in 1950, it still took nearly 15 years for an NBA team to feature the first all-black starting squad in an NBA game. It was no surprise that the race barrier was broken again by the Boston Celtics.
After the Celtic’s all-star forward Tommy Heinsohn went down with an injury, Willie Naulls was named as his replacement, joining Satch Sanders, Sam Jones, K.C. Jones and the one and only Bill Russell to form the first ever all-black starting lineup.
The five black Boston Celtics would suit up as they normally would, but this time, as the first black starting five in NBA history.
What was also interesting was those five black players were the only African-American players on the roster – the remaining Boston Celtic’s roster were white players.
This historically significant game took place on December 26, 1964 between the Celtics and the Milwaukee Hawks. The Celtics would find themselves down by 15 points early in the game but would go on to win 97-84.
It Was All About Winning
Reflecting on that game, legendary Boston coach Red Auerbach said he wasn’t thinking about making a statement much less history during that racially tumultuous period in American history, but was simply doing what he thought would help the team win.
“First of all, I had no idea that I started five black players until a writer pointed it out to me a few weeks later,” said Auerbach. “It didn’t make a difference to me what color any of my players were. I was putting the five best players out on the court so that we could win.”
Auerbach may have been oblivious to the cultural and political climate in the civil rights era, but he did set a standard, and it was about winning – that could be done with players of any color.
Auerbach would prove that out, he would go on to win nine NBA championships as the coach of the Celtics and was part of seven more as a general manager.
With their historic lineup in place, the Celtics went on to win that game in 1964 against the Hawks by a final score of 97-84. The black starting lineup proceeded by winning the next 11 games, with Naulls starting in place of Heinsohn and capped off the season with an NBA championship, their eighth in a row.
The team became part of what many say is the greatest dynasty in sports history.
Although the NBA and basketball in general is a very different game than it was back then, it’s always important to take a look at the brave and bold players, coaches and owners who paved the way for the diverse and talented pool of players that we see in the sport today.