I n the sports world, Jackie Robinson’s integration and transformation of baseball stands out as a major turning point. But basketball offers a lesser known, sometimes misunderstood, and equally important story of acceptance and integration.

Today, Black ball players dominate contemporary NBA rosters and make up about 70% of all players, even though African Americans comprise only about 14% of the U.S. general population. Clearly, there are indisputable cultural influences, particularly the opportunities that sports can offer to minorities.

Interestingly, Black players did not always dominate basketball. In the 1930s, for example, there were many Jewish ballplayers in high school and college. The fundamental reason was the same: basketball is a popular city playground game. Today, many playground stars are African American, but a century ago these city players were the offspring of European immigrants, often Jewish.

Minorities, including African Americans, Jews, and other groups, have shared similar urban experiences at different times, especially discrimination. From 1917 to 1920, a Jewish kid named Abe Saperstein played basketball for Chicago’s Lake View High School, even though he was only 5 feet 3 inches tall. Soon, however, he would leave an extraordinary mark on the basketball world for which he would be enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1971 and the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1979.

What happened? The Harlem Globetrotters.

Chicago’s new Savoy Ballroom opened in November 1927. At around age 24, Saperstein helped out with an all-Black basketball team composed mostly of former Wendell Phillips High School players called the Savoy Big Five. The team broke up, and some members eventually became the Globetrotters. In the late 1920s, that new team began playing games and was renamed the New York Globetrotters. Saperstein changed the name again to the Harlem Globetrotters, even though Chicago was their home until 1976.

In 1948-49, they beat the NBA’s powerful all-white Minneapolis Lakers, starring George Mikan, who was 6-10. Twice. When the NBA finally integrated in 1950, two of its first three Black players were from the Globetrotters, Charles Henry Cooper and Nate “Sweetwater” Clifton. Today, the Harlem Globetrotters are still playing.

Globetrotters win over America

Even superstar Wilt Chamberlain was a Globetrotter for a year before joining the NBA in 1959. The Globetrotters went 101-6 in their first year, and their basketball entertainment featured trick shots, fancy dribbling and the comedic banter that endeared them to millions.

When Saperstein tried to purchase an NBA team, he was rejected twice. So, in 1961, he started a new league, the ABL, made himself league commissioner and owner of the Chicago franchise, and attracted many Black players. The ABL lasted less than two years, but it was succeeded by the American Basketball Association, a viable competitor to the NBA that featured flashy stars like Julius Erving, George Gervin and Artis Gilmore. In 1976 it merged with the NBA, and three years later the NBA also adopted Saperstein’s three-point shot.

Saperstein died in 1966, but the team endured. In 1993, a former Globetrotter, Mannie Jackson, led a group that bought the team reportedly for $5.5 million. Jackson himself was one of the first two Blacks to play for University of Illinois basketball, where he was team captain. Jackson still owns a minority interest in the team.

In 1943, Saperstein and baseball legend Bill Veeck joined forces and developed a plan to buy the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team. The idea was to integrate baseball by signing major stars from the Negro Leagues, but that plan was never implemented.

Veeck eventually bought the Cleveland Indians, now the Guardians, then hired Saperstein to scout Black players in the wake of Robinson’s 1947 Major League breakthrough. He persuaded Cleveland to sign the great pitcher Satchel Paige from the Negro Leagues in July 1948, making him the oldest Major League rookie ever at age 42, or maybe older. (Accounts of his birth date differ by several years.)

It took three more years after baseball integrated, but the obvious talent and success of Saperstein’s Globetrotters virtually forced the NBA to integrate in 1950.

Sports have long offered a pathway to success for those from poor or working class backgrounds. Muhammad Ali came from the poor side of Louisville, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was born in Harlem, Jackie Robinson came from a Georgia family of sharecroppers, white boxer James Braddock survived a Depression-era job on the docks to become world heavyweight champion, and eventual Globetrotters owner Mannie Jackson once lived with his family in a boxcar.

Saperstein himself was a poor Jewish kid, the son of Polish Jews who moved to Chicago when he was a small boy. He played an important role in creating the NBA as we know it today, in which stars like Michael Jordan and LeBron James became basketball billionaires. And it all started with the same thing: opportunity.

Eldon Ham is a member of the faculty at IIT/Chicago-Kent College of Law, teaching sports, law and justice. He is the author of five books on the role of sports history in America.

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