Charles Cooper III speaks to the crowd during halftime at the Palumbo Center -- part of ceremonies surrounding the Chuck Cooper Classic. Irva L. Cooper, wife of Chuck Cooper, watches.
By Phil Axelrod Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Chuck Cooper's retired No. 15 uniform hangs on the wall at Palumbo Center as a testimonial to his distinguished basketball career at Duquesne from 1947-50.
But that just begins to tell the story of Cooper and his lasting impact on the sport as a pioneer who was the first African American to be drafted in the National Basketball Association, which today is dominated by black players. Cooper, a 6-foot-4, 200-pound power forward known for his agile athleticism, was selected by the Boston Celtics in the second round of the 1950 NBA draft after leading Duquesne to two appearances in the then-prestigious National Invitation Tournament.
Cooper missed being the first black player to appear in an NBA game by one day. Earl Lloyd, a ninth-round pick of the Washington Capitols, made his debut Oct. 31, 1950, against the Rochester Royals.
In addition to Cooper and Lloyd, Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton broke the NBA racial barrier during the 1950-51 season.
"I think that even though he was the first trailblazer, I don't think he enjoyed the experience," Cooper's wife, Irva, was quoted by author Ron Thomas in his book, "They Cleared the Lane." "I think it was painful, and nobody likes pain."
Lloyd, who starred at West Virginia State, was on hand yesterday when Cooper's legacy was honored during a ceremony at halftime of the Duquesne-Savannah State game in the inaugural Chuck Cooper Classic. West Virginia State met Davis & Elkins in the opener of the doubleheader.
"To know him was to love him," Lloyd said of Cooper, who died in 1984 of liver cancer at the age of 58. "Chuck was steeped in humility that served him well. We were athletes who just happened to be African American. It [being drafted] was a basketball decision. The pressures on us never was on the court. It was all about how you held yourself off the court.
"You were treated differently, that drove us."
Lloyd, 6-5, and 6-7 Jim Tucker, a star on Duquesne's teams in the early 1950s, were teammates on the Syracuse Nationals and became the first African Americans to play on an NBA championship team in 1954-55.
"There's always going to be somebody to open doors for other folks," Lloyd said. "There's a lot of pride in what we did."
Cooper spent six years in the NBA, the first four with the Celtics and later with the St. Louis Hawks and the Fort Wayne Pistons. Cooper's son, Chuck III, choked up a bit as he talked fondly about his father's groundbreaking achievements.
"As I get older and mature as a man, I do have a deeper appreciation and understanding of what he accomplished," said Chuck, 47, who played basketball at Schenley High School and Community College of Allegheny County. "I can't say I can imagine what he went through, but I certainly understand what that time period was like in our country.
"In 1946, the University of Tennessee came up here to play Duquesne but refused to play if my dad played. His teammates supported him and the administration backed them up and Duquesne didn't play."
Chuck Cooper was an All-City player as a senior at Westinghouse High School and went to historically black West Virginia State. He left after a semester to join the Navy during the late stages of World War II and then returned home to play four years at Duquesne on the GI Bill. Cooper was the captain of Duquesne's 1949-50 team that was 23-6 and ranked No. 6 in the final Associated Press poll. That was the first Duquesne team to be ranked for an entire season.
Correction/Clarification: (Published Dec. 9, 2009) This story as originally published Dec. 6, 2009 referred to former Duquesne basketball player as Charles "Tarzan" Cooper. "Tarzan" Cooper played in independent pro basketball leagues for several years in the 1920s, '30s and '40s but did not attend Duquesne University.