The NBA Celebrates Martin Luther King Day  

A history lesson from the pre-Civil Rights Act days.

Martin Luther King Day provides a teaching opportunity for the National Basketball Association. The league honors the slain civil rights leader with various tributes including players talking about King’s impact on them. But in the early days of the NBA, prior to King’s involvement in the Civil Rights movement, The NBA or the Basketball Association of America did not have Negro players on the court between the league’s inception in 1946 until 1950. What is even more striking that the New York Knicks had a Japanese-American player Wat Misaka on the roster for three games in 1947 just two years after the end of World War II and less than two years after closing the last Japanese American internment camp in March 1946. The Misaka family was not ordered into an internment camp.

John McLendon, who was coaching at black colleges in the 1940s, pushed the NBA to hire African American players. In 1946, a new basketball league called the Basketball Association of America formed with teams mostly in big eastern centers like New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Washington. Arena owners were looking to fill dates. For some reason known only to BAA owners, the league put up a color barrier. An existing circuit, the National Basketball League mostly consisting of Midwest cities did employ Negro players starting in 1942. But by 1949, the two leagues consolidated and Negro players were not welcomed although the owners could book the Harlem Globetrotters for a big pay day which was great for the bottom line. McLendon forced the issue and brought two players to try out for Washington in 1950 and that brought down the barrier. McLendon was the first African American coach to work in a professional league as George Steinbrenner hired him to run the Cleveland Pipers of the American Basketball League in 1961.