Charles "Chuck" Cooper Biography
Played for West Virginia State College and Duquesne, Formed Friendly Relationships with Celtics Players
Professional basketball pioneer
The man who officially integrated professional basketball when he was drafted by the Boston Celtics of the National Basketball Association (NBA) in April of 1950, Chuck Cooper was a modest figure who specialized in offensive team play and generally stayed away from the spotlight. Like other early African-American players in the NBA, his experiences in the league were marred, though not overshadowed, by a series of racist incidents. In later life, however, Cooper revealed many negative reactions he had felt regarding the way he was treated by NBA coaches and administrators. After leaving the NBA in the late 1950s he made a complete break with the game of basketball. "I think that even though he was the first trailblazer, I don't think he enjoyed that experience," Cooper's wife Irva was quoted as saying by author Ron Thomas in They Cleared the Lane. "I think it was painful, and nobody likes pain."
Charles Henry Cooper was born on September 29, 1926, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to a mailman father and a former schoolteacher mother. Pittsburgh at the time was a thoroughly segregated city, and young Chuck Cooper faced numerous restrictions on where he could go and what he could do. After trying out for the basketball team at Westinghouse High School, he almost quit when he realized that he was being forced to do what basketball players sometimes call "dirty work:" struggling in tight defensive quarters and opening up space for other players, but rarely being given the chance to shoot the ball himself. Coach Ralph Zahnhiser, however, told Cooper he had a strong future in basketball, and Cooper returned to the team.
Played for West Virginia State College and Duquesne
As a senior at Westinghouse, Cooper averaged over 13 points per game, paced the school to Pittsburgh's city championship, and was chose as the All-City first team's center. Like several other talented young African-American players, Cooper headed for historically black West Virginia State College, whose program also produced the early black NBA pioneer Earl Lloyd. He played a promising semester there but left the school to enter the military in the winter of 1944-45, during the late stages of World War II. After a tour of duty on the West Coast, Cooper was drawn back home to Pittsburgh and enrolled at Duquesne University.
It was Cooper's solid career at very mainstream Duquesne that attracted the attention of professional scouts and began to give rise to his dreams of a basketball career. Over four years as a starter, Cooper amassed a school-record total of 990 points. He received several All-American honors during his successful senior year and led the Duquesne squad to two appearances in the then high-profile National Invitational Tournament (NIT). Cooper encountered some racial hostility, at one point responding (in an interview quoted by Thomas) to an opposing player who had shouted "I got the nigger" with the retort "And I got your mother in my jockstrap." Duquesne backed Cooper's right to participate, canceling games with Southern schools that refused to play in integrated contests.
As he approached his graduation from Duquesne in 1950 with a bachelor's degree in education, Cooper signed on with the famed touring all-black Harlem Globetrotters team. His agile defensive skills and shot-blocking ability inspired the nickname of Tarzan. At least one sportswriter had speculated that Cooper, the cream of the 1950 college crop, might be the player to duplicate baseballer Jackie Robinson's achievement and break the NBA's color line. On April 25, 1950, Cooper was selected in the second round of the NBA draft by Boston Celtics owner Walter Brown. When an associate pointed out that Cooper was black, Brown answered that (according to the HoopHall: Basketball Hall of Fame Web site) he didn't care whether Cooper was "striped, plaid, or polka dot." Other black players, including Lloyd and Cooper's fellow Globetrotters center Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton, also joined the NBA for the 1950 season, but Cooper was the first one drafted.
Formed Friendly Relationships with Celtics Players
The 6-foot, 4-inch, 200-lb. Cooper made his debut with the Celtics on November 1, 1950, and he went on to notch a strong rookie season. He played in 66 games, averaging 9.5 points and 8.5 rebounds per game and sparking a renaissance in the Celtics' drooping fortunes. Cooper formed bonds with his team-mates, including future Celtics great Bob Cousy, with whom he would sometimes go out in the evening to listen to jazz concerts in Boston. The NBA, largely stocked with college graduates who had encountered diverse environments, was a setting different from the world of predominantly rural-born white baseball players that Jackie Robinson had encountered, and Cooper was not a solo wall-breaker but shared the spotlight with the NBA's other new black players.
All this meant that overt racist harassment did not become a constant plague on Cooper's career. "I wasn't alone," Cooper told Jet. "I didn't have to take all the race-baiting and heat on my shoulders like Jackie Robinson." There were, however, segregated Southern hotels that refused Cooper admittance, and Cooper did face racial slurs on the court. Only once, in 1952, did he come to blows over them, in a game against the Milwaukee Hawks.
Discrimination, however, also comes in subtler forms. Cooper's scoring production declined in his next three seasons after his rookie year, reaching a low of 3.3 points per game in the 1953-54 season. Although Cooper at first had expressed delight at the fast-moving, offense-heavy game practiced in the NBA, he later came to believe that he was being marginalized as a defensive, "in-the-trenches" style player, and that the NBA wasn't ready for a high-scoring black star. Though both Cousy and Celtics coach Red Auerbach later disputed this idea, Cooper felt that he was once again doing the "dirty work."
Played in NBA Championships
Cooper was traded to the Milwaukee Hawks for the 1954-55 season and to the Fort Wayne (Indiana) Pistons the following year. These moves rejuvenated Cooper's career temporarily. He played for Fort Wayne in the 1956 NBA championships but remained frustrated. He then played for a year with the all-black Harlem Magicians squad before leaving basketball for good after suffering a back injury in a car crash. Reflecting on his career in the NBA, and on his frustrations with the role he was asked to play, Cooper said in an interview quoted by Thomas: "People say I look pretty good for 50. But all the damage done to me is inside. That's where it hurts.… My difficulties were internal, inside of me and inside the system that prevailed in basketball."
Cooper's life after basketball was notable for his level of commitment to social activism and for his resolutely maintained distance from the basketball world. He married twice, first in 1951 and again in 1957; the second marriage, to Irva Lee, produced four children, one of whom played basketball and later expressed the wish that his father had pushed him harder. Cooper himself enrolled in social work classes at the University of Minnesota and earned a master's degree in 1961.
Returning to Pittsburgh, he worked for and eventually rose to the position of director in several neighborhood antipoverty organizations. He was named head of the city's parks and recreation department in 1970, becoming Pittsburgh's first black department director. Later he moved into an urban affairs post at Pittsburgh National Bank, where he spearheaded development and affirmative action programs. Pittsburgh residents of the 1970s and 1980s knew Chuck Cooper mostly as a member of numerous high-profile boards and civic organizations. He was inducted into the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame in 1974, and in 1983 Duquesne established a Chuck Cooper Award to honor talented basketball underclassmen. The basketball career of the player who blazed the way for all the sport's numerous African-American stars, however, was largely forgotten when he died of liver cancer on May 2, 1984, in Pittsburgh.
Thomas, Ron, They Cleared the Lane: The NBA's Black Pioneers, University of Nebraska Press, 2002.
Jet, November 18, 1996, p. 48.
Brown, Clifton, "True Trail Blazers," NBA History, www.nba.com/history/true_trailblazers_moments.html (July 28, 2004).
"Charles Henry Cooper," Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (August 16, 2004).
"The NBA: Integration Happens," HoopHall: Basketball Hall of Fame, www.hoophall.com/exhibits/freedom_nba.htm (July 28, 2004).
—James M. Manheim
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