Cooper, a Trailblazer for African-American Basketball Players, Headed to Hall

Watch Cooper's son and Duquesne coach Keith Dambrot remember local legend

Josh Rowntree
September 03, 2019 - 4:48 pm

PITTSBURGH (93.7 The Fan) - Chuck Cooper may be the most important athlete to ever come from the City of Pittsburgh. And now, decades after he paved the way for African-American basketball players, the world will learn more about his greatness.

Cooper, who passed away in 1984, will be posthumously inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame this weekend in Springfield, Mass. 

“Every day I have my wife pinch me just to make sure that everything is real,” said Cooper’s son, Chuck Cooper III. “It’s been an incredible ride.”

“For me, it means a lot,” added Duquesne coach Keith Dambrot, whose father, Sid, began playing at Duquesne shortly after Cooper moved on to the NBA following a decorated career for the Dukes. “I heard all the Chuck Cooper stories. He’s very important to me and what this University stands for. I think Duquesne should be very proud.”

Before Cooper in 1950, no African-American had been drafted to an NBA team. That changed when the Boston Celtics selected him in the second-round that year. He fought off bigotry and verbal assualts throughout his career. In 1946, Tennessee coach John Maurer refused to play at Duquesne due to Cooper's involvement with the team. The Dukes refused to play without Cooper, sending Tennessee home without a game.

Duquesne honored Cooper, a Westinghouse High School graduate, last year when it announced that it’s upgraded basketball arena, set to open in 2020, will bare his name, the UPMC Cooper Field House. 

“He cared about the City of Pittsburgh and he really was passionate and cared about the people of the City of Pittsburgh,” Cooper III said. “To see the city and Duquesne University to continue to show him love and recognize his contribution, not just to basketball, but being the first African-American City Parks director, being the first Urban Affairs Officer, of any race, for PNC’s predecessor Pittsburgh National Bank, really speaks volumes to how he was as a leader and his character as a man.”

Cooper will be presented by a who’s who of basketball greats. Bill Russell, Elgin Baylor, Tom Heinsohn, Julius Erving, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, Dominique Wilkins, Mannie Jackson, and Ray Allen all agreed to help with the ceremony.

“When I saw the list of presenters, I was heading to a meeting and I had to stop. I got pretty emotional,” Cooper III said. “Those are guys who were either affiliated with his teams or he was very proud of or had a special affiliation with. For all of those guys to say yes, because they don’t have to, is very, very special.

“I really think it speaks to the appreciation that they have for, not only the contribution that he made to basketball, but also the sacrifice that he endured, being the early African-American pioneer during that time period.”

“There’s no question that those guys only present to people that they think are very, very important,” Dambrot added. “What Chuck did was, he paved the way for the modern day African-Americans to play in that league and to make the money that they’re making today. He endured the hardships, he took the verbal attacks. So it says a lot. Those guys don’t just come out of the woodwork for just anybody.”

Cooper played seven years in the NBA. His statistics (6.7 points per game, 5.9 rebounds per game) are not as flashy as other names he will join, but that does not diminish the impact he had on the game of basketball. Last year, less than 70 years after he broke the NBA’s color barrier, 24 of the top 25 highest-paid players in the league were of African-American heritage. 

“I think he would be incredibly excited that the NBA probably is the most diverse, global league in the world," Cooper III said. "To open that door and be affiliated with a league that is more embracing of minorities and diverse populations, I think he would be incredibly proud."