Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInPin on PinterestEmail to someone

Baseball gets well-deserved kudos for breaking the color barrier with Jackie Robinson, but no league has been as proactive at eliminating the barrier altogether as the National Basketball Association. On MLK Day we take a look back at some of the players that helped bring Martin Luther King’s dream closer to reality.

''Content of character means we're judging people off who they are. What type of person they are, their values, their beliefs, and not the color of their skin.”
— LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland Trailblazers


Long before there was an NBA, the sport of basketball was making waves with its inclusiveness. In 1902, Harry “Bucky” Lew became the first recorded black to sign a professional basketball contract. Lew’s first game with Pawtucket Athletic Club in the New England Basketball League occurred four days shy of James Naismith’s 33rd birthday.

— 1947 —

Wataru Misaka
First Asian-American in NBA

Wataru Misaka led the University of Utah to the 1944 NCAA and 1947 NIT championships, before becoming the first athlete of Asian descent to play in the NBA (then known as the BAA). He saw playing time in just three games during the 1947-48 season with the New York Knicks.

Basketball Divider

— 1950 —

Chuck Cooper
First Black Drafted in NBA

Duquesne Dukes small forward Chuck Cooper became the first black player drafted in the NBA, when he was selected in the second round by Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach.

Basketball Divider

— 1950 —

Earl Lloyd
First Black Player in NBA

On Halloween, Washington Capitols small forward Earl Lloyd became the first black athlete to play in the NBA in a game against the Rochester Royals. In college, Lloyd was a two-time All American at West Virginia State.

Basketball Divider

— 1966 —

Bill Russell
First Black Coach in NBA

Bill Russell served as a player-coach for the Boston Celtics from 1966 through 1969. The last two years he led the Celtics to NBA championships. He later coached the Seattle SuperSonics and Sacramento Kings.

Basketball Divider

— 1978 —

Butch Lee
First Latino Player in NBA

Point guard Butch Lee became the first Latino to play in the NBA, after being selected in the first round by the Atlanta Hawks. Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Lee led Marquette to a National Championship in Al McGuire’s last year as coach.

Basketball Divider

— 2001 —

Wang Zhizhi
First Chinese Player in NBA

After lengthy negotiations with the Dallas Mavericks, Wang Zhizhi was released by the Bayi Rockets and became the first Chinese player to take the court in the NBA.

Basketball Divider

— 2002 —

Robert L. Johnson
First Black Owner in NBA

Black Entertainment Television founder Robert L. Johnson became the first black majority club owner in a major American sports league when he purchased the Charlotte Bobcats. In 2010, he sold his majority stake to Michael Jordan. Johnson also happens to be the first black billionaire.

Basketball Divider

— 2014 —

Sim Bhullar
First Indian Signed to NBA

Sim Bhullar became the first player of Indian descent to sign with an NBA team, when he inked a contract with the Sacramento Kings. The 7’5″ center was later released without seeing any playing time.