By Evan Wheaton
Chuck Cooper III motions his way up to the stage and receives the orange jacket. He breaks out into a wide smile, knowing his father’s legacy has come full circle.
Sixty-two years since his final NBA game, Cooper was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as part of the 2019 class on Sept. 5.
“I tell my wife to pinch me every morning to make sure all of this is real,” Cooper said. “(To) hold his jacket knowing what he went through and knowing his contributions to the great game of basketball are being recognized at the highest level, it’s really an incredible honor.”
Cooper wasn’t just being recognized for his career statistics, having averaged 6.7 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 1.8 assists per game. He was honored for paving the way for the explosion of diversity that is reflected in the NBA today.
The 6-foot-5 small forward was the first African-American to be drafted by an NBA team. After being selected by the Boston Celtics in the second round of the 1950 NBA draft with the 14th overall pick, the organization helped him immensely throughout a time period filled with social injustice.
“The one thing about the Celtics organization is the owner Walter Brown and coach Red Auerbach, two Hall-of-Famers, they made sure my dad was treated with dignity and respect with the Boston Celtics organization,” Cooper said. “So that’s a major difference that we look at my father’s career versus Jackie Robinson. Jackie took a lot of stuff from his own teammates, where the Celtics organization wasn’t going to tolerate that.”
Having been the first person of color to play major league baseball in the modern era, Robinson is considered one of the most notable African-American pioneers in sports. As such, his contributions towards helping to diversify sports were recognized much sooner than Cooper’s, having been inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.
“One of the main reasons was baseball was the American pass time,” Cooper said. “That was the American sport. Basketball was a little more of a side show. My father, Earl Lloyd, and almost all the early African American pioneers obviously gave Jackie Robinson a lot of credit for making things easier for them.”
Despite the Celtics organization doing everything it could to aid Cooper, he still experienced racial tension during 1950’s America.
“The main problem my dad had was when he traveled down south,” Cooper said. “He might not have been able to eat the team dinner at the restaurant. He might not be able to stay at the same hotel. So there were occasions where he would have to leave and go back to Boston early while the rest of the team was hanging out.”
Cooper’s father died on Feb. 5, 1984, and the Hall of Famer has continued his father’s work ever since, through the Chuck Cooper Foundation, which he founded in 2011.
“It’s really a blessing to uphold his legacy and continue his legacy of community service and have an impact,” Cooper said. “We live in the city of Pittsburgh through the foundation, providing educational opportunities and leadership training to underserved (African-American) students that give them the opportunity to have hopefully successful careers just like my dad.”
Young people of color have benefitted from its efforts for nearly a decade. The foundation has granted over $200,000 in graduate-level scholarships since 2013, while also creating workshops and hosting guest speakers.
The foundation provides mentoring and leadership opportunities, all while upholding the Cooper name.
“I think the foundation really helped raise some awareness around his legacy,” Cooper said. “There were a couple things that happened, there was another Charles ‘Tarzan’ Cooper that was in the Hall of Fame, my father died at a very young age, Pittsburgh doesn’t have an NBA team, so it had only been so many years that I think he had been somewhat forgotten about.”
Cooper has always had a valiant passion for education. He received his graduate degree after his NBA career in 1960, and carries that same vision through the foundation.
“We believe in the importance of education, developing new leaders, and community service,” Cooper said. “So we give graduate-level scholarships, but they have to have a track record of community service and be willing to give back too. We like to talk to students K-12 about the importance of education and being good citizens, and hopefully inspire to have successful careers.”
Today’s NBA is a large contrast to Cooper’s playing days. Aside from the vast changes to league rules and regulations, players are also free to express themselves under commissioner Adam Silver’s leadership.
“I think commissioner Silver is the greatest commissioner in the world by allowing his players to take a social stand on things,” Cooper said. “And when you think of the NBA, it’s probably one of the most diverse leagues in the world, so they’ve done a wonderful job. My dad would be proud of the current state of the NBA.”
Cooper not only helped promote a brighter future for African-Americans, but people of all races and ethnicities. According to globalsportmatters.com, people of color accounted for 80.7 percent of NBA players in 2018.
“To know that he came in and kind of triggered the diversity, and it was kind of a slow process,” Cooper said. “But to see it today, I know he’d be extremely proud of the league and the direction it’s gone.”
Photo courtesy Cam Smith