Top 10 First Black NBA Players of All Time Rankings
Ranking the best Black NBA Players of the 1950’s in celebration of Black History Month
By Fan Author | February 21, 2023
Black History Month
The evolution of basketball continues to change with the talent level and skills of the current NBA players taking it to the next level.
While the National Basketball Association consistently sees the game evolve, nothing of today’s game of basketball was similar to the 1950’s when the NBA introduced, signed, drafted, and built NBA rosters with Black American players.
Headlining the waves of the new NBA in the 1950’s were a few players who helped transition the game while introducing black NBA players to the game.
Those players in the 1950’s played in a difficult time of American history and had to battle not only what was on the court but outside of it facing racism, discrimination, prejudice, death threats, and more.
Four of those NBA players included Harold Hunter Sr, Chuck Cooper, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, and Earl Lloyd. Cooper, Clifton, and Cooper were the first three black NBA players to play during the early 1950’s while Hunter Sr was the first black basketball player to sign an NBA contract helping to open the door.
Since those four the NBA has seen many great black basketball players enter the game, put together Hall of Fame resumes, and helped evolve the game of basketball to what it is today.
From only having three black NBA players, the game has seen the numbers increase year over year to nearly 72 percent black NBA players during the current 2022-2023 NBA Season.
With the history of the NBA loaded with great players, here is a chance to look at the Top 10 First Black NBA Players rankings who played during the 1950’s.
Team(s): Tri-Cities Blackhawks (1950-1951)
Just missing the Top 10 First Black NBA Players rankings list is Hank DeZonie who was from Harlem, New York.
DeZonie who played and attended school at the Clark Atlanta University, was one of the first four black NBA Players after joining the Tri-Cities Blackhawk after signing a contract with them in 1950-1951 a year after the Dayton Rens as well as other NBL teams were forced to shut down after the NBL joined the NBA.
Despite showing strong potential in the NBL during the 1949-1950 NBL season, DeZonie managed to only play in five games in the NBA while averaging 3.4 points per game to go along with 3.6 rebounds, and 1.8 assists.
While his stint was short, he importance to the game of basketball and the integration of African Americans in the NBA was vital.
Team(s): Syracuse Nationals (1954-1957)
Another player landing on the list of honorable mentions list of the best black NBA players from the 1950’s is the former Syracuse Nationals power forward Jim Tucker.
Tucker, who was born in Paris, Kentucky put together a strong high school and college performance at Duquesne University before being drafted in the third round of the 1954 NBA Draft.
Tucker would go on to play for the Nationals for three NBA seasons between 1954-1955 through the 1956-1957 schedule.
Tucker finished his career averaging 4.1 points per game to go along with 3.5 rebounds while winning one NBA Championship.
Top 10 First Black NBA Players
10. Harold Hunter Sr.
Team(s): Washington Capitols (Drafted, Never Played in NBA)
Coming in at number 10 on the Top 10 First Black NBA Players ranking list is Harold Hunter Sr who was born and raised in Kansas.
Hunter Sr who did not appear in the NBA was a key part of the history of African Americans in the NBA and the slow movement to allow more black players to join the NBA.
After being drafted by the Washington Capitols during the 10th round of the 1950 NBA Draft, Hunter Sr became the first African American baseball player to sign an NBA contract.
After signing with the team, the Capitols elected to cut Hunter during training camp, shutting down his NBA career before it got underway.
9. Chuck Cooper
Team(s): Boston Celtics (1950-1955), St. Louis Hawks/Fort Wayne Pistons (1955-1956)
After putting together a strong senior season in high school, Chuck Cooper was drafted into the Navy for World War II slowly down his path to the NBA.
After a few seasons, Cooper was able to join Duquesne University where the Pittsburgh native was named an All-American while starting in each season while scoring 990 points over that stretch.
His performance on the floor landed Cooper with the Boston Celtics during the 2nd round of the 1950 NBA Draft. Cooper would go on to average 9.3 points as a rookie to go along with 8.5 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game.
When his career was over after the 1955-1956 NBA season, Cooper finished with a 6.7 points per game mark while averaging 5.9 rebounds and 1.8 assists per contests.
8. Earl Lloyd
Team(s): Washington Capitols (1950-1951), Syracuse Nationals (1952-1958), Detroit Pistons (1958-1960)
Another icon of the NBA while helping the NBA evolve with the times while opening the door for African Americans is Earl Lloyd. Lloyd, who was from Alexandria, Virginia played his college basketball at West Virginia State University.
During his college career Lloyd helped the university win all 30 of their games during the 1947-48 college season. His play on the floor landed him with the Washington Capitols during the 1950 NBA season.
Lloyd would go on to win one NBA Championship while averaging 8.4 points per game to go along with 6.4 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game. In addition to his play on the floor Lloyd was the first black NBA player to appear in an actual NBA game.
7. Don Barksdale
Team(s): Baltimore Bullets (1951-1953, Boston Celtics (1953-1955)
Another dominant black NBA player from the 1950’s is the former UCLA Bruins star Don Barksdale. Barksdale, who was the first black Olympic Basketball player, helped Team USA take home the 1948 Summer Olympics Gold Medal.
After his success with the Bruins, Barksdale joined the Baltimore Bullets After failing to get drafted during the NBA draft. Barksdale would go on to average over 12.6 points per game, 9.2 assists and 2.2 assists per game in each of his first two seasons with the Bullets.
Barksdale would eventually be traded to the Boston Celtics before retiring. Over his career Barksdale was the first black NBA player to play in the NBA All-Star Game.
6. Maurice Stokes
Team(s): Rochester Royals (1955-1957), Cincinnati Royals (1957-1958)
The game of basketball has evolved since the 1950’s while scoring has increased over the years. However, for Maurice Stokes of the Rochester Royals and Cincinnati Royals, scoring came easy while helping him put together a solid short career within the NBA.
Over his three seasons in the NBA Stokes averaged 16.4 points per game to go along with 17.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game.
His play on the court was as good as any player in the NBA while his statistics ranked among some of the best big man statistics in the game.
Unfortunately, after being knocked unconscious during a game during the 1957-1958 NBA Season, Stokes suffered a setback while becoming paralyzed due to a stroke ending what looked to be a promising NBA career.
5. Nat Clifton
Team(s): New York Knicks (1950-1957), Detroit Pistons (1957-1958)
Rounding out the top five on the Top 10 First Black NBA Players rankings list is the long time New York Knicks power forward Nat Clifton.
Clifton, who was one of the first African Americans to join the NBA, played his first seven seasons all with the Knicks while averaging 10.3 points per game to go along with 8.2 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game.
His performance on the hardwood landed him an NBA All-Star appearance during the 1957 NBA Season before being dealt to the Fort Wayne Pistons who would eventually be the Detroit Pistons.
4. Ray Felix
Team(s): Baltimore Bullets (1953-1954), New York Knicks (1954-1960), Minneapolis Lakers (1959-1960), Los Angeles Lakers (1960-1962)
When you start looking at the top African Americans to appear in the NBA during the 1950’s, Ray Felix ranks among the best of the ERA while helping to transcend the NBA.
Felix would go on to win the 1954 NBA Rookie of the Year Award as well as being selected to the 1954 NBA All-Star team.
Felix finished his career with 6,974 career points to go along with 5,652 rebounds, and 458 assists while playing with the Baltimore Bullets, New York Knicks, Minneapolis Lakers as well as the Los Angeles Lakers.
3. Walter Dukes
Team(s): New York Knicks (1955-1956), Minneapolis Lakers (1956-1957), Detroit Pistons (1957-1963)
In at number three on the Top 10 First Black NBA Players rankings list is the former longtime Detroit Pistons star Walter Dukes. Dukes, who played his college basketball at Seton Hall University would be selected during the 1953 NBA Draft.
However, Dukes elected to join the Harlem Globetrotters for the new few seasons before electing to join the NBA. The Detroit Pistons, New York Knicks and Minneapolis Lakers star would rack up two NBA All-Star appearances while averaging a double double over his career (10.4 points per game, 11.3 rebounds per game).
2. Wilt Chamberlain
Team(s): Philadelphia Warriors (1959-1962), San Francisco Warriors (1962-1965), Philadelphia 76ers (1964-1968), Los Angeles Lakers (1968-1973)
While he only appeared in one season during the 1950’s Wilt Chamberlain is one of the most iconic basketball players of All-Time and was one of the most iconic of his time.
Chamberlain was as great as any NBA player to play the game, leading the NBA in points and rebounds in his first season during the 1959-1960 season while averaging 37.6 points per game to go along with 27 rebounds per game.
The dominant big man posted the NBA Rookie of the Year Award during that season before earning 13 trips to the NBA All-Star game, winning four NBA MVP Awards, and two NBA Championships.
1. Bill Russell
Team(s): Boston Celtics (1956-1969)
Landing at number one on the Top 10 First Black NBA Players rankings list is the long time Boston Celtic great Bill Russell.
Russell is considered one of the greatest NBA players to play the game while winning 11 NBA Championships. Over his first four seasons Russell would average 16.55 points per game to go along with 22.3 rebounds per game.
From 1956 to 1960, Russell and the Boston Celtics would win two NBA Championships while Russell would win his first NBA MVP Award, first NBA First Team honor, and be named to the 1958 and 1959 NBA All-Star teams.
In many NBA experts’ eyes, the longtime Boston Celtics star was the first black NBA player to reach the NBA superstar level. Russell’s 11 NBA Championships is one achievement that will be nearly impossible to surpass moving forward.
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