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90.5 WESA's collection of stories on race, diversity, LGBT, gender and age-related stories.

Chuck Cooper’s Legacy for African-Americans in Basketball

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Chuck Cooper was a Duquesne University basketball star who became the first African-American drafted by an NBA team when he was selected in the second round by the Boston Celtics on April 29, 1950. In 2011, the Chuck Cooper Foundation was established in tribute to his legacy.

The foundation presents its annual Leadership, Diversity and Community Service Award this week. Joining us to discuss the legacy of Chuck Cooper is his son Chuck Cooper III.

Cooper explains that, like many other young men who played basketball in Pittsburgh, his father developed his skills as an adolescent at Mellon Park in Point Breeze.

Once in college, he says, the elder Cooper had a great amount of respect for Duquesne University, in part because of an incident involving the University of Tennessee’s basketball team in the late 1940s. The Tennessee team traveled to Pittsburgh but refused to play the Dukes if Cooper would be included on the court. In the face of this prejudice, Duquesne didn’t back down, and the Dukes management sent the Tennessee team back home without a game. This gesture of respect and solidarity meant a lot to Cooper, his son explains.

Cooper says that his father’s breakthrough into the NBA in 1950 didn’t get the attention that Jackie Robinson’s did because basketball at the time was not nearly as popular as baseball. But it was still a breakthrough: Cooper stresses that there were not many opportunities for black basketball players in the 1940s and early 1950s, explaining that only the Harlem Globetrotters had a substantial amount of black players in those years.

According to Cooper, the Chuck Cooper Foundation is meant to continue his father’s legacy, in part by awarding graduate-level scholarships for promising students. This week, he says, the Foundation will honor McKeesport native and WNBA star Swin Cash with the Chuck Cooper Leadership, Diversity and Community Service Award at an event at the Consol Center.