When he was drafted by the Syracuse Nationals, Johnny Kerr held out for $5,500 on the advice of his roommate at Illinois, who figured something so thoroughly professional as the NBA, which had been in business almost the entire postwar period, five years anyway, could easily afford the extra $500. Plus, Kerr agreed he ought to get a little something extra on account of his not being able to find Syracuse on a map. So that was one way to learn American geography and make some bucks at the same time: Enter the professional basketball draft. A couple of the guys that year found out where Fort Wayne was too. Turns out, it's in Indiana. Those guys were Pistons.
Well, you wouldn't learn much geography. There were only nine teams in 1954, down from 17 pro teams in assorted leagues just five years before, and the NBA's idea of the West took a guy only as far as Minneapolis. Rochester (it's in New York) was also the NBA's idea of the frontier. ( Syracuse, which could have gone either way, was in the East, for purposes of league symmetry.) So what geography actually taught a guy was that the NBA wasn't terrifically relevant to a lot of the country. There wasn't much national about the National Basketball Association.
Nor was it especially representative of the country. In matters of race the NBA wasn't even close to holding a mirror to its culture. It had signed just three black players in 1950, and through the first half of the decade, the dominant pro basketball league was pretty much lily-white. It was taking the position, rather obstinately a civil rights leader might have thought, that three was plenty.
The NBA probably wouldn't have had any black players to that point—a full three years after the major leagues were joined by Jackie Robinson—if the Harlem Globetrotters hadn't spanked the champs of what was then called the National Basketball League, the Minneapolis Lakers, in 1948. Did it twice in a row, actually, before the Lakers won one. That was a bit of an eye-opener.
Joe Lapchick, who used to barnstorm with the Original Celtics in a famous rivalry with the all-black New York Rens, never forgot, or even forgave, basketball's treatment of that great team. His Celtics would check into a hotel after their game (which might have ended in a race riot, a common enough occurrence that nets were often rigged around the court to protect players) while his friends on the Rens would board their bus, taking their meals with them, in sullen deference to segregation.
The NBA respected the talent of the black players but was much more interested in the disposable income of their fans. A poster from that barnstorming period reads: AS USUAL, SEATS SET ASIDE FOR OUR COLORED SPECTATORS, WHO ATTEND OUR GAMES IN LARGE NUMBERS. But the game certainly did not admit any idea of equality.
Lapchick used to walk onto the court and, instead of a ritual handshake to begin their game, embrace Rens center Tarzan Cooper. It was a noble gesture, but that's all it could be. In 1950, with the Globetrotters' performance against the Lakers still fresh in everyone's memory, he had the opportunity to do more as coach of the New York Knicks. Lapchick, who nearly quit in 1947 when the NBA turned down his proposal to include the Rens in the league, signed Nat ( Sweetwater) Clifton, one of the three black players admitted to the league that year.
Lapchick's son, Richard, was just five, and it was a puzzlement that night for him to look out his bedroom window and "see my dad's image swinging from a tree."
Perhaps there'd have been more outcry over the lack of equal opportunity if anybody thought the NBA was much of an opportunity in the first place. It was hardly the high life: The players got $5 a day in meal money and traveled by train mostly, bus once in a while. "And we were kind of tall," says Kerr. "Those trips to New York City would take eight hours, and you'd have to assume the fetal position all that time in those sleeper cars."
After home games the players, all of them, would retire to Kerr's home for pizza, shrimp and beer. Even on the road, it was fraternal to absurd extremes. Teammates became scarily domesticated in their living arrangements, some of them establishing partnerships that lasted a decade or more. Kerr roomed with Al Bianchi so many seasons it became a kind of marriage. "He brought the toothpaste," Kerr says, "I brought the shampoo." Presumably the hotel supplied the soap, which players would need above the requirements of most travelers. "We'd go back to the hotel in our uniforms and wash them while we stood in the shower."