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Some hoops historians recently instigated a push to get the Basketball Hall of Fame to induct Marques Haynes, despite his never having played a single game in the NBA. Writer Bijan Bayne has nothing to do with Haynes personally, but he shares the experts’ educated bias in favor of the player’s canonization.

“I would think that the greatest dribbler who ever lived deserves a place in the hall,” says Bayne. “And no question about it, Haynes was the greatest.”

Haynes is a legendary Harlem Globetrotters ball-handler who began his four-decade career as a court jester well before the NBA was founded as an all-white confederation in 1949; Bayne, 37, is a local writer and the author of Sky Kings: Black Pioneers of Professional Basketball, a fun, quick read of a history book that hit store shelves last week.

Given the racial makeup of NBA rosters over the last several decades, young and/or unenlightened sports fans could dismiss a primer on blacks and pro hoops as a huge redundancy—there’s no clamoring for a race-based tome titled something like Only the Puck Was Black: A History of White Hockey. But the racial history of pro basketball is more complex than a quick glance at today’s game reveals.

The subject matter is a natural for Bayne’s first book: The author’s initial exposure to basketball was a Wide World of Sports broadcast featuring the Harlem Globetrotters. He watched the game wide-eyed in his family’s Mount Pleasant living room, where his parents had painted “Soul!” in the windows in hopes of pacifying the rioters and looters who took to D.C.’s streets in the wake of Martin Luther King’s slaying. It was several years before he understood what all the neighborhood unrest was about, and a similar amount of time passed before Bayne embraced his mother’s opinion that there was a better version of basketball than the all-black, clownish endeavor he’d seen on TV.

No team figures so centrally in the story of black pro basketball as Bayne’s beloved Globetrotters. As he points out in Sky Kings, when the NBA was founded, the ‘Trotters didn’t play “clown ball,” and the team was still able to attract the most accomplished black players, whose only other option was barnstorming club teams that didn’t pay diddly. The new league’s franchise owners—then, as now, an all-white clique—agreed not to mix races, and rationalized their segregationism by saying that signing black talent would kill the ‘Trotters. At the time, the historically all-black troupe was a far bigger draw than any of the NBA’s 17 franchises.

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Baseball owners had, until 1947, armed themselves with a very similar justification—the preservation of the Negro Leagues—for not letting nonwhites onto their diamonds. Bayne, however, argues that pro basketball owners’ decision made better business sense.

“The baseball owners were just racist, but I can’t say that the basketball owners were. The truth is they couldn’t pay as much as the Globetrotters were paying black players then, and they also really didn’t want to do anything to make the Globetrotters mad,” he says. “Most of the early NBA owners also owned arenas, and as businessmen they loved the Globetrotters, because whenever they’d come to town they’d fill a lot more seats than an NBA team could then.”

The NBA didn’t stay pale for long. After just one season, during which six of the founding franchises went under, the owners changed the league’s guidelines—by only a 6-5 vote—to allow the signing of black players.

The first black player drafted was Chuck Cooper, a 6-foot-6 forward from Duquesne. Cooper’s relative anonymity among fans today is justification enough for Sky Kings, Bayne says.

He adds that most basketball fans, regardless of race, are stunned when he identifies the first team to take advantage of the racial glasnost.

“Cooper was taken by the Boston Celtics,” says Bayne. “One of the great ironies in this book is that it shows how much the Celtics have done in terms of blacks and basketball. The first NBA team to start an all-black lineup? The Celtics in 1964, with Sam and K.C. Jones, Willie Naulls, Satch Sanders, and [Bill] Russell. The first black coach? Russell, hired by Red Auerbach while he was still playing with…the Celtics.

“If black America hates one sports franchise, it’s the Boston Celtics,” says Bayne. “If you’re black and live anywhere but New England, you hate the Celtics. You have to!”

And just why do brothers loathe the Celts? Though not a part of his book, Bayne has an amusing theory about the origins of the by now clichéd prejudice, and it has nothing to do with the city of Boston’s history of racial divisiveness or the team’s more recent all-white cavalcade of all-time greats like Havlicek and Cowens and Bird and McHale.

“I blame it all on Danny Ainge,” he chuckles. “Throughout the ’80s, with the Celtics going so strong, I think guys sitting in dorm rooms at black colleges all across America just got sick of watching Ainge, with his dirty playing style—and that look on his face!—and they started talking to each other about how much they hated him, and that hatred just became a part of black culture. If you take a look at the team’s history, it doesn’t seem fair.”

The drafting of Cooper didn’t create the kind of firestorm Jackie Robinson’s arrival in Brooklyn enkindled, and the lack of controversy allowed NBA general managers to put a premium on talent, not race, on draft day. Then Wilt Chamberlain blew off the Harlem Globetrotters to join the NBA’s Philadelphia Warriors for the 1959 season—and didn’t have to take a pay cut to do so—and the best black players began following him. The NBA’s floodgates were open.

Incredibly, by 1964, half the players in the NBA, which was the last of the Big Three sports leagues to integrate, were black. The University of Kentucky, which was considered the premier college hoops program but based its recruitment more on melanin deficiency than merit, was still years away from dressing its first nonwhite player. Bayne’s book ends in 1967, when two-thirds of the NBA was black. To survive in an age of integrated, high-level NBA play, the Globetrotters and Haynes had no choice but to take up clowning full-time.

—Dave McKenna