Charles “Chuck” Cooper – Downtown Renown

Changed Basketball as the First African American Drafted into the NBA

Charles “Chuck” Cooper, Pittsburgh native and iconic basketball player, is one of 14 highlighted Pittsburgh athletes as part of the Downtown Renown: Pittsburgh Sports Greats series showcasing stories as inspirational as they are amazing. Designed in collaboration with artist Gavin Benjamin, find all sports profiles windows currently on view in windows around the neighborhood.

A 2019 inductee into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, this Pittsburgh native became the first African American drafted by the NBA in 1950.

Born in 1926, Cooper grew up in the Homewood neighborhood of Pittsburgh. A standout player at Westinghouse High School, he averaged 13 points a game his senior year. Named an All-City first team center, Cooper attended West Virginia State College after graduating in 1944. Drafted by the Navy, he served during the final year of World War II.

After his military service, Cooper attended Duquesne University where he played for legendary coach Chick Davies. Cooper started all four years, racking up 990 points to become the school’s all-time scoring leader. Captain his senior year, he led the first Duquesne team to be nationally ranked for the entire season. Duquesne received two invitations to the prestigious National Invitational Tournament during Cooper’s career. Cooper also became the first African American not enrolled at a Historically Black College or University to play in a college basketball game south of the Mason Dixon line. In 1950, Chuck Cooper was named a Consensus Second Team Collegiate All-American. He would later play for the Celtics with fellow 1950 All-Americans and future Hall of Famers Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman.

After graduation, Cooper played for the Harlem Globetrotters. On April 25, 1950, he made history when Boston Celtics owner Walter A. Brown selected Cooper with the 14th pick overall in the NBA draft. The first African American to be drafted, Earl Lloyd and Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton joined Cooper in integrating the league that year. Integration in professional basketball took place during an era of widening desegregation in sport and American life. The All-American Football Conference broke the color line first in 1946, then Jackie Robinson integrated Major League Baseball in 1947, and in 1948, President Truman’s Executive Order 9981 abolished discrimination in the armed forces.

A talented player, Cooper spent four years in Boston then played for the Milwaukee Hawks and the Fort Wayne Pistons. Though he opened the door for the black players who followed, he later acknowledged the cost of that effort, “My difficulties were internal, inside of me and inside the system that prevailed in basketball.”

A Pittsburgh Legacy

Cooper went back to school after leaving the NBA. In 1960, he received a Master’s in Social Work and returned to Pittsburgh. He became the first African American department head in city government, serving as Director of Parks and Recreation. Later Cooper led the affirmative action program at Pittsburgh National Bank and served on the city’s school board. He continued his battle for equality until his death in 1984 from liver cancer.

Learn more about the history of sports in Pittsburgh from the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum at the Heinz History Center.

This spotlight is a part of the Downtown Renown: Pittsburgh Sports Greats series. Learn more about the project, and look for all 14 sports profile windows in Downtown!

Explore all the featured athletes

Arnold PalmerBill MazeroskiCharles “Chuck” CooperDan McCoyFranco HarrisHonus WagnerJoe GreeneJohn WoodruffJosh GibsonMario LemieuxRoberto ClementeSuzie McConnell-SerioSwin CashSidney Crosby

“Charles ‘Chuck’ Cooper,” 2020
by Gavin Benjamin

📍 View this Pittsburgh Sports Great window installation at 925 Liberty Avenue, Downtown Pittsburgh

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