I have been trying to use the sports platform and the power of sports to address serious social issues during my entire adult life.
The NBA has always led the other leagues on best hiring practices both for people of color and women, and it has been the most progressive with all of its policies and impact on communities. It is not surprising, therefore, that basketball is my favorite sport.
I think the NBA got there partially as a result of the work of former Commissioner David Stern. But I am sure Stern and the league were influenced by pioneering NBA players who were not only stars but who stood up for justice inside and outside sport.
As I approach my 70th birthday, I think this is a good time to name my all-time NBA All-Star Team for Great Players with a Social Conscience, listed in order of their playing days.
But he was named to this team for his public opposition against racism. He led the Celtics in their support of teammate Chuck Cooper, who was the first African-American in NBA history to be drafted. (Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton had been signed by the Knicks before the draft. Cooper, Clifton and Earl Lloyd, selected later in the draft, were the first three African-Americans to play in the NBA in 1950). Cousy later stood up with and for teammate Bill Russell, who was a frequent target of racism in Boston and elsewhere.
Cousy organized the National Basketball Players Association, which was the first in pro sports. The association helped secure health benefits, pension plans and minimum salaries, none of which existed prior to its existence.
Cousy’s on-the-court greatness was enhanced with the arrival of Bill Russell in 1956.
Russell was the first African-American player to achieve superstar status in the NBA and became the first African-American coach in any major pro league. His book “Go Up for Glory” was the first book by an athlete to speak frankly about racism in America.
He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama in 2011 for his leadership in the civil rights movement.
Embry became a pioneering executive after he retired as a player. He became the first African-American NBA general manager, managing the Milwaukee Bucks from 1972 to 1979. As the Bucks assistant GM, he helped sign Oscar Robertson and draft the then Lew Alcindor.
He later was the GM for the Cleveland Cavaliers from 1986 to 1999 and Toronto Raptors in 2006. He also became the first African-American to be a team president. His candid book, “The Inside Game: Race, Power and Politics in the NBA,” published in 2004, opened wide more discussions on race and sport.
Robertson helped secure the future of players as a key part of an anti-trust lawsuit named after him in Robertson v NBA. He was the Players Association president at the time. The suit eventually led to major reforms of the NBA’s free agency and draft rules. All of this meant higher salaries for all players.
In January 2011, Robertson became part of the class-action lawsuit against the NCAA challenging the organization’s use of the images of student-athletes. Throughout his lifetime, Robertson was vocal on racial issues in America.
Abdul-Jabbar has been outspoken on racial and religious issues for most of his life. He refused to compete in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City as part of a protest against racism in the United States and South Africa. He spoke out on race in a Sports Illustrated cover story when he adopted Islam and changed his name from Lew Alcindor after college. “Giant Steps,” his autobiography, addressed racism in his own life and in the United States. He has written numerous books and produced a documentary on the great 1920s-40s all-black team, the New York Rens. He is a columnist for TIME magazine, in which he addresses issues weekly.
The lives of Russell and Cousy have been intertwined with Embry, who played with them on the Celtics. So have the lives of Robertson, Embry and Abdul-Jabbar. All have won NBA championships as players, and Russell won them as a coach. All have been inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
All these All-Stars have stood up for justice and not blocked its path while being great players.
They are all heroes on and off the court, which makes them the ultimate NBA All-Star Team for Great Players with a Social Conscience
Richard E. Lapchick is chair of UCF’s DeVos Sports Business Management Program and director of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, which annually publishes racial and gender report cards on MLB, the NBA, WNBA, NFL, MLS, college sports, and Associated Press sports editors. He is the author of 16 books that primarily focus on racial and gender issues and ethics in college sport.