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Chuck Cooper, Duquesne Legend and First African American Drafted to the NBA, Gets His Due

Chuck Cooper, Duquesne Legend and First African American Drafted to the NBA, Gets His Due

PITTSBURGH — An eight-year-old Chuck Cooper III was enjoying some father-son time when all of a sudden a voice called out from three-quarters of the length of the court.

“This is the longest shot I have ever made in a basketball game,” came the voice.

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Despite no warmups or previous shots taken, this attempt hit nothing but net and just moments later a similar sequence occurred from halfcourt.

This was not just any exchange, it was Cooper III’s introduction to his father Chuck Cooper’s basketball abilities. Friday evening those talents will be recognized on a national scale as Cooper is elected into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

That moment as Cooper III recalled all of these years later was his dad as his best; a modest father, who let his work do the talking and someone who he wanted to emulate.

Despite this recollection, Cooper III never saw highlights of his father in the NBA until the 2000-01 season and was amazed at what he saw upon watching an NBA tribute. There was his dad, the first African-American to be drafted into the NBA excelling on the court.

“He’s crossing over, he’s finger rolling, he’s right-handed and shooting left-handed hook shots,” said Cooper III. “It was not until I saw his NBA clips. He had a different flair to his game, but he really played under control.”

DEFINING A LEGACY

In 1946 Tennessee was set to play Duquesne at the McKeesport Vocational High School but refused to play the Dukes unless Cooper was not part of the team. Duquesne took a team vote which ended up unanimous that it refused Tennessee’s demand and the game was not played.

“He loved playing at Duquesne,” Cooper III fondly recalled. “The team was extremely supportive. I really believe that’s [the vote] where the bond with my dad and Duquesne University was initially forged.”

Some refer to Cooper as basketball’s Jackie Robinson for becoming the first African-American player drafted to the NBA because of the hardships he had to endure to fulfill his dreams.

“Really, Chuck paved the way for the modern-day African Americans to play in that league and make the money they are playing today,” Duquesne men’s basketball coach Keith Dambrot said. “He endured the hardships, he took the verbal attacks, so it says a lot.”

When it came time to find Hall of Fame presenters, no list is as massive among this year’s inductees as Cooper’s. Upon Cooper’s name being called, the stage will be filled with NBA legends and luminaries. Bill Russell, Elgin Baylor, Tom Heinsohn, Julius Erving, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird, Isaiah Thomas, Dominique Wilkins, Mannie Jackson and Ray Allen, all previous Hall of Fame inductees, will be present while also speaking after the event about the Duquesne graduate’s accomplishments.

“When I saw the list of presenters, I was headed to a meeting and I had to stop because I got emotional,” said Cooper III. “Those were guys who either were affiliated with his teams, played for his teams or was proud of [him]. For all of those guys to say yes is very special. It really speaks to the appreciation that they have not only for the contributions to basketball but the sacrifices he endured.”

Even after his NBA career concluded, Cooper earned his masters at the University of Minnesota and also served on the Pittsburgh school board, was appointed as the director of parks and recreation for the city, making him the first African-American department head and helped Pittsburgh’s National Bank.

It was Cooper’s mindset to lead by example whether it was on the court, in education or assisting the community.

“I really want people to know that he cared about the city of Pittsburgh and he was really passionate about the people.” Cooper III said.

In the past, Dambrot has not been afraid to make comparisons to LeBron James given the connection those two share.

As the Duquesne coach was made aware of Cooper’s prowess on and off the court, he noted the similarities the pair have with impacting their communities.

“I see a lot Chuck Cooper in LeBron and that means LeBron has learned and Chuck has paved the way,” said Dambrot. “I am sure if you ask LeBron about Chuck Cooper, he knows his story.”

Though Cooper passed away in 1984, basketball has progressed. Cooper III believes his father would be smiling upon assessing the current state of the NBA.

“I think he would be incredibly excited that the NBA is the most diverse global league in the world,” he said. “To open that door and be affiliated with a league that is probably more embracing of minorities and diverse populations, I think he would be incredibly proud.”

LEAVING A DUQUESNE FOOTPRINT

This past season, Duquesne men’s basketball coach Keith Dambrot knew that he wanted to pay tribute to Cooper by putting a CC on the team’s jersey.

Dambrot first heard about Cooper’s on and off court accolades from his father, Sid, and immediately grew a respect which has only grown stronger through time.

“He is very important to me and what this university stands for,” the third-year Duquesne coach said. “Duquesne should be very proud because it was so progressive in the 40’s and 50’s when most people weren’t. Their mission is to serve people. I think we should be very proud of Chuck Cooper’s enshrinement.”

When Dambrot was hired at Duquesne he viewed Cooper’s legacy as important and the CC on his team’s jersey as something that will never go away if he has anything to say about it.

Additionally Duquesne is expected to open the UPMC Cooper Fieldhouse prior to next season.

“Duquesne continues to recognize his contributions,” said Cooper III. “It speaks volumes to how he was as a leader and his character as a man.”

Dambrot will attend Friday’s Hall of Fame ceremony and is looking forward to getting the goosebumps which begin to form anytime he talks about Cooper.

“I am just so happy that he got into the Hall of Fame,” Dambrot said. “I’m not really too concerned with how long it took, I just think that he is deserving. Nobody in that whole enshrinement is more deserving than Chuck Cooper. It’s such a huge deal and I am so excited that I can be a part of it.”

As Cooper III tried to explain the meaning of his father making the Basketball Hall of Fame, he appeared on the verge of tears as the son followed his father’s lead in recognizing the on-court talent while making a difference in the community.

Now Cooper’s journey will continue in Massachusetts where his story will forever be able to be accessible to any basketball fan.

“Every day I have my wife pinch me to make sure everything is real,” said Cooper III. “It’s just been an incredible ride.”

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[…] Chuck Cooper, Duquesne Legend and First African American Drafted to the NBA, Gets His Due  Pittsburgh Sports Now […]

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[…] that he sees a lot of LeBron James in Cooper’s game. The claim might seem bold until you remember Dambrot coached James for two seasons at St. Vincent-St. Mary’s High School in […]

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