Did the NBA Used to Have a Limit of How Many Black Players Could Be on a Team?

BASKETBALL URBAN LEGEND: There was a quota in the NBA in the 50s and early 60s of how many black players could be on a team.

The NBA was around for three years before the league was integrated. Earl Lloyd was the first black player to play in the NBA. He suited up for the Washington Capitals in October 1950 for the 1950 NBA Opening Night (two other black players also suited up for their teams opening games in 1950 – they just played the next day, so Lloyd gets to be known as “the first”).

Black players were accepted a great deal more in the NBA than the were in baseball. There are likely a number of reasons why that is – for instance, the league was newer and it was mostly based in the northeast and college basketball was already integrated. Lloyd has said in the past about how sorry he felt for Jackie Robinson, because while both men were integrating their respective leagues, Lloyd got just a fraction of the abuse Robinson received.

Okay, now as to the idea of a quota system.

First off, as many many people over the years have noted, I do firmly believe that there never was a concrete agreement between owners (under the table, unwritten or whatever) to only have a certain amount of black players.

However, just because there was not any official unwritten agreement does not mean that the effect was not the same as if there was one.

For instance, no NBA team had more than four black players on their team until 1963!


From 1956 to 1962, all but one of the NBA’s Rookies of the Year were black, and yet no NBA team had more than four players during that whole stretch.

The St. Louis Hawks won the title in 1958, becoming the last NBA team to win a championship with an all-white team (the Hawks had a black player on the team for a few games that year, but he did not play in the playoffs).

It cannot be a coincidence that every team in the NBA just HAPPENED to have exactly four players, right?

However, I think it is more likely that everyone just had the same basic attitude, that it was not “good for the sport” to have too many black players on a team. Along that lines, players with “bad attitudes” also did not last too long, and almost always, it was a bit of a code for “playing while black.”

Woody Sauldsberry is a great example of this.

Sauldsberry came out of Compton High School and after a couple of years at Texas Southern University, he went straight to the Harlem Globetrotters. While the NBA was not willing to play mostly black players, the Globetrotters were thrilled to take all of them, and pay them well.

However, most competitive athletes want to play with the best of the best, and not in an exhibition league like the Globetrotters.


So Sauldsberry came to the NBA and the Philadelphia Warriors and won the Rookie of the Year in 1958.

In 1959, he made the All-Star Team.

However, in 1960, Al Attles was a promising rookie trying out for the Warriors. The Warriors already had Wilt Chamberlain, Andy Johnson and Guy Rodgers on the team along with Sauldsberry, so adding Attles would give the team five black players. Soon after Attles’ tryout, Sauldsberry was dumped from the Warriors. Two years removed from the Rookie of the Year and he was gone.

In 1963, the Celtics were the first team to have five black players.

In a couple of years, the American Basketball Association started, and they took everyone, and that basically was the death knell for the quota system in the NBA as it was, as they had to fight the ABA for the better players, so teams began taking more and more black players.

Still, for a number of years, the NBA certainly did appear to have a shameful quota system.


STATUS: I’m Going With True.

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com

Tags: ,

Leave a Reply