NBA Players Who Broke Cultural Barriers

Photo: Sim Bhullar/Instagram

The cultural makeup of today’s NBA is a far cry from that of its founding, when players were predominantly white American males. According to a 2013 NBA release on racial diversity, 76.3 per cent of players now on the court are African-Americans, and 81 per cent are people of colour. At the onset of the 2014-15 season, the NBA announced that it consisted of 101 international players from 37 countries and territories, a new record over its previous year. However, the league’s far from achieving the multicultural dream, and is still hitting new milestones everyday—take for example Sim Bhullar, its first player of Indian descent. In celebration of athletes like him, we took a look back at five men who broke cultural boundaries by being the first of their kind to step onto NBA hardwood.

First player of Indian descent: Sim Bhullar
Shockingly, it took the NBA almost 69 years since its founding to sign a player of Indian descent. Bhullar, a Toronto native, received his first few seconds of NBA gametime Tuesday night playing for the Sacramento Kings. It appears that the crowd knew how important the moment was and gave Bhullar a standing ovation as he took to the court. The backup centre is on a 10-day deal with the Kings.

First African American players: Chuck Cooper, Earl Lloyd and Nat ‘Sweetwater’ Clifton
It’s hard to believe that African Americans didn’t participate in the NBA until 1950. These three were drafted the same year—Cooper by the Celtics, Lloyd by the Washington Capitols and Sweetwater by the Knicks. (If we’re splitting hairs, Cooper was technically the first African American to be drafted, as the first pick of the second round). Of course, the trio literally changed the game. Sweetwater’s still kicking, but Lloyd passed away in February 2015 at the age of 86 and Cooper passed away in ‘84.

First player of Asian descent: Wataru Misaka
Before Wang Zhizhi became the first Chinese basketball player drafted by the NBA in 2001, there was Wataru Misaka. The Japanese American point guard was drafted by the Knicks ahead of the 1947-48 season, becoming the first non-caucasian to play in the association. He’s now featured in the Utah Sports Hall of Fame.

First Latin American player: Alfred ‘Butch’ Lee
After becoming a decorated player in the NCAA, Butch was selected in the first round of the 1978 NBA draft to become the first man of Latin descent in the association. The Puerto Rican native was snapped up by the Hawks, and went on to play for the Cavaliers and Lakers (with whom he won a championship ring despite an injury sidelining him). After retiring due to said injury, he returned to his home country to participate in its pro basketball league.

First international player: Hank Biasatti

It didn’t take long for an international player to enter the NBA mix, but Italian-born Biasatti crossed an important line for early professional sports leagues when he played during the NBA’s inaugural season in ‘46-’47. He was selected by the Boston Celtics in the 1947 draft, but never joined the team’s roster. The athlete got his start in the MLB as a first baseman for the Maple Leafs in Toronto, Canada, where he grew up and became a naturalized citizen.
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