Call it a quota, call it a gentlemen’s agreement, call it what you like. Before December 26, 1964, five Black players wearing the same uniform had never taken the court for the start of an NBA game.
That night in St. Louis, Willie Naulls replaced the injured Tommy Heinsohn, and the Celtics had an all Black starting five, for the first time in the history of the NBA.
An all Black starting team would have been an impossibility until the start of the 1963-1964 season, when the Celtics broke the gentlemen’s agreement (or whatever it was) and acquired Naulls from The San Francisco Warriors. The other starters for the Celtics in 1963-1964 and 1964-1965, were Satch Sanders, K.C. Jones, Sam Jones, and Bill Russell.
The “experiment” got off to a less than auspicious start as Boston fell behind the Hawks by 15 points in the first quarter. The Celtics came back, but the Hawks still led by 10 at the end of the second period. The rest of the game however, was all Boston. The Celtics outscored St. Louis 48-25 in the second half, and went on to win by a score of 97-84. Boston won the next 11 games, with Naulls starting in place of Heinsohn.
Celtics coach Red Auerbach claimed to have been completely oblivious
about having anything to do with anything historic, and said he wasn’t aware of what he had done until a writer pointed it out to him a few weeks later. The event also went unreported in the press.
Another piece of unreported trivia, was that for those 12 games, in addition to their five Black starters, the Celtics had an all White bench.
Sam’s Celtics Forum
Bill Russell’s first game as a Celtic took place on December 22, 1956. It was a matinee with the St. Louis Hawks at Boston Garden that was televised nationally as the NBA Game of the Week. Attendance at Celtics games had averaged less than 7,000 so far that year. More than 11,000 fans who could have watched at home bought tickets to see the rookie sensation in person.
Bill was a phenomenon if ever there was one, a 6’ 10” center with the speed and agility of a guard. He had won back to back NCAA championships and an Olympic gold medal. He had performed the most noble act at the Olympics, giving up his chance to compete for a medal in the high jump, so that a friend could have a spot on the track and field team. Red Auerbach was so impressed that, before the draft, he traded smooth scoring, fan favorite Ed Macauley, an All-Star, and a highly touted prospect, Cliff Hagen, to the St. Louis Hawks to obtain Bill’s rights.