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A month to remember: Black History Month and basketball

Recalling past Sixers players and their significance in Black history, culture, and identity.

Allen Iverson, (L), of the Philadelphia 76ers, who Photo credit should read TOM MIHALEK/AFP via Getty Images

The month of February has symbolic value as the designated month when we celebrate, reminisce, educate, and preserve an important aspect of humanity: Black history. Black History Month is the time when people from all walks of life honor the legacies and achievements of Black women and men. As it pertains to the game of basketball, fans indulge in Black history not only in the sport itself but also in the lives of players. On the first day of February, I’d like to highlight some of the men who’ve donned Sixers jerseys and contributed significantly to Black history, culture, and identity.

The Trailblazer: Hal Greer

From the moment Harold “Hal” Everett Greer began his basketball career, he was forging his path as a pioneer for young Black athletes. Hal Greer grew up in Huntington, West Virginia, in 1936. There, he attended Douglass Junior and Senior high school, which was an all-black school. During his adolescence, he played guard for Douglass’ basketball team, and his talents drew many suitors seeking to recruit him for their collegiate squads. Following his high school graduation, Greer’s basketball journey took a turn that was considered atypical during his lifetime. He enrolled at Marshall University and agreed to play ball under Coach Cam Henderson, making him the first African American to receive an athletic scholarship at a predominantly white college in the state of Virginia. This feat is monumental given Virginia’s segregated history and racialized society, so Greer’s brave precedent would become an example and inspiration for young Black female and male athletes who desire to continue playing their respective sports alongside receiving a higher education.

After an incredibly successful career at Marshall, Greer was drafted to the NBA in the 1958 draft, and his official stint with the Sixers took place during the 1962-63 season when the Syracuse Nationals moved to Philadelphia. When old-heads talk about 60’s guards, they like to throw out names like Oscar Robertson and Jerry West. Yeah, the Big O and The Logo were two of the league’s premier guards during that era, but people have to start putting some respect on Greer’s name. As a Sixer, he was a 10-time NBA All-Star, NBA All-Star Game MVP, seven-time All-NBA, and most importantly an NBA Champion. At the time of his passing, he holds the Sixers franchise records for points scored, field goals, field goal attempts, games played, and minutes played. Speaking of championships, his role in the Sixers’ 1966-67 championship year is often overlooked. The team had many go-to guys like Wilt Chamberlain and Billy Cunningham, but Greer was the team’s quarterback and the engine that drove the team forward. Without him, that team was only a shell of itself.

When Greer’s playing career ended, his contributions to the sport and Black history were honored league-wide. His No. 15 was retied by the 76ers, and he was also inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1982. Greer is a member of both the NBA’s 50th and 75th Greatest Players in History lists. He is recognized as one of the first African American athletes enshrined in a major sports hall of fame from West Virginia. To this day, Greer’s life and career is one to marvel at. His path from Huntington, West Virginia, to the NBA was fraught with racial barriers and social hardships, but his talent and willingness to succeed led him to become one of the greatest to ever play the game. Greer shattered every mold that tried to define what it meant to be a Black athlete, and in doing so he torchlit the way for other young Black men and women to pursue their passions to the fullest.

The Storyteller: Chet Walker

Another 76ers alumnus whose on-and-off the court life has contributed tremendously to Black history is Chet Walker. Chester “Chet” Walker is one of the most gifted and multitalented players that the league has seen. A seven-time NBA All-Star and NBA All-Rookie First Team member, the 76ers forward is hailed as one of the greatest front court players in his day. He was also an integral component to the 1966-67 team’s championship-winning formula, where he played a starting role with Greer and Chamberlain. Off the court, however, is where Walker’s contributions are unique.

Having fought adversity his whole life, Walker decided to use his storytelling abilities for others. In 1989, Walker produced A Mother’s Courage: The Mary Thomas Story, which details the life of Mary Thomas, a single mother of nine children (one of them being NBA superstar Isiah Thomas) as she struggles to survive in a rough part of Chicago. Walker received an Emmy for his work, and he continued to have a successful entertainment career well after his playing days. In 1995, he also published his autobiographical memoir Long Time Coming: A Black Athlete’s Coming-of-Age in America. In it, he describes his journey from poverty-stricken and segregated beginnings in Mississippi to his post-NBA life, and his insights and experiences about being a Black athlete during the civil rights era shed light on the league’s treatment of minorities at the time.

In the publication and entertainment industries, Black voices have historically found themselves limited, submerged, and repressed. We as consumers in this generation are starting to see more original Black stories in the entertainment realm, yet the industry still has long way to go. Despite new shows/films being made and stories being written, content consumers today still shouldn’t take Black storytelling for granted. It’s important to realize that Black voices haven’t always had a platform. The impact of Walker’s basketball career as well as his post-career storytelling make him a pillar for preserving Black history through sports as well as narrative.

The Cultural Icons: Julius Irving and Allen Iverson

In a country that has historically made minorities feel pressured to look and act according to stereotypes and societal norms, Black history is filled with mavericks who’ve thwarted conformity by simply being themselves. In the game of basketball, two men who’ve inspired two different generations to be comfortable being themselves regardless of what others think are Philadelphia’s own Dr. J and AI. I don’t need to delve into detail about their basketball careers in terms of accolades and numbers because they speak volumes for themselves. I instead want to capture why these two men are probably your favorite player’s favorite players. Advanced-stat nerds please avert your eyes.

When we talk about Black history, one aspect of it is dedicated to talking about people who’ve contributed to the creation, shaping, and exemplification of invaluable facets of our communities and culture. These contributions don’t exclusively belong to one community or one culture; rather, they are shared among humanity because people see a common beauty in it. With that being said, it is impossible to talk about the game of basketball, Black history, and cultural superstardom without mentioning Julius Erving and Allen Iverson. Many in this younger generation don’t realize that Dr. J was the first Michael Jordan. Everybody wanted to be like Doc because he had such unique and beautiful style: his white and red leather Converse Pro sneakers, his royal poise, his stylish suits, his charismatic swagger. He had that indescribable thing, that it-factor, and everyone knew it. Then, along came the young guard out of Georgetown in the 1996 NBA draft, and the city of Philadelphia was once again blessed with another cultural icon.

As a kid from the AI generation, his influence on me was significant, and to this day I rock my clothes baggy without a second thought. Can you blame me? He listened to the music I liked, always looked fresh, and wasn’t fixated on anyone else’s agenda besides his own. I’ve probably watched the Allen Iverson and Jadakiss Reebok commercials a million times, and I’ll gladly watch them a million more. Seeing someone I admired and related to being comfortable in his own skin helped me be comfortable in mine. I’m not the only one, though. That man had such a captivating effect on everyone for different reasons. For as many people there were who loved him, there were just as many who despised him. Imagine that: being a young man in the NBA and angering so many people because of what you wore, how you carried yourself, or what music you liked. You think Bob Cousy ever had to deal with that? No, and here is where AI’s as well as Dr. J’s influences converge for the sake of Black history, identity, and culture: their hair. Dr. J’s picked-out afro and AI’s braids unintentionally sent a cultural message to the league and fans alike: it’s OK for me to be me, and it’s OK for you to be you. For generations, Black women and men have dealt with racism based on hairstyles and textures, which is a form of discrimination still in use today. So, when Doc and AI came onto the scene and had their own style from head to toe, players and fans looked at them and said, “If they can do it, I can too.” Therefore, it’s nearly impossible for me to put into words what these two 76ers legends have done not only for the game of basketball, but also for Black history and other minorities who struggled to figure out how they can authentically be themselves.

There isn’t a succinct ending that would neatly wrap this article up because Black history is ongoing and still being discovered with each passing day. It must also be remembered that celebrating Black history and culture doesn’t begin and end in February; this month must not be the only month out of the other eleven when we talk about or teach anything related to Black history. However, this month is a time when folks are willing to share information and knowledge that might not be readily available. I encourage everyone from every race and creed to take time out of their day this month to learn about at least one significant figure in Black history. After doing that and piecing their stories together, one might realize how this country and the game of basketball was built and sustained by a minority community who’ll never get their rightful credit.