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First UConn Player In NBA, Worthy Patterson Challenged Many Barriers

UConn's Worthy Patterson earned an historic place in integrating the NBA

Worthy Patterson had arrived. The former UConn standout had made the final cut and was ready to enter Kiel Auditorium and suit up, No. 13 for the NBA's St. Louis Hawks on Opening Night, Oct. 22, 1957.

"I had to cross a picket line to get into the auditorium," Patterson recalled, from his home in Southern California. "The NAACP, the Urban League, they had a ring around the auditorium [protesting because the Hawks weren't integrated]. Cops all over the place. When I showed up, I couldn't get across the picket line, and when I told them I was going in there to play, this guy said, 'What, are you crazy?'"

They were protesting segregation, Jim Crow laws still in effect in St. Louis. The baseball Cardinals had been slow to integrate, and "the agitation spread to basketball," said Patterson, an African-American who had been signed as the Hawks' 12th player, "said to be a clever play director likely to be used in spot jobs on the back line," wrote the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Patterson asked a policeman for help getting in.

"He said, 'I'm going to take you to the players' entrance, and they better know who you are, because if they don't know who you are, nobody might ever know who you are.'" Patterson recalled in early February, Black History Month. "When I finally got there I was five minutes late and they had this crusty old-timer who had the list."

It evidently wasn't a large disturbance, was not reported in the St. Louis newspapers the next day. Protests against segregation were commonplace during the 1950s - this was the autumn of Little Rock - which were also the early days of the NBA. Patterson is among those who believed that franchises had an unwritten "quota" regarding African-American players at any one time, which might have squeezed Patterson out of a chance to play for the Celtics three years earlier.

Now the Hawks were playing the Celtics. Patterson got into the game that night – becoming the first UConn alum to play in an NBA game. He scored five points against the Minneapolis Lakers a few nights later, but was let go after appearing in four games. The Hawks went on to beat the Celtics and win the championship in the spring of 1958 – and are considered the last team to win the NBA championship without an African-American player on its playoff roster.

"I couldn't eat with the team, or stay in the same hotel where they were staying," Patterson told the Courant in 2012. "I had to stay on the 'colored side of town,' as it was called. … It was serious Jim Crow. You were fully aware of it," Patterson said of the obstacles that he would overcome. The way I was brought up, you had to maneuver. You didn't let it get you upset. You just kept maneuvering."

And if he heard offensive talk on the court, Patterson knew how to respond – with his elbows. "I could take care of myself on the court," he said.

Patterson, nearing his 86th birthday, moved on from basketball to a successful career in sales, and in the music industry. He hit one of the most famous clutch shots in Huskies history, to beat Holy Cross and earn UConn a bid to the 1954 NCAA Tournament, and entered the "Huskies of Honor" in 2012.

In this, Black History Month, he remains proud of his part in the early wave of players who helped integrate professional basketball.

"These guys [playing today] are six generations away from the first two generations," he said. "They have no knowledge. They don't have a clue. They're so far removed from what this is all about,. They just think that this is the way it is, they have no idea how it got there."

Patterson, born in New Haven, grew up in Greenwich and went to Greenwich High, then Tilton Academy. When he arrived at UConn to play for Hugh Greer, he estimates he was one of maybe 10 African-American athletes on the Storrs campus. He recalls nothing unpleasant of his time there.

"It was terrific," he said. "When I was at Connecticut, there were only a handful of us playing sports there. There were no problems."

With a semester to go at UConn, Patterson was invited to Celtics camp.

"When I decided I wanted to be a pro basketball player, I didn't even know there were [a few] black guys in the NBA. It didn't really matter. … I was the only colored guy in the camp. I had a few hassles with people because they were from the South and they would give me the N-word, but that's just the way they talked in the South. When we got to the workout gym, they just ignored me, because I was from Connecticut, not Kentucky, or one of those places. So I had a couple of skirmishes once I started to play."

The Celtics played 25 exhibition games, Patterson recalled. At first he was paired with rookies, then after making a strong impression, he was paired with the regular guards, either Bob Cousy or Bill Sharman.

"If you got open, you got the ball," Patterson said, "and I was open all the time."

As the season neared, Patterson was still standing. Then, as he recalls it, veteran Don Barksdale, also an African-American, decided to come out of retirement and play one more season. The Celtics waived Patterson on Oct. 28, Red Auerbach telling reporters he just needed more experience.

"They had the rights to Don Barksdale and he was an all-star," Patterson said. "When I went there, Chuck Cooper, [the first African-American player in the NBA] had just retired. There was, like, 'a slot' with the Celtics, and I could slide in and not upset the apple cart. When [Barksdale] came out of retirement, they had two guys, so the rookie got sent to Lenox, Mass.

"A few years later, the floodgates opened and the Celtics had a starting five that was all black. Every once in a while, I light a candle to Red Auerbach and [owner] Walter Brown, because they gave me the opportunity to see how good I could be, and I was pretty good."

Patterson returned to UConn to get his degree, then, as a member of ROTC, was called to report to Fort Sill, Okla., where he started for the basketball team. He was invited to try out for the Hawks in 1957. On Oct. 3, he made headlines in St. Louis when he scored 27 points in an intrasquad scrimmage, six more than the Hawks' star, Bob Pettit.

"My wife, Queen, went home and I went and played," he said. "This is when segregation comes into play. I didn't have any of that in Boston. In St. Louis, I integrated the team."

Cooper was with the Hawks when they moved from Milwaukee to St. Louis in 1955. They had drafted Bill Russell and traded him to the Celtics. Patterson was the only African-American player in camp in 1957.

"St. Louis was the one place where there was some taunting," recalled Hall of Famer Bob Cousy. "There was a dirty spoon [diner] across the street and we'd go there after a game at 10 or 11 o'clock for a snack, and the guy said he wouldn't serve the black players. So, of course, we told him what he could do with his food. ... When Jackie Robinson integrated baseball, it made national headlines, but when the NBA was integrated nobody [cared]. We were the bottom rung of American sports at that time and the media didn't make it a cause celebre."

During his time with the Hawks, Patterson was employed in community relations, speaking at luncheons in Missouri and Southern Illinois, as well as a playing role. He was glad Coach Greer at UConn had made him take speaking courses. Patterson was released in late December, 1957, and came back to Connecticut.

The Hawks moved to Atlanta in 1968.

Once Patterson turned to the business world, first with Technical Tape and then with RCA, his office was near Jackie Robinson's in Manhattan for a period in the 1960s.

"I used to see him all the time on the street and talk to him all the time," Patterson said. "I used to tell him all the time, 'You're the greatest, because someone's got to get the door open. You've got to get the door open, and then get a group of guys behind those first guys and they have to promote the game so the public will accept it. Promote it in a positive way. And that's how it's done."

Patterson still presses on, overcoming obstacles. He says he has won a two-year fight with bladder cancer, and before hanging up the phone, said was heading out for tennis lessons, and then would have a couple beers. His favorite team today? The UConn women's team, who play a brand of basketball reminiscent of the one he once played.

"I'm not crazy about the quality of basketball in general," Patterson said. "You see, basketball is like a jazz quintet. You go to a club. A guy walks in with his horn, they say 'come on up.' The guy steps in and they don't miss a beat. Because the fundamentals are all the same. That's the way basketball used to be. When you got out of high school, you knew how to play, you knew the language. You could go anywhere."

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