NBA legend Willie Naulls passed away on Thursday of last week at the age of 84 at his home in Laguna Niguel, CA. Naulls’ wife told reporters that her husband succumbed to respiratory failure as a result of Churg-Strauss syndrome, a rare condition that restricts blood flow to vital organs and tissues.
Naulls was born in Dallas, Texas on October 7, 1934, but he grew up mostly in California where his family moved in World War II to escape segregation. In high school, Naulls was given the nickname Mr. Basketball, and he went on to attend college with the UCLA Bruins where he was acknowledged as a part of the All-American Honors as a senior. In 1956, Naulls was selected by the NBA’s St. Louis Hawks as the ninth overall pick in the draft.
Upon arriving in St. Louis, Naulls was disturbed by the racial climate in the city.
“To go to St. Louis and its segregated hotels, restaurants, cabs, living districts and attitude was a cultural shock. As a 21-year-old man, I had rarely experienced that since I was 8 years old.”
From there, Naulls was traded to the New York Knicks where he began blazing trails by becoming the first African American to be named captain of a professional sports team in a major American sport. During the 60-61 season, he recorded a single-season team record of 1,846 points at 23.4 points per game. In 1962, Naulls recorded his 7th straight 30+ point game–a record that was held until it was broken by Amar’e Stoudemire in 2010. Naulls then spent a brief period of time with the San Francisco Warriors before landing in Boston to spend his last years in the NBA.
Naulls spent the final three years of his career with the Celtics, winning three consecutive NBA Championships as part of their roster. In 1964, Naulls became part of the first all African-American starting lineup in NBA history. With Naulls in that lineup was Bill Russell who played center, K.C. Jones, and Sam Jones at the guard positions, and Satch Sanders as the other forward. Throughout his 10-year NBA career, Naulls won three NBA Championship Titles, was named an All-Star 4 times, and scored a whopping total of 11,305 points at 15.8 points, and 9.1 rebounds per game.
Upon retiring from the NBA, Naulls owned an auto-dealership and invested in other business that he believed would provide jobs in African-American communities. He then went on to obtain his master’s degree from Fuller Theological Seminary and opened Willie Naulls Ministries in 1993. In 1995, Naulls opened a facility in Hawthorne, CA intent on using community-based programs to inspire inner-city children to better their futures.
Naulls will go down in history as a pioneer in the NBA, unknowingly laying the groundwork of what the league would become. Reminiscing about Wilt Chamerlain’s 100-point game Naulls said,
“Wilt had rung the bell of freedom loud and clear, shouting, ‘Let my people be free to express themselves. For we were and will be for all time those who withstood the humiliation of racial quotas even to the point of the NBA’s facing extinction because of retarded expression and stagnating growth…We are Brothers, in the Night of His Flight, Forever.”
In my research of Naulls’ career this past week, I was delighted to learn more about his contribution and ground-breaking work for the game of basketball. Naulls’ career and work in our communities will never be forgotten, and we can all thank him for his bravery and perseverance to help shape the league we love into what it is today.