Willie Naulls momentarily contained his rage when he heard the racial epithet expressed matter-of-factly by an opponent announcing to his teammates whom he would defend.
“I got this … over here,” the Duke player said during a game against Naulls’ UCLA Bruins as part of a holiday tournament in December 1953 in racially segregated Lexington, Ky.
Naulls’ revenge came the next time he got the ball. The 6-foot-6 forward plunged his left elbow into his defender’s jawline as he drove past, arcing the ball off the backboard and into the basket to give the Bruins a two-point lead in an eventual five-point victory.
“It is amazing what a well-placed elbow, within the rules of the game, will do to expose a coward,” Naulls later wrote in his book, “Levitation’s View.” “This guy would not even look me in the eyes and he stayed at a distance the rest of the game.”
Most of the blows that Naulls, who died Thursday at age 84 in Laguna Niguel after an eight-year battle with a rare immunological condition that diminished his lung capacity, struck in the name of integration were of the symbolic variety.
Naulls became the first black team captain in integrated professional sports history when his New York Knicks teammates voted him into that role when he joined the team in 1956. He went on to win three NBA championships with the Boston Celtics while becoming a member of the first all-black starting lineup in integrated professional sports history.
Naulls, who became an All-American during his three seasons playing for coach John Wooden’s Bruins, holds the school record for most rebounds in a game with 28 against Arizona State in January 1956. His 582 field-goal attempts during the 1955-56 season also is a school record.
While the Bruins were in Lexington for the holiday tournament during his sophomore season, Naulls helped integrate the bus the team rode on as well as the theater where they watched a movie and the hotel where they slept together in the basement’s boiler room on Army cots.
“The humiliation was borne by each of us — black and white together,” Naulls wrote in his book. “We took turns showering in a basement employee restroom and ate together in a special banquet room next to the kitchen.”
Naulls averaged 15.5 points and 11.4 rebounds per game while at UCLA, helping the Bruins win a Pacific Coast Conference championship and advance to the NCAA tournament during his final season. He later helped recruit point guard Walt Hazzard, the star of the Bruins’ first national championship team in 1964.
Bill Russell and K.C. Jones, who won two NCAA titles with the University of San Francisco, called Naulls their greatest competitor and invited him to join their team on a U.S. State Department-sponsored tour of Central and South America.
The St. Louis Hawks selected Naulls ninth overall in the 1956 draft before trading him to the Knicks after 19 games. He went on to become a four-time All-Star during a 10-year NBA career in which he averaged 15.8 points and 9.1 rebounds per game.
Naulls returned to Los Angeles after retiring following the Celtics’ 1966 championship, completing his undergraduate degree at UCLA. He was voted into the school’s Athletics Hall of Fame in 1986 and remained an active supporter of his alma mater, serving on the board of directors of the UCLA Alumni Assn. and becoming the school’s first basketball alumnus to endow a scholarship for the basketball program.
A native of Dallas who moved to San Pedro when he was 9, Naulls spent the final five decades of his life helping underserved youth through a nonprofit organization he founded and became a minister who wrote eight books to inspire others.
Naulls is survived by his wife of 40 years, Anne Van de Water Naulls; children Lisa, Shannon, Jonah and Malaika; and six grandchildren. Services are pending.