Ex-player: Most guys in NBA were racists

ruklik-151st anniversaries usually don’t come with any great flair. There are no stones or gems marking the occasion, no parties or influxes of cards as the memories are still fresh from the milestone achieved one year prior.

To celebrate a 51st anniversary would cut against the grain. But then Joe Ruklick has spent a lifetime cutting against the grain.

Ruklick played three seasons in the NBA, all with Philadelphia. He appeared in 114 NBA games, and holds career averages of 3.5 ppg and 2.5 rpg.

On March 2, the Evanston native and former NBA basketball player celebrated 51 years since the day Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in an NBA game as the Philadelphia Warriors beat the New York Knicks 169-147 in Hershey, PA.

Ruklick passed the ball to Chamberlain who dunked it home to score the 99th and 100th points. While Chamberlain had a long, storied career in the NBA, Ruklick had three nondescript seasons. But that one pass gave him a half sentence in the history books.

“I’m amazed in the interest in it,” Ruklick told Patch. “For two decades, maybe more, after I retired in 1962, there was very little interest in it. The last ten to 15 years, it has become an item of serious interest. People ask me about it constantly, as if I accomplished something.

“For a split second in my life I stood 12 feet from a hoop with an orange ball in my hands and had a choice and it took me half a second to make that choice. Do I throw it to Wilt or do I take the shot?  I was wide open but I was a second string player and my decision was to pass the ball. I’ve become part of that enormously colossal athletic achievement.”

In that one moment, Ruklick took a path that many others might not have taken. It is a pattern he has followed throughout his life.

Joe Ruklick is closing in on 75 of age now. He towers over everyone in the room, given his 6’9” height, and likes to talk about many subjects.

Ruklick was initially cut from his high school basketball team in Princeton, IL, but eventually made it after he learned the hook shot.

ruklik-wiltHe earned a scholarship to Northwestern University, where made the basketball team, became an All-American and was named a charter member of the Wildcat Hall of Fame in 1984 along with Otto Graham and Mike Adamle among others.

“It was a great honor,” Ruklick said. “I was surrounded by people who made greater contributions to Northwestern sports than I did. I was damn proud to be in that charter group.”

After being drafted ninth overall in the 1959 NBA Draft, Ruklick played three NBA seasons, never seeing much action and deploring what he believes was was widespread bigotry within the sport.

“Most guys in the NBA were racists,” Ruklick remembers. “Coaches, management and everybody associated with the pro game in those days were complicit because they didn’t stand up and shake their fists at the NBA that had a quota system restricting the numbers of black guys on their teams and a pay scale that discriminated against black guys and constant insults to black players which was typical of life in the late 1950s and early 1960s when Wilt Chamberlain came along. He was part of ending that disgrace.”

Ruklick is now working on a book chronicling the ugly things he saw that will also discuss his relationship with Chamberlain. He hopes to have it published later this year.

His interest in race relations led to him attempting to purchase the Chicago Defender, the legendary newspaper with a primarily black audience.

The sale did not get made, so Ruklick took a reporting job instead. One of his first assignments was the story on the 1999 murder of former Northwestern basketball coach Ricky Byrdsong.

He eventually became an editorial writer at the Defender, where he was the only white person on the staff.

ruklick-2Of course his interest in journalism did not come from the conventional route either. Following a career in business after leaving the NBA, Ruklick enrolled at the Medill School of Journalism at age 50.

The Master’s Degree he earned came alongside a Master’s in Literature he also received at another school.

Ruklick’s journey has created a following.

“I admire Joe Ruklick,” said Ira Berkow, the former New York Times sports columnist. “I admired him as a basketball player at Northwestern, and remember being in McGaw Hall when he played valiantly against Wilt Chamberlain. I admired his journalistic commitment when he was a reporter and editorial writer for the Chicago Defender, the lone white on the staff, as I recall. I admired that, no longer a kid, he had gone back to Northwestern to get a master’s degree in journalism, and that he has been a writer with intelligence, skill and heart. I’m proud to call Joe Ruklick my friend.”

Ruklick has been a presence in some form or another at Northwestern games to watch his alma mater.

He is happy with the progress the football team has made, but still yearns for the day the Wildcats get their first bid into the NCAA tournament. He isn’t holding his breath thinking that day will come soon either.

“It’s a burden Northwestern has and unless it separates itself from outstanding students at every desk and builds an athletic dorm and reduces the quality of the academic experience the outlook in basketball is hopeless,” he said.

Besides the book, Ruklick is still writing. Like everyone else he has had his personal and professional ups and downs, but he does not like to dwell on that. Instead he likes to look back on how society has changed in the U.S. since that day 51 years ago in Hershey.

He is thrilled as to how much progress has been made in American society. “I’m a happier person and my life is better for it.”



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