After relocating to the Twin Cities and living briefly on Minneapolis’ North Side, Bob and Marietta Williams bought a home and moved to the Powderhorn Park area in the late 1950s. “When we moved in, ‘For Sale’ signs went up all over the neighborhood, except for a couple of homes,” recalls Marietta.
“The lady next door came over. She wouldn’t come in but just stood at the door and said, ‘I’m Jean, and we live next door. I just want you to know that the neighbors are upset because some coloreds moved into our neighborhood.’ I told her that when we were looking for a home, we weren’t looking for who was colored and who was White. We liked the home so that’s why we bought it.”
Then, after Bob Williams’ photo was prominently featured the following Sunday in the local newspaper weekend magazine as part of its cover story, the signs disappeared.
Integrating that neighborhood was just another first for Williams, who is the first Black player to play for the NBA’s Minneapolis Lakers. He wore number 33 for two seasons (1955-57).
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wore the same number over a decade later. It is now retired and hangs in the rafters of the team’s Los Angeles arena.
A Florida native, Williams played one season at Florida A&M before enlisting in the Air Force. Later, legendary University of Kentucky men’s basketball coach Adolph Rupp watched him play in a tournament and was impressed with his athletic ability.
“He [Rupp] wanted to get me to go to school at Kentucky, but he said he had to get the regents to approve it. But they wouldn’t approve a Black player at that time,” recalls Williams.
As a result, Rupp called Sid Hartman, who then worked for the Minneapolis Lakers, and recommended Williams, who signed his first pro contract for $6,500 during the summer of 1955. A month after he was honorably discharged from the service in September, Williams attended his first Lakers training camp in St. Peter’s, Minnesota.
Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, Chuck Cooper and Earl Lloyd already had entered the league by that time, “and the Lakers would be the seventh team in the league to have Blacks on the team,” Williams points out. However, he was the team’s only player of color until Elgin Baylor joined the Lakers a year after Williams left.
Growing up in the South, Williams was already used to segregated customs. But after he and Marietta and their growing family relocated north, they soon learned things weren’t that much different in Minnesota.
“There was very subtle segregation,” Marietta Williams vividly recalls. “I remember I was at a restaurant downtown, and I sat and sat, and they waited on everybody except me. So I got up and walked out.”
Bob Williams remembers, “They [the crowds] would laugh and have fun while you were playing the game, and they laugh and talk with you while getting autographs [after] you finished the game. But once you went someplace to eat or sleep, you had to find a Black-owned restaurant. A lot of times we were staying in [Black] homes because they wouldn’t let us stay in a hotel.”
But there were good times as well: “We met a lot of beautiful people,” says Marietta.
The NBA during his time was far different than the league today. There were only eight teams, and the season lasted only four months. “Our season would start in October, [and] by January, we were done,” says Williams. Afterwards, “I had to go find jobs, and back then, jobs weren’t too good for Blacks.”
Also during that time, Williams was a member of the Harlem Globetrotters. “Bob got a call from Sid Hartman saying that one of the Globetrotters had gotten hurt,” explains Marietta. “Since he was done with the Lakers for the season, they wanted to know if he could come out and play.”
“It was great,” says Bob of his Globetrotters stint. “A lot of traveling… It got to the point where I missed the family, because we would play from February [until] June.”
After his retirement as a player in 1958, Williams worked at several construction and manufacturing jobs before a friend helped land him a job with Pillsbury, where he was a manager for 18 years before retiring in 1986. He also co-founded the Minnesota chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and served as a board chairman at Hospitality House for 15 years. “I thought I would be there a couple of months, and ended up there 24 years,” he points out.
Bob and Marietta, who met as high school seniors back in Florida, have been married for 59 years, have five children, 20 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren. As Williams Enterprises, they have been in the health and nutrition business for 30 years.
“I just can’t help but brag about our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren,” says the Williams’ matriarch. “None of them has been strung out on drugs or gone to jail. We need to hear more from parents and grandparents in the community about the good things that our children do, and we always try to set an example, not only for our children but for our neighbors’ children, and for children throughout the state.”
“He always has been a family man, a Christian father and husband,” says Marietta of her half-century-plus life partner. Both are founding members of Progressive Missionary Baptist Church in St. Paul.
“I took care of my kids and my wife,” adds Bob.
Williams’ photo, taken in his Laker uniform, now hangs in the NBA City restaurant in downtown Minneapolis. “It’s like being put in the Hall of Fame,” says Williams with pride. “It puts me in the class with all the great basketball players.”
“We had a birthday party for him here about a year ago, and we noticed pictures of all the other Minneapolis Lakers,” said eldest daughter Debra during a huge gathering of family and friends at the restaurant last Sunday. She worked with restaurant officials to get her father’s photo on their wall. “It took several months, but we were able to get it up there.”
Williams is humble about his part in basketball history. “I don’t talk about what I’ve done,” he says. “I’m proud to have done that, but I don’t say anything about it. I leave that to my wife and children.”
“He’s not the person who brags, but we brag for him,” notes Debra.
“He paved the way for the great athletes today,” Marietta brags on her husband’s behalf.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org