Today in Sports History: June 21st

6/21/1879 - White subs in for Start

In 2004, the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) determined that William Edward White may have been the first black man to play in a professional baseball game. On June 21, 1879, White, playing for the Providence Grays, substituted for popular first baseman Joe Start and went 1-4 with a run scored. It was the only game of his career.

The information on White was incredibly thin. While an 1880 Census indicated that he was the product of a plantation owner, Andrew Jackson White, and his black slave, Hannah White, a later Census report listed his skin color as Caucasian. Although some argued that White, a mulatto, might have been able to disguise his ethnicity, there wasn't enough tangible evidence to confirm him as the first black player. As of now, Moses "Fleet" Walker, who played for the Toledo Blue Stockings in 1884, is considered the first.

6/21/1988 - Lakers win back-to-back

The Los Angeles Lakers defeat the Detroit Pistons, 108-105, in the seventh game of the NBA Finals, giving them back-to-back NBA titles and establishing them as the team of the 80's. The game ended in memorable fashion, as A.C. Green of the Lakers scored on a breakaway dunk with two seconds remaining. Bill Laimbeer inbounded the ball to Isiah Thomas, even as some of the fans at the Great Western Forum walked onto the court. Thomas was then knocked to the floor by Magic Johnson, with most of the players standing as though they thought the clock had already run out. No foul was called, the game was over, L.A. had won.

The fans then stormed the court in celebration, punctuating a pair of thrilling games to finish the series. James Worthy played phenomenal when it mattered most, collecting 36 points, 16 rebounds, and 10 assists. Isiah Thomas, badly hampered by a sprained ankle he suffered the game before, played only 28 minutes and finished with 10 points. With 7:44 to go, the Lakers had held a commanding 94-79 lead. Detroit came all the way back to cut the lead to one, but a few questionable shot attempts ended the Pistons' run for their first championship.

With the win, the Lakers made good on Pat Riley's famous promise to repeat as NBA champions. Not since the Boston Celtics won in 1968 and 1969 had a team won in consecutive years, a droguht that had garnered a large amount of conversation. It wasn't easy for the aging Lakers -- they had to win three series that went the full seven games, and for the first time, they were able to win the seventh game of the Finals on their home floor.

The anticipation for the Game 7 was enormous, so much so that it resulted in -- what was at the time -- the highest rating for an NBA game in history. With a 21.2 rating and a 37 share, CBS' telecast of the final game stood as a record for ten years, until 1998, when NBC's broadcast of Michael Jordan's final game surpassed it.

Pat Riley, wisely, did not guarantee that his Lakers would three-peat as champions. The following season, a hungry Detroit team returned to the Finals to once again take on the L.A. Lakers. This time, the "Bad Boys" were 100% healthy, while the same could not be said for the Lakers. Magic Johnson missed most of the series to a serious hamstring injury, while Kareem Abdul-Jabar, at 42 years old, was no longer the scoring threat he once was. Detroit crushed the Lakers in a four-game sweep.

From there, the floodgates opened. After close two decades without a repeat champion, the Pistons followed their Finals victory with another one in 1990. The Chicago Bulls then won three in a row, followed by a pair of victories by the Houston Rockets, then another three-peat by the Chicago Bulls and a three-peat by the L.A. Lakers. From 1987 to 2002, the only isolated champion was the San Antonio Spurs, who won it all in 1999 but failed to repeat in 2000.

6/21/1997 - First WNBA game

The New York Liberty defeat the Los Angeles Sparks, 67-57, in the inaugural game of the Women's National Basketball Association. It was hardly an auspicious beginning for the upstart hoops league -- both teams shot terribly from the field and the overall play was sloppy at best. But for the 14,284 fans at the Great Western Forum, the largest crowd to ever see a women's basketball game, it didn't matter. "They were even cheering free throws," said Sparks star Lisa Leslie. "We were overwhelmed by it."

The WNBA was conceived following the success of the U.S. women's basketball team, which won gold in the 1996 Olympics. There had been several attempts to establish a female basketball league before, including the American Basketball League, which was founded one year before the WNBA. Those who watched the ABL and WNBA felt that the ABL, who had more members of the '96 Olympic team, was the stronger league with the better players. But the WNBA had been blessed as the official offspring of the NBA and received infinitely more mainstream attention. In 1998, the ABL folded and many of the league's top players made the transition to the WNBA.

The buzz surrounding the WNBA was strong enough that the league signed television distribution rights with NBC, Lifetime and ESPN. A few years later, the first two channels dropped their licenses while ESPN renewed its contract while pushing their games to ESPN 2. Thanks to the mass marketing of the NBA, the WNBA was able to establish itself in a way that no other women's sports league had done before and continues to this day.

Further reading:

Who was the first black man to play in the major leagues? [Projo.com]

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