While the National Basketball Association didn't integrate until 1950, the National Basketball League, which formed in 1937 and later merged with the Basketball Association of America to form the NBA, began its first attempt at integration in 1942. The NBL was primarily a midwestern league and began with teams sponsored by local businesses, like the Akron Goodyear Wingfoots, that often employed the team's players in the offseason. Before the 1942 season began, the NBL found itself with a shortage of players, as many of its men left to help the United States prepare for its entry into the war against fascism and Adolf Hitler.
Two teams, the Toledo Jim White Chevrolets and Chicago Studebakers took daring moves to fill the gaps by adding a total of ten black players to their rosters. However, the experiment quickly faded as both teams folded during the season, leaving the war-ravaged NBL with only four teams. Toledo folded after only four games, but the Chicago club lasted somewhat longer, compiling a record of 8-15 before closing its doors. Neft and Cohen's sports encyclopedia blames the demise of the Chicago club on its split into white and black camps, with each group trading charges of discrimination.
By Berthold Werner (Own work)
Later, during the 1946-47 season, Pop Gates of the New York Renaissance was one of four black players in the NBL. Gates played for the Tri-Cities Blackhawks (who began the season as the Buffalo Bison) and finished second on the team in scoring behind seven-footer Don Otten. During the season, Gates engaged in an in-game fight with the Syracuse Nationals' Chick Meehan, who Gates said began the battle by throwing him him down twice during the game. Basketball in the 1930s and 40s was a much rougher game than it is today, but none of the four black players returned the following season.
The NBA would finally admit black players to its ranks in 1950 despite opposition from the powerful Harlem Globetrotters. Part two of TBCB's spotlight on integration will cover this story in much more detail. While you're waiting for part two, take a few minutes to enjoy the speech Pop Gates made when he entered the basketball Hall of Fame in 1989. As I write this, the speech has been viewed only about 100 times. It's not incredibly exciting, but it's an important piece of basketball history. Note that Gates refers to John Isaacs, who in a terrible oversight, still is not a member of the Hall of Fame.
New York Times: 1999 Pop Gates Obituary and 1989 article about Pop Gates
Wikipedia entries on the History of Basketball and the Chicago Studebaker Flyers
Hoopepedia entry on the Toledo Jim White Chevrolets
Neft and Choen's Pro Basketball Sports Encyclopedia, 5th Edition