Earl Lloyd’s story is one that reminds us all of where both the NBA and the nation were once and how they’ve changed today. His personal and professional journey was all rolled into one simply because he was a dynamite basketball player born in segregated Virginia in 1928 and … he was black.
On Halloween night in 1950 Lloyd, a rugged rookie power forward playing with the Washington Capitols became the first African-American to play in an NBA game. Even after retiring Lloyd pulled no punches, speaking always with the same honest grit and spirit that characterized his nine NBA seasons as a fearless defender and rebounder.
When asked to reflect on his more than six decades in the NBA as both a player and a non-playing coach, he said in an earlier interview that “If you were a black baby born in segregated Virginia in 1928, your prospects were slim and none. I call it an incredible journey. 61 years is a long time. To me, it was just a basketball game. Now as years wear on, things crystalize as you climb that chronological ladder.”
Nicknamed “the Big Cat” for his height and speed, Lloyd was twice-named an All-American at West Virginia State and had an opportunity to join the Harlem Globetrotters. Instead, Lloyd entered the league with African-Americans Chuck Cooper and Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton in the 1950 draft.
Cooper was the first African-American drafted by an NBA team and Clifton was the first African-American to sign an NBA contract. But Lloyd made it into a game before either of his counterparts after an inspired training camp performance under player-coach Horace Albert “Bones” McKinney in Washington. When talking about training camp with the Caps, Lloyd referred to McKinney as “a giant of a man,” saying that it was “the first time in my life the playing field was truly level. I felt like I was a giant Tasmanian devil. I was driven.”
Lloyd only played seven games for Washington that season before being drafted into the Army. But he returned in 1952 to play for the Syracuse Nationals following the collapse of the Caps and became a key component of Syracuse’s 1955 NBA Championship squad. “The Syracuse Nationals … we were a great team,” Lloyd said of the franchise that eventually became the Philadelphia 76ers. “Knowing your role is only half of it. You have to accept your role, and mine was defense – I chased around high scorers. Every stop I made — high school, college, the Army, pros — I was on a championship team. Deep down, I like to think I made these things possible.”
And make things possible he did although he was slow to admit it. The humble and charming Lloyd opened doors and helped make playing in the NBA possible for thousands of African-Americans since his debut in 1950. Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in baseball three years earlier, receives far more acclaim. But Lloyd, alongside Cooper and Clifton, had a similar impact on basketball. “People try to compare me with Jackie Robinson, but I don’t know about that,” Lloyd said. “He was one of my heroes. There was a totally different attitude in basketball than baseball. It was going to be somebody sooner or later.”
Lloyd’s personal drive eventually propelled him to another basketball first. Ending his nine-season career in Detroit, he retired from playing but stayed with the Pistons, first as a scout, then as assistant coach and finally in 1970 he became the first full-time black coach in the NBA. In 2003 he was enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
While he downplayed his role as a racial pioneer, Lloyd readily admitted that the racial climate of Washington D.C. in 1950 was anything but welcoming to African-Americans. “If the truth sounds bitter, it’s not me being bitter — it’s just the truth,” Lloyd said. “Hatred is a terrible thing and supersedes everything. Of course you’d get angry but you couldn’t let anger control you. You had to manage your anger and, if channeled properly, that’s a weapon.”
And Lloyd harnessed that weapon to the tune of 8.4 points and 6.4 rebounds per game during his NBA career. When he looked back on his career, the NBA’s first African-American player and full-time coach was nostalgic but also realistic. “I entered the league with two great guys and we felt the racial climate in 1950 … I’m not so sure how much the world has changed since then,” Lloyd said. “But how was it? Playing pro basketball beat the hell out of working … smashed it to smithereens.”
Perhaps the best testament to how the world has changed is reflected in his hometown of Alexandria, Virginia. Lloyd attended racially-segregated Parker-Gray High School rather than its all-white counterpart. But in 2007 the town’s newly-constructed basketball court at T.C. Williams (focal point for forced integration when it opened in 1965 and actual location for the movie, Remember the Titans) was named in Lloyd’s honor.