Earl Lloyd, a West Virginia State star who was the first African-American to play in the National Basketball Association, died Thursday in Tennessee. He was 86.
It was Oct. 31, 1950 when the Washington Capitols took the court against the Rochester Royals to open what would be the NBA’s fifth season. In the Capitol’s starting lineup was Lloyd, a 6-foot-5 power forward.
It was three-and-a-half years after Jackie Robinson broke the Major League Baseball color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers, but NBA clubs had resisted following suit. According to the New York Times, along with the prejudice that no doubt existed in some cities, basketball owners were reluctant to sign black players because they feared retaliation from Abe Saperstein, owner of the all-black Harlem Globetrotters. The NBA was struggling at the time, but the barnstorming Globetrotters were a huge draw. The professional teams worried if they started signing star players away from the Globetrotters, Saperstein would boycott their arenas, denying teams of much-needed gate revenue.
But in April of 1950, the Boston Celtics took Duquesne’s Chuck Cooper in the second round of the NBA draft. Not to be outdone, the New York Knicks announced they would purchase the contract of Sweetwater Brown from the Globetrotters.
The struggling Capitols franchise then took Lloyd in the ninth round.
By virtue of the schedule, Lloyd’s Capitols played one day before Cooper and the Celtics, and four days prior to Brown’s appearance in the Knicks’ opener.
Lloyd would only play in seven games with Washington that season before the team folded. After a stint in the military, Lloyd signed with the Syracuse Nationals, where he and forward Jim Tucker became the first African-American players to win an NBA championship. Lloyd finished his nine-year career with the Detroit Pistons.
Lloyd said in interviews that he never encountered overt racism from his teammates or opposing players, but the same could not be said for the fans — or many hotels on the road. The NBA in the 1950s went through segregated towns like St. Louis, Baltimore and Fort Wayne, Indiana. Lloyd remembered Indianapolis, which was home to the Pistons in 1955, as particularly harsh.
“Those fans in Indianapolis, they’d yell stuff like ‘Go back to Africa,’ ” Lloyd told The Syracuse Herald American in 1992 (which was then quoted in The New York Times). “My philosophy was if they weren’t calling you names, you weren’t doing nothing. If they’re calling you names, you were hurting them.”
According to a Detroit News sportswriter (or so it is oft-quoted around the Web, though a link to the original story remains wanting — so judge this as you will), the Detroit Pistons’ general manager wanted to hire Lloyd as head coach in 1965, which would have made him the first black head coach or manager in any professional sport. (The Pistons instead named Dave DeBusschere player-coach that year.)
Lloyd did coach the Pistons in 1972 and ’73.
Lloyd, who was considered a top defender during his time in the league, averaged 8.4 points and 6.4 rebounds in 560 regular-season games. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2003.
Still, compared with the place held by baseball’s Robinson, Lloyd’s relative anonymity is surprising. Perhaps it was in part because of the ground already broken — “Jackie made things a lot easier for me,” Lloyd told NPR in 2010 — or perhaps it was because baseball was the national pastime, but in 1950, professional basketball was barely on the map.
But it also might have something to do with the way Lloyd approached his own legacy. As he told NPR’s Liane Hansen in that same 2010 interview:
“One kid said to me, he said, Mr. Lloyd, we really owe you. And I explained to him, man, you owe me absolutely nothing. I said, whatever kind of career I had, it has served me well, but you do owe some people. And the people you owe are the folks who are going to come behind you. It's incumbent upon each watch — when you play your 10, 11 years and you’re in your group — when you leave, I truly hope that you’ve done all you can possibly do to leave it a better place for the folks who come behind you.”