Lloyd, Earl 1928(?)–
Earl Lloyd 1928(?)–
Former professional basketball player
“People know who Jackie Robinson is. Why don’t they know about Earl Lloyd?” Chicago sportscaster and former NBA player Johnny (Red) Kerr asked in an interview with Sports Illustrated. Lloyd himself, possessing of a modesty rare among basketball players of the present day, is quick to downplay the comparison, pointing out that he shared the spotlight in his debut year of 1950 with two other African American draftees. Nevertheless, Earl Lloyd has a place in history and in the record books as the first African-American player to take the court in an NBA basketball game, and his story offers more inspiration than he admits for those seeking to overcome barriers in their lives. Lloyd also went on to become the NBA’s first non-playing African American coach later in his career.
Born circa 1928, Lloyd grew up in Alexandria, Virginia, living under the strict regime of Southern segregation in the era before civil rights. His selection in the 1950 NBA draft also marked for him a different and more personal milestone: he told the Washington Times that “[t]o that point I had never sat next to or even talked to a white person before.” Lloyd attended all-black West Virginia State College. As a youth, he received some advice from his mother that he later recounted to Sports Illustrated: “Stupid people do stupid things,” she told him. “Small people do small things. Don’t let them get to you.” It was advice he would need and heed later in his life.
A basketball standout at West Virginia State, Lloyd mulled an offer to take what he considered the only professional basketball opportunity open to him at the time: a slot with the razzle-dazzle, acrobatically inclined Harlem Globetrotters, whose on-court antics delighted basketball audiences of the day. But as Lloyd finished college in 1950, Jackie Robinson had broken baseball’s color barrier three years before and had begun the long and arduous dismantling of the institutional racial segregation that pervaded American life. Lloyd’s coach saw changes coming in other sports, and, perhaps mindful of the NBA scouts in the stands who were keeping an eye on his hot prospect, warned Lloyd to keep his options open.
Though Lloyd became the first African American player in the NBA, he was not the first one drafted. Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach, who ironically was later responsible for building the great and largely-white dominated Celtics basketball dynasty of the 1980s, was the first basketball decision-maker to break
Born ca. 1928; raised in Alexandria, VA; married, wife’s name Charlita; children: Kevin, Kenneth. Education: earned education degree from West Virginia State College, 1950. Military service: US. Army, 1951-52.
Career: Professional basketball player and coach; one of three African Americans drafted by NBA teams, 1950; became NBA’s first African American player to play on October 31, 1950, playing for Washington Capitols; signed with Syracuse Nationals, 1952; played on Nationals NBA champion team, 1955, as one of first two African Americans to win championship; signed with Detroit Pistons, 1958; became assistant coach with Pistons, 1960; became NBA’s first African American non-playing coach with Pistons, 1971-73; workedas job-placement administrator, Detroit Public Schools, 1970s and 1980s; community liaison work with Bing Steel, Detroit, 1990s.
Addresses: Office— c/o Detroit Pistons, 2 Championship Dr., AuburnHills, Ml 48326.
with tradition; the Celtics picked Duquesne forward Chuck Cooper in the second round of the 1950 NBA draft. Once the doors had been opened, two more African American players were picked. Nat (Sweetwater) Clifton, a Harlem Globetrotter forward was drafted by the New York Knickerbockers and became the first African American to sign an NBA contract.
Lloyd was selected by the Washington Capitols in the ninth round of the draft. He himself credited Auerbach for his own chance to enter the NBA. “I don’t think you can put a price tag on what [Auerbach] has done for the black athlete,” he told the Washington Times. “I believed then and I believe now that if Red Auerbach had not drafted Chuck Cooper, the Washington Capitols would not have drafted me,” he continued. Reporting to the Capitols training camp, Lloyd faced a sharp period of adjustment.
“So first off, you’re shocked,” Lloyd told the Detroit Free Press. “When you get to camp, you’re awestruck, because you’re around these players you’ve heard about for years. And when you get treated like an inferior human being all of your life, you start to believe it… I said, ’What am I doing here?’” he recalled. But Lloyd had the mental discipline, and more important the skills, to ride out this period of self-doubt. “About the fifth day of training camp,” he told the Free Press, “the light goes on and you say,” ’Hey, these guys are no better than I am.’ By the start of the regular season I was in the starting lineup.”
On October 31, 1950, Lloyd became the NBA’s first African American player to play when the Capitols took the court in Rochester, New York, against the Rochester Royals. Only 2, 184 fans were in attendance, and this milestone in African-American history went unreported by the same national press that had closely scrutinized Jackie Robinson’s debut three years earlier. One reason, Lloyd has pointed out, was that professional basketball was then in its infancy. Teams were located in out-of-the-way places, attendance was low, and national media coverage was sparse.
In Rochester, where the city’s schools were already integrated and the fans used to seeing African American players, the game went off without incident. Things were not so pleasant at the Capitols’ second game of the year, played at home against the Minneapolis Lakers. Lloyd’s parents were in the crowd, and had to endure numerous racist remarks from disgruntled white fans. Things got even worse in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where Lloyd and a white teammate, walking off the court arm in arm after a Capitols’ victory, were spit on by fans. “When you went to Fort Wayne to play,” Lloyd told Sports Illustrated, “you had to do some emotional yoga to get ready because you knew what was coming.” he continued.
Lloyd has repeatedly maintained that the challenges he faced were minor compared with those surmounted by Robinson. He pointed to the fact that while Robinson fought physically with his own teammates, he (Lloyd) was never even insulted with a racial slur on the court from a teammate or even from an opposing player. But Lloyd often faced difficulties in obtaining public accommodations when on the road with the Capitols. One night in Fort Wayne, the Van Orman Hotel refused to let him eat in its restaurant with the rest of the team. Capitols coach “Bones” McKinney tried to soften the blow by coming to eat in Lloyd’s room, but Lloyd (quoted in the Detroit Free Press) told the coach, “No, you don’t have to do this. There’s no use both of us being miserable.”
At times, Lloyd told Sports Illustrated, he “wanted to lash out at somebody.” But he persisted, bringing a copy of Down Beat magazine on the road with him and seeking out jazz clubs, where all were made welcome. Other African American players joined the league and things got easier. Lloyd moved to the Syracuse Nationals in 1952, and when the Nationals won the NBA championships in 1955, Lloyd and teammate Jim Tucker became the first African Americans to win an NBA title. Nicknamed “The Big Cat” for his height and speed, Lloyd gained a reputation as a fine defensive player. He closed out his playing career with the Detroit Pistons from 1958 to 1960; over his pro career Lloyd averaged 8.4 points and 6.4 rebounds per game.
In the days before multimillion-dollar salaries and celebrity endorsements, professional athletes often had to begin new careers when their playing days were over. Lloyd, married and the father of two, stayed on in Detroit and became an assistant coach with the Pistons in 1960. In 1971 he notched a final first on his belt when he was named the team’s coach: although Celtics star Bill Russell had broken coaching’s color barrier when he served as the Celtics’ player-coach in the late 1960s, Lloyd was the league’s first non-playing African American coach.
Compiling a record of 22 wins and 55 losses, Lloyd was fired by the notoriously fickle Pistons in 1973 and dropped off the basketball radar screen. He moved into a job-placement career with Detroit Public Schools. The honors that began to flow his way began when his name appeared as the answer to a question on television’s Jeopardy quiz show in 1988; the contestant at the time did not know Lloyd’s name. In the 1990s Lloyd worked for the steel and auto-parts company of former Piston Dave Bing, who had played for Lloyd during his years at the helm of the Pistons. By the year 2000 he had retired to a home in Tennessee. “I can’t count up to $5 million,” he told the Detroit Free Press, “but it makes me feel good to know that I was part of contributing something to enable young black kids to make big money,” he concluded.
Detroit Free Press, February 26, 1989, p. E9; January 14, 1992, p. D1; March 16, 2000, p. B2.
Insight on the News, March 29, 1999, p. 42.
Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, February 27, 2000.
Sports Illustrated, November 28, 1994, p. 8.
Washington Times, February 18, 1999, p. 1.
—James M. Manheim
American basketball player
Earl Lloyd was one of a handful of black basketball players who broke the racial barrier and helped integrate the National Basketball Association (NBA). In 1950, with the Washington Capitols, he became the first African American to play in an NBA game. The top defensive player later joined the Syracuse Nationals and became the first black player to win an NBA championship. Later with the Detroit Pistons, he was the first African American to be named an assistant coach and the first to be named a bench coach. Lloyd was enshrined in the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame, was nominated to the Basketball Hall of Fame, and saw February 9, 2001, named Earl Lloyd Day by Virginia's governor.
Virginia Native Makes History
A native of Alexandria, Virginia, Earl Lloyd began playing basketball at Parker Gray High School. In 1947 he attended West Virginia State College and played for the Yellow Jackets where he quickly became known for his defense and guard for the team's best offensive players. The team went to two Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) Conference and Tournament Championships in 1948 and 1949 where they finished in second place. Lloyd was named All-Conference for three years, from 1948 to 1950, and named All-American by the Pittsburgh Courier for 1949 and 1950. During his senior year, he averaged 14 points and 8 rebounds per game.
Racial tensions may have been strong in 1950, but in sports, barriers were being broken. A triumvirate of black basketball players went down into history when they were named to NBA teams. Chuck Cooper was the first African American drafted by an NBA team. Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton of the Harlem Globetrotters was known as the first black to sign an NBA contract when he signed with the New York Knicks.
Rounding out the trio, Earl Lloyd, after he left West Virginia State and was drafted in the ninth round to the Washington Capitols, was the first black to play in an NBA game. On October 31, 1950, Lloyd played in that historic game against the Rochester Royals. Although the Royals defeated the Capitols 78-70, Lloyd scored 6 points and began the inevitable acceptance of African Americans in the NBA.
Although making history, Lloyd spent only seven games with the Capitols before leaving for a two-year stint in the army. In 1952 he returned to the NBA to play for the Syracuse Nationals.
Nicknamed "Big Cat," Lloyd achieved the best performance of his career in the 1954-55 season when he
scored 731 points and helped the Nationals to the Eastern Division Championship. This shored up Lloyd as the first African American to win an NBA title. His average that year was 10.2 points and 7.7 rebounds per game. In 1956 Lloyd was named CIAA Player of the Decade for the years 1947 through 1956.
In 1958 Lloyd was traded to the Detroit Pistons where he remained until his retirement from professional basketball in 1960 at the age of 32. He ended his career with averages of 8.4 points and 6.4 rebounds. Lloyd's other achievements include being named to the CIAA Silver Anniversary Team and to the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics Golden Anniversary Team.
After retirement, Lloyd remained with the Pistons as a scout, and is credited with discovering basketball talents Willis Reed, Earl Monroe, Ray Scott, and Wally Jones.
Quick to play down the significance of his achievement, Lloyd in later years refused to compare his experience with that of Jackie Robinson , who was the first African American to play major league baseball when he signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1945. In an Associated Press article, "Lloyd Says He's No Jackie Robinson," Lloyd noted that his first game caused little controversy because it was played in a city that had already embraced integration.
According to the article, Lloyd experienced a relatively easy transition from college to the NBA because of the acceptance of his white teammates during training camp, where he proved he could play at their level. Lloyd commented, "So you get to training camp with these guys from Southern Cal and Ohio State and UCLA and Georgetown and N.C. State, you kind of ask yourself: Do I belong? For a young black man from Virginia to compete at that level and learn that he belongs there, it was a true defining moment."
Lloyd has contended that Jackie Robinson faced a much more hostile environment in the late 1940s in baseball, often from his own teammates. Unlike Robinson who was the sole black in baseball, Lloyd had the solace of fellow black colleagues, Clifton and Cooper, in the NBA. Lloyd said, "In basketball, folks were used to seeing integrated teams at the college level. There was a different mentality."
First Black Coach
In 1968 Lloyd broke another color barrier when he was named the first African American assistant coach in the league, signing on with the Detroit Pistons. Three years later he became the second black to be named a head coach, and the Pistons' first black coach. Lloyd was the first African American to serve as bench coach. During his short tenure, he coached future Hall of Famers Dave Bing and Bob Lanier.
Unfortunately, the Pistons went just 20-52 under Lloyd in the 1971-72 season, and Lloyd was fired after only seven games into the next season. Pistons owner Fred Zollner replaced Lloyd with Ray Scott, the first time in the NBA that a black coach succeeded a black coach. Nevertheless, Lloyd should be commended for his dedicated service to the Detroit Pistons, having served as the team's assistant coach, scout, and head coach, and as a television analyst as well.
|1947||Plays for West Virginia State|
|1950||One of three blacks drafted by NBA teams|
|1950||Joins the army for two years|
|1952||Plays with Syracuse Nationals from 1952 to 1958|
|1958||Traded to Detroit Pistons|
|1960||Retires from professional basketball|
|1968||Becomes assistant coach of Detroit Pistons|
|1971||Becomes head coach for Pistons|
|1972||Is fired as coach for Pistons|
|2000||Honored at 50th anniversary of black players in NBA|
Recognized for his contributions to basketball, he was enshrined in the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame in 1993. In 1998 Lloyd was voted one of the CIAA's 50 Greatest Players and named to the CIAA Hall of Fame. He outlived his other two black NBA history makers; Cooper died in 1984 and Clifton died in 1990.
|DET: Detroit Pistons; SYR: Syracuse Nationals; WSC: Washington Capitols.|
Awards and Accomplishments
|1948-49||Leads West Virginia State to two CIAA Conference and Tournament Championships|
|1948-50||Named All-Conference for three consecutive years|
|1950||First African American to play in an NBA game, on October 31|
|1954||Career best of 731 points|
|1955||First black player to win an NBA title|
|1956||Named CIAA Player of the Decade, 1947-56|
|1968||First black assistant coach in NBA|
|1971||First black bench coach|
|1993||Enshrined in Virginia Sports Hall of Fame|
|1998||Voted to CIAA's 50 Greatest Players, and CIAA Hall of Fame|
|2001||February 9, 2001, named Earl Lloyd Day throughout Virginia|
|2002||Finalist for induction into Basketball Hall of Fame|
Where Is He Now?
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of African Americans joining the NBA, the league in 2000 honored Earl Lloyd, Chuck Cooper, and Nat Clifton with special events during the season. Lloyd was joined in pregame introductions by Clifton's daughter Anita Brown and Cooper's wife Irva and son Chuck Jr., along with 78-year-old Hank DeZonie, a former member of the New York Rens who played in 1950. Lloyd tossed up the opening tip in the season-opener between the Philadelphia 76ers and the New York Knicks.
In Lloyd's hometown of Alexandria, Virginia, the board of directors of Kids In Trouble, Inc. recognized Lloyd in 2001 by coordinating a youth basketball clinic at the Charles Houston Community Center. That same year, the mayor of Alexandria and the governor of Virginia declared February 9, 2001, as Earl Lloyd Day.
As recently as 2002, Lloyd was still receiving accolades. He was speaker for the CIAA's Men's Tip-Off Banquet held in Raleigh, North Carolina, and was named as a finalist for enshrinement into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Selected from 37 candidates, Lloyd had previously been a finalist once before.
Lloyd also found success after leaving professional basketball. He worked in the field of job placement for Detroit Board of Education for more than ten years. More recently Lloyd was employed in the community relations department of Dave Bing, Inc., a steel and automobile-parts company owned by the former Piston whom Lloyd had briefly coached. Lloyd has lived in Detroit and in Fairfield, Tennessee, with his wife Charlita. Though Lloyd was "never one to blow my own horn," his ground-breaking role in basketball assures his place in history.
"Earl Lloyd." Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 26. Detroit, MI: Gale Group, 2000.
Basketball Hall of Fame, http://www.hoophall.com/news/veteran_nominees_041802.htm (December 15, 2002).
Black Athlete Sports Network. http://www.blackathlete.net/basketball/index.shtml (December 15, 2002).
Black Web Portal. http://www.blackwebportal.com/wire (December 15, 2002).
NBA. http://www.nba.com/history/true_trailblazers_moments.html (December 15, 2002).
Online Athens. http://www.onlineathens.com/stories/103100/spo_1031000042.shtml (December 15, 2002).
Sketch by Lorraine Savage