EARL LLOYD: A true hardwood pioneer

February 1, 2012

By Paul Corliss

On Halloween night of 1950, a rugged rookie power forward with the Washington Capitols named Earl Lloyd made history as the first African American to play in an NBA game. Today, at age 83, Lloyd pulls no punches – speaking with the same honest grit and spirit that characterized his nine NBA seasons as a fearless defender and rebounder.

“If you were a black baby born in segregated Virginia in 1928, your prospects were slim and none,” Lloyd said when asked to look back more than six decades to his NBA debut. “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.”

Lloyd, a ninth-round draft pick from West Virginia State where he was twice named an All-American, entered the league alongside African Americans Chuck Cooper and Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton. Cooper may have been 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 (whom Lloyd refers to glowingly as a “giant of a man.”)

“Training camp with the Washington Capitols was the first time in my life the playing field was truly level,” Lloyd said. “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, after the Caps folded, 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 while he’s 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. Baseball’s Jackie Robinson receives far more acclaim for breaking his sport’s racial barrier in 1947, 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.”

Yet as he downplays his role as a racial pioneer, Lloyd readily admits 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.”

Lloyd harnessed that weapon to the tune of 8.4 points and 6.4 rebounds per game during his nine-year NBA career.  Today – as a proud Basketball Hall of Fame inductee – Lloyd said he and his wife Charlie are “extremely retired.” When he looks back on his career, the NBA’s first African American player is 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.”