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History-making Earl Lloyd helped pave the way in the NBA

By Adena Andrews,
Posted Feb 25 2010 8:06PM

Think about the NBA's top three scorers; LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony. Now imagine a league without them. And hundreds of others.

At the birth of the NBA, that's how it was. Because of the color of their skin, African-Americans couldn't imagine setting foot on the hardwood for the NBA unless they had a broom in their hand.

That all changed on Oct. 31, 1950, in a small gymnasium in snowy Rochester, N.Y. Earl Lloyd -- nicknamed "Moonfixer during his playing days -- laced up his high tops for the Washington Capitals and took the court against the Rochester Royals, becoming the first African-American in an infant league called the National Basketball Association.

Lloyd was nicknamed "Moonfixer" not only for his height and athletic ability, but because his teammates would make Lloyd reach up and "fix the moon" as part of a hazing ritual during his freshman year in college.

"I always tell folks that first game was pretty uneventful," Lloyd said. "Folks expected the Klan to be there with ropes and all that. But the Klan don't come out in the snow.

"Fans called me everything but a child of God. Told me to go back to Africa, where I've never been! But you can't jump over the stands and get at the fans. The only way you can get at them is to play."

And play is what the lanky 6-foot 5 forward/center from West Virginia State University did. He had an average night for a rookie: 3-for-4 from the floor, four shots from the line, 10 rebounds.

Thanks to Lloyd, no single contest has been more game-changing for the NBA, now 82 percent African-American and with a number of international players, too.

Five years later, Lloyd broke another barrier, becoming the first African-American (alongside Jim Tucker) to play on a national championship team when carried the Syracuse Nationals to the NBA championship.

Lloyd, who was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2003, is now looked at by many as the Jackie Robinson of basketball, though he tends to shy away from this place in history. In his new book Moonfixer: The Basketball Journey of Earl Lloyd, Lloyd takes on the unwanted connection with Robinson.

Earl Lloyd
Photo courtesy of Wade Payne

"It's an honor, but I don't deserve that comparison. Jackie was unique. What he went through, no one should have to go through."

Lloyd sees his moment in history as more of a scheduling quirk. Two black players, Chuck Cooper and Nathaniel "Sweetwater" Clifton, were drafted that same year before Lloyd. But Lloyd's game was first on the NBA schedule, giving him the distinction of the first African-American to play in an NBA game.

"If Sweetwater Clifton or Chuck Cooper were here with me, maybe it would feel a little different, a little better, if the three of us could sit together and reflect," Lloyd states in his book. "They would agree with me on this: I can't accept it when anyone compares me to Jackie. He was my idol, and I was in an all-black college when he broke in, and you can't imagine what he meant to us."

Lloyd also mentions Joe Louis as one of his idols in Moonfixer, because Louis did all the fighting for angry blacks being mistreated by whites.

"Joe was getting paid to knock white people out. When he hit someone I thought my knuckles were right there in that glove," Lloyd said.

Lloyd did not have it easy in his first year in the league. He was called names. He was not allowed to stay with his teammates in their whites-only hotels. But Lloyd made sure he never let his anger spill over.

"I always carried myself as a professional," Lloyd said. "I knew if I didn't fare well as a player or as a person the next wave [of blacks in the NBA] would not be as forthcoming."

The 81 year-old retiree is now a loyal fan who enjoys watching the evolution of the game with his wife from his living room in Crossville, Tenn.

"If you're a basketball fan you got to love watching LeBron and Kobe," Lloyd said. "Kobe has broken more hearts than anybody in the world with them last second shots, boy.

"Then you got Tim Duncan ... he kills you softly. He don't beat no chest, he ain't running around screaming and hollering, all he does is kill you. He's methodical."

Even more than watching players, Lloyd loves to help young players develop at the league's annual mandatory Rookie Transition Program. Rookies tend to get heavy eyelids in the hour-long seminars. But when Lloyd is introduced, hats are removed, heads rise and eyes open wide.

It's a fitting tribute to the Moonfixer, who helped take African-Americans to new heights.

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