Not that long ago, it was a time when African-Americans could not take simple privileges — like staying at certain hotels or eating in certain restaurants — for granted. For Earl Lloyd, Chuck Cooper, and Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, it was a time to make history.
Lloyd, Cooper, and Clifton entered the National Basketball Association in 1950 and became pioneers for today’s African-American basketball players. Cooper was the first African-American to be drafted by an NBA team. Clifton was the first to sign an NBA contract. And on Oct. 31, 1950, Lloyd, a member of the Washington Capitols, became the first African-American to play in an NBA game when he entered a game against the Rochester Royals.
Thousands of African-Americans have followed in the path of these men — great players like Oscar Robertson, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Erving, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, who have helped the NBA evolve into a global attraction. Today’s fans have no problem recognizing names like Kevin Durant or Stephen Curry. But ask fans to talk about Lloyd, Cooper or Clifton, and most of them would be stumped.
All three men who broke the color barrier in 1950 have since passed away. Cooper died in 1984, while Clifton died in 1990 and Lloyd in 2015.
Yet, the legacy they left behind will live on. Lloyd was proud of his role in history, and he should be. On that historic night in 1950, Lloyd opened a door that thousands of others have walked through.
“I don’t think my situation was anything like Jackie Robinson’s — a guy who played in a very hostile environment, where even some of his own teammates didn’t want him around,” Lloyd said. “In basketball, folks were used to seeing integrated teams at the college level. There was a different mentality. But of course, the team did stay and eat in some places where I wasn’t welcome.
“I remember in Fort Wayne, Ind., we stayed at a hotel where they let me sleep, but they wouldn’t let me eat. They didn’t want anyone to see me. Heck, I figured if they let me sleep there, I was at least halfway home. You have to remember, I grew up in segregated Virginia, so I had seen this stuff before. Did it make me bitter? No. If you let yourself become bitter, it will eat away at you inside. If adversity doesn’t kill you, it makes you a better person.”
Lloyd was not a household name like Robinson, who broke major league baseball’s color barrier in 1947. With Lloyd, Clifton and Cooper all joining the NBA during the same season, none of them had to carry the burden alone the way Robinson did. In fact, Cooper made his debut with the Boston Celtics just one day after Lloyd played his first game with Washington. And with Robinson already playing baseball, the debut of African-Americans in the NBA was not met with the same level of tension.
But Lloyd had many uncomfortable moments. After a game in Fort Wayne, Lloyd and one of his teammates, Johnny “Red” Kerr, were walking off the floor together after a victory.
“We were celebrating the win, I had my arm around Earl, and some fans just spit on us,” said Kerr, a former great player and Bulls broadcaster. “It wasn’t because we had won the game. They were spitting at Earl.”
On another occasion, a diner refused service to Lloyd, so he returned to his hotel room to eat. Horace “Bones” McKinney was Washington’s coach at the time. In a show of support, McKinney went to Lloyd’s room and joined him for dinner. Gestures like that helped Lloyd keep going.
“Bones was from Wake Forest, N.C., the Deep South, and he had been raised in the South during the 30s and 40s,” Lloyd said. “You know he didn’t have to do that. Things like that you don’t forget.”
Nicknamed “Big Cat,” Lloyd was drafted in the ninth round by the Capitols after a successful career at West Virginia State. A 6-foot-6 forward known for his defense, he often guarded the other team’s best offensive player. The Washington franchise folded during Lloyd’s first year, but he joined the Syracuse Nationals the next season. During the 1954-55 season, Lloyd average 10.2 points and 7.7 rebounds, helping the Nationals win the NBA title. Lloyd retired in 1960 at the age of 32, ending his career with the Detroit Pistons, and finishing with career averages of 8.4 points and 6.4 rebounds.
After spending the next 10 years as a scout and assistant coach, Lloyd became the first African-American coach of the Pistons during the 1971-72 season, after Butch van Breda Kolff resigned. But the Pistons were just 20-52 the rest of the season, and Lloyd was fired just seven games into the next season.
“Coaching is only fun if you win,” said Lloyd, laughing. “I didn’t win. It wasn’t fun.”
But Lloyd found success elsewhere. He spent more than 10 years working for the Detroit Board of Education.
Lloyd is so modest that many of his friends don’t know about his place in history.
“When you’re 70 years old, if you start telling people that you were the first black man to play in the NBA, people look at you like you’re crazy,” Lloyd said. “Besides, I’ve never been one to blow my own horn.”
Lloyd was enshrined in the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame in 1993 and followed the NBA throughout his life, watching games from his home. He knew that he played a role in helping make the league what it is today.
“Earl was a great teammate,” Kerr said. “He’s also a great guy and a hero.”
While Lloyd won an NBA championship, neither Clifton nor Cooper were as fortunate. But Clifton spent seven seasons as a popular player with the Knicks, and part of the 6-foot-7 forward’s charisma was due to his nickname. Clifton loved soft drinks as a child, thus the nickname “Sweetwater.”
A solid rebounder who loved to run the floor, Clifton’s strength was getting to the basket. A native of Chicago, Clifton entered the NBA after a stint in the Army, followed by two seasons with the Harlem Globetrotters. Some of the ballhandling skills that Clifton learned with the Globetrotters served him well in the NBA. For his career, Clifton averaged 10 points and 8.2 rebounds, and he made the 1956 All-Star team, scoring eight points in 23 minutes off the bench.
Clifton moved back to the Windy City when his career ended in 1958 at the age of 35, and he worked as a cab driver. While driving his cab, Clifton suffered a fatal heart attack on August 31, 1990, at the age of 67.
Of the three African-Americans who entered the league in 1950, Cooper was the youngest at age 24. Drafted by the Celtics in the second round of the 1950 Draft, Cooper had his best season as a rookie, averaging 9.9 points and 8.5 rebounds.
A native of Pittsburgh, Cooper was an all-city player in high school, and he chose to attend college at home, playing for Duquesne. As a 6-foot-5 forward, Cooper had good shooting range, but he was unselfish player who deferred to Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman.
After four seasons with the Celtics, Cooper spent one season with the Milwaukee Hawks. The team moved to St. Louis the next season, and Cooper split that season between St. Louis and Fort Wayne. During his six-year NBA career, Cooper averaged 6.7 points. He would be defined today as a role player, but the role that Cooper, Clifton and Lloyd served went far beyond the court.
Today, it is not unusual for many African-American players to be on the court at once during an NBA game. There are also African-American coaches, executives and general managers.
However, it all started in 1950, when three men had the patience, courage, and ability to handle being groundbreakers. Chuck Cooper, Earl Lloyd, and Sweetwater Clifton may not be household names. But their place in the NBA’s history will be secure forever.