Making a Difference: Profiles in Black History - Earl Lloyd

Think about this.

Before October 31, 1950, there were NO black players in the NBA. NONE. ZERO. ZIP.

The seasons before had some great players, yes, from George Mikan to Dick McGuire to Dolph Schayes to Ed McCauley, but every single one of them was white.

Then came that Halloween night in 1950 when the NBA, which was comprised of 11 teams that year, would change forever. Bones McKinney, the coach of the Washington Capitols would send a young, African-American nicknamed “Big Cat” into the first game of the season and that 6-foot-6-inch forward would go down in basketball history as a pioneer.

That player was Earl Lloyd.

Lloyd was one of three African-American players to enter the NBA in 1950. The others were Chuck Cooper with the Boston Celtics and Nate “Sweetwater” Clifton with the New York Knicks. It was only because of scheduling that Lloyd became the first African-American to play in a game…Cooper’s and Clifton’s team weren’t scheduled to play their first games of the season until a few days later, so Lloyd was charged with the responsibility. One he handled with dignity and class, similar to Jackie Robinson, who had broken the color barrier just three years earlier in baseball.

When compared to Robinson and his achievement, Lloyd said, “In 1950, basketball was like a babe in the woods. It didn’t enjoy the notoriety that baseball enjoyed.

"I don't think my situation was anything like Jackie Robinson's-a guy who played in a hostile environment, where some of his teammates didn't want him around. In basketball, folks were used to seeing integrated college teams. There was a different mentality."

Though he wasn’t likely to admit it, like Robinson, Lloyd had broken the barrier wide open for so many to follow.

Lloyd would average only 6.0 points and 6.0 rebounds in seven games, and the Capitols would finish a league worst 10-25, eventually folding mid-season in January 1951. But the NBA wasn’t finished and neither was Lloyd.

Early Lloyd was born April 3, 1928 in Alexandria, Virginia. He honed his basketball skills on the playgrounds of inner city Washington, D.C., just a short walk from home.

“The playground basketball wars in D.C. made college and the NBA a piece of cake,” Lloyd said about those days that prepared him for life.

He graduated from Parker-Gray High School in 1946 and was awarded a scholarship to the West Virginia State College. He played four years at WVSC where he was named to the All-Conference (CIAA) team three times and was twice named to the All-America team. In 1947-48 Lloyd led West Virginia State as the only undefeated team in the country and later, as a senior in 1950, Lloyd averaged 14 points and eight rebounds. He was drafted in the ninth round by the NBA’s Washington Capitols in 1950.

After an inauspicious first season with Washington, Lloyd played six seasons with the Syracuse Nationals. During the Nationals 1955 championship season, Lloyd averaged 10.2 ppg and 7.7 rpg, both career highs and appeared in 72 games. Lloyd, along with teammate Jim Tucker, were the first African-Americans to win a NBA Title. He would finish his NBA playing career with the Detroit Pistons, playing two seasons, 1958-59 and 1959-60, with the team.

But Lloyd wasn’t finished with the NBA after his playing days…and as it turned out, he wasn’t finished as a pioneer, either. In 1968, Lloyd became the first African-American assistant coach in the NBA, working for the Detroit Pistons and in 1971, he became the second African-American head coach and first African-American bench coach (in 1967 Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics was the first ever head coach, but he was also a player-coach) again with the Detroit Pistons.

As a coach, he tutored Pistons greats, and future Hall of Famers Dave Bing and Bob Lanier. He later became a scout and discovered the likes of Willis Reed, Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, Ray Scott and Wally Jones.

Later, after playing and coaching Lloyd would continue to influence those in the Detroit area. He worked as job-placement administrator for the Detroit Public Schools in the 1970s and 1980s and later, his former player Dave Bing would ask him to serve as a community liaison with Bing Steel in 1990s. On September 5, 2003 Earl Lloyd was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.