- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 2, 2000

A long half-century after he became the NBA's Jackie Robinson, Earl Lloyd is getting much more attention these days than when he first put on a Washington Capitols uniform and trotted onto a pro basketball court on the chilly night of Oct. 31, 1950, in Rochester, N.Y., of all places.

The New York Knicks honored Lloyd at their first home game Tuesday, the Washington Wizards will do the same at halftime tomorrow at MCI Center and D.C. sports talk pioneer Harold Bell is the point guard for a luncheon and reception during All-Star Week here Feb. 9.

It's all kind of dazzling for Lloyd, an Alexandria native who later became the NBA's first black assistant coach and then head coach with the Detroit Pistons. A couple of years ago, he moved from Detroit to Fairfield Glade, Tenn., where the NBA presumably is not a hot property. But at 72, he is a momentary media darling with many journalists who weren't born when he broke the NBA's color barrier.

How long ago did Lloyd play? Well, his starting NBA salary was $4,500 a season, and at West Virginia State he was known as "Moon Fixer" for his play in the paint although he stood just 6-foot-6 1/2. "Better make it 6-7 it sounds better," Lloyd was saying with a chuckle the other day.

Strangely in a league where more than 75 percent of today's players are black, the NBA's first four seasons passed without a man of color in uniform. Through a scheduling quirk, Lloyd became the first a day ahead of Chuck Cooper, who had been drafted on the first round by the Boston Celtics, and Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton, purchased by the Knicks from the Harlem Globetrotters. The NFL had introduced its first blacks in 1946, a year before Robinson shattered baseball's 63-year unwritten ban with the Dodgers.

"It wasn't a big deal when I came in," Lloyd recalled. "Most of the white guys had played against blacks in college and were used to it. Besides, we played that first game in a high school gym in Rochester, so how many people were there maybe 2,000?"

Of course, the NBA was pretty bush stuff in 1950, with teams in places like Syracuse, Fort Wayne, Ind., and Tri-Cities, wherever and whatever that was. With television still in its infancy, there were more roller derby events than pro basketball games on the 10-inch screen. Most significantly, integration was not the enormous sociological and political issue it became later in the decade. There was white America and black America; seldom did they meet.

Lloyd did not hang around long as a pioneer. He played exactly seven games with the Caps before Uncle Sam crooked his finger. When he emerged from the Army, the Caps were long gone and his rights had been assigned to the Syracuse Nats. He played 64 games during the 1952-53 season, averaging 7.4 points and 6.9 rebounds. Two years later, his numbers were 10.2 and 7.7 as the Nats won their first (and last) NBA title. For his nine-year career with Syracuse and Detroit, he averaged 8.0 points and 6.8 rebounds. But his main value was in areas that don't always show up on the stat sheets.

"Earl blocked shots and played defense like there was no tomorrow," said Red Auerbach, who coached the Celtics to eight consecutive NBA titles in the '50s and '60s."

Though Lloyd never played for Mr. Victory Cigar, theirs is a mutual admiration society: Said Earl: "If it hadn't been for Red Auerbach and the Boston Celtics, [blacks] might still be trying to get into the NBA. The Celtics were the first to draft a black player, the first to put five black players on the floor and the first to hire a black coach and general manager [Bill Russell]."

And if not for that 1949-50 schedule, Cooper might have given the Celtics a sweep of the league's equal-opportunity honors. But that distinction is something nobody can take away from the old Caps, owner Mike Uline and coach Bones McKinney, who grabbed Lloyd on the ninth round of the 1950 draft.

"I'm not bitter that it took us so long [to get in], because bitterness is hard work," Lloyd said. "But twice a year I talk to players at training camp and try to let them know how it was being a pioneer. History can straighten out some people."

Lloyd broke through again in the late '60s by becoming the league's first black assistant with the Pistons under former teammate Dick McGuire. ("The fans didn't know what was going on when they saw me sitting on the bench in a suit, and I wasn't a player who was hurt," he said.) Earl succeeded Butch van Breda Kolff as head coach for 1971-72 but was fired early the next season after his teams went 22-55. Scapegoating, it seems, is an equal-opportunity unemployer.

After that Lloyd spent 10 years as an administrator for the job-training program in Detroit public schools and six more as a community relations director for former Pistons star Dave Bing's business enterprises before retiring. Now, unexpectedly, the spotlight is shining more brightly on him than ever before.

When baseball honored Robinson in 1997 by retiring his No. 42 for all teams, some players said they weren't sure exactly what he had done. Considering that Lloyd was much less visible during and after his playing career, it's doubtful that 5 percent of today's instant-millionaire players could identify him. For shame.

All four players who became pro basketball's first blacks in 1950 Lloyd, Cooper, Clifton and Hank DeZonie of the Tri-Cities Blackhawks deserve space in the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. Being first in anything is never easy, and we should remember always that Earl Lloyd was first among the first in the NBA.

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