- The Washington Times - Monday, November 6, 2006

“The date was Oct. 31. That’s Halloween, so maybe people thought I was a goblin or something.”

— Earl Lloyd

From a distance of more than half a century, Earl Lloyd usually tries to downplay his historic role as the first black man in the NBA — a league in which more than 75 percent of today’s players are black. No such luck. Pioneers are always important, even if they become such merely through a quirk in the schedule.

On the night in 1950 when Lloyd stepped onto a court in upstate New York to play for the old Washington Capitols against the Rochester Royals, he was setting his name alongside those of others who surmounted important athletic barriers in mid-century America.

At the time, Lloyd’s appearance earned far less publicity than Jackie Robinson’s with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 and somewhat less than the twin debuts of Woody Strode and Kenny Washington with the Los Angeles Rams in 1946. But that’s because the NBA was something of a bush league then, with outposts in locales like Rochester; Fort Wayne, Ind.; and Tri-Cities, wherever they were.

Lloyd wasn’t the only black to enter the NBA in the 1950-51 season. The first to be drafted the previous spring was Chuck Cooper from Duquesne, whose selection by the Boston Celtics was explained thusly by team owner Walter Brown: “I don’t care if he’s striped, plaid or polka dot.” The first to sign a contract that summer was Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, who joined the New York Knicks from the Harlem Globetrotters.

But Lloyd, a 6-foot-5 product of Alexandria’s Parker-Gray High School, was the first to play in a game because the Caps opened their season one night ahead of the Celtics and Knicks. Most details have been lost in the mists of time, but we know Lloyd had six points although Rochester won 78-70. Scoring was never his forte, though. Defense and rebounding were, so much so that he earned the twin nicknames of “The Big Cat” and “Moon Fixer” while starring at West Virginia State.

“It’s strange, but that first game was really uneventful,” recalled Lloyd, now 78 and retired in Fairfield Glade, Tenn. “I don’t think my situation was anything like Jackie Robinson’s — it was never close to that. I was never, ever called a name by a teammate or opposing player. … In basketball, people were used to seeing integrated college teams, and there was a different mentality.

“Besides, we played that game in a high school gym, so how many people could have been there — maybe 2,000?”

Some fans elsewhere were not exactly overjoyed to see him. Said Lloyd: “It was not easy in places like Baltimore, Indianapolis, St. Louis and Fort Wayne. But I found out they only called you names when you were playing good. So I made sure they called me a whole bunch of names.”

Both Lloyd’s stay with the Caps and the franchise itself were short-lived. Earl played seven games, averaging 6.1 points and 6.7 rebounds, before being drafted by the Army and sent to Korea. The Caps disbanded a few months later with a 10-25 record, ending Washington’s tenure in the NBA until the early 1970s.

When he returned from the service, Lloyd’s contract was assigned to the Syracuse Nats. He played eight seasons with the Nats and Detroit Pistons, averaging 8.4 points and 6.4 rebounds while earning respect from nearly all opposing players and coaches.

“He was a lot like Scottie Pippen [later],” former Celtics star Sam Jones once recalled. “He had great jumping ability and always played good defense. [He was] a good guy, too. A lot of times before we played in Detroit, Earl would have me to his house for dinner. Remember, we couldn’t eat in a lot of places then.”

In 1968, one good pioneering turn deserving another, the Pistons made him the league’s first black assistant coach. He became their head coach in 1971 — the second black man so employed in the NBA, after Bill Russell with the Celtics — but was fired after compiling a 22-55 record over parts of two seasons.

After decades of relative basketball obscurity, Lloyd moved front and center in 1996, when the NBA celebrated diversity as part of its 50th anniversary observation. Five years later, he was wined, dined and hailed at a variety of events during All-Star week here. In 2003, he finally was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., as a “contributor.” Did somebody say better late than never?

“Doggone,” Lloyd said jokingly during All-Star week, “if I can last another 15 or 20 years, they might put my name on a building [in the District].”

Leonard Hamilton, then coach of the Washington Wizards, thanked Lloyd “for making it possible for me to be a head coach in the NBA. And without him, all those players with those fat contracts might not have them.”

It’s doubtful that more than 5 percent of NBA players at the time knew who Lloyd was. After all, when Major League Baseball celebrated the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s much more publicized breakthrough season in 1947, a startling number of minority players said they didn’t know what he had done. For shame.

One of Lloyd’s biggest admirers was the late Red Auerbach, who said Earl “blocked shots and rebounded like there was no tomorrow.” And the feeling was mutual.

“If it hadn’t been for Red Auerbach and the Boston Celtics, [blacks] might still be trying to get into the NBA,” Lloyd said a few years ago. “The Celtics were the first to draft black players, the first to put five black players on the floor and the first to hire a black coach and general manager [Russell].”

And if not for that 1950-51 NBA schedule, the Celtics might have swept the NBA’s early equal-opportunity honors. But Earl Lloyd, Caps owner Mike Uline and coach Bones McKinney deserve plenty of credit, too, for helping to change their sport and a little piece of society.

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