Earl Lloyd, who became the first African American player in the National Basketball Association when he took the court with the old Washington Capitols in 1950 and who later became the league’s first non-playing black head coach, died Feb. 26 in Crossville, Tenn., where he lived. He was 86.
His death was announced by his college alma mater, West Virginia State University. The cause was not disclosed.
Mr. Lloyd, who was born and grew up in Alexandria, Va., was one of three African American players to enter the NBA in 1950. (The others were Chuck Cooper of the Boston Celtics and Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton of the New York Knicks.)
Because of a scheduling quirk, Mr. Lloyd was the first of the three to play in a game, when the Capitols opened the season on Oct. 31, 1950, in Rochester, N.Y., against the Rochester Royals. He scored six points and had 10 rebounds. Cooper made his debut the next night, followed a few days later by Clifton.
Mr. Lloyd’s first game in the previously all-white NBA was not exactly unnoticed, but it did not gain nearly the acclaim that Jackie Robinson’s integration of big-league baseball had three years earlier.
“Don’t compare me to Jackie Robinson,” Mr. Lloyd told the Tennessee Tribune in 2012. “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.”
Mr. Lloyd had never sat next to a white person before he was 21, but he was quickly accepted by his white teammates, many of whom were from Northern cities and had played with African Americans in high school and college.
“You’ve been treated as an inferior all your life — white and colored water fountains, back of the bus, crazy stuff,” he told the Charlotte Observer in 2007. “And here you are with a close encounter with guys you’re going to be traveling with, eating with, sleeping with.”
Nevertheless, he was often denied a room in hotels, and he faced frequent abuse from spectators, even in Washington, which was still a segregated city in 1950. As a lifelong jazz fan, he said he found solace on the road in jazz clubs, where race was not an issue.
Lloyd played only seven games with the Capitols in what was their final season before being drafted into the Army. He returned to the NBA in 1952 with the Syracuse Nationals, the franchise that eventually became the Philadelphia 76ers.
The 6-foot-6 Mr. Lloyd was never a star in the NBA, but he was known as a tenacious defender and strong rebounder. He had his finest season in 1954-55 — the first year of the 24-second shot clock — averaging 10.2 points per game for the NBA champion Nats, who defeated the Fort Wayne Pistons 92-91 in Game 7. The previous season, the Nationals lost in the NBA Finals to the Minneapolis Lakers in seven games. He finished his playing career in 1960 with the Pistons, who moved to Detroit in 1957.
Mr. Lloyd later became the NBA’s first African American assistant coach with the Pistons, then worked as a basketball scout and an automotive executive before taking over as Detroit’s head coach in 1971. He was the NBA’s fourth African American head coach, after Bill Russell, Al Attles and Lenny Wilkens, but the first who was not a player-coach.
The Pistons had a few outstanding players, including Dave Bing and Bob Lanier, but the team struggled to a 20-50 record during Mr. Lloyd’s first year at the helm. He was fired early the next season. He later worked as an administrator in the Detroit public school system.
Earl Francis Lloyd was born April 3, 1928, in Alexandria. His father was a laborer in a coal yard.
Mr. Lloyd attended segregated schools, including Alexandria’s Parker-Gray High School, before going to West Virginia State, where he starred on outstanding basketball teams. He was nicknamed “The Big Cat” and graduated in 1950.
For years, Mr. Lloyd’s achievement was overshadowed by that of Robinson in baseball. Many sports journalists and fans credited Cooper and Clifton with being the NBA’s first black players, although Mr. Lloyd was the first to see action.
He finally gained recognition for being a groundbreaker in recent years and in 2003 was named to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., as a pioneer of the sport. In 2010, Vice President Biden honored Mr. Lloyd at an NBA game in Atlanta. He was inducted into the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame in 1993.
Mr. Lloyd lived in retirement in Tennessee with his wife, Charlita Lloyd. Other survivors include three sons and four grandchildren.
Growing up in Virginia during segregation was not easy, but Mr. Lloyd said the experience of racism toughened him to the point that taunts from fans didn’t bother him.
“Almost everybody called somebody names in 1950,” he told the Nashville Tennessean in 2004. “Here I am growing up, plying my trade and I’m going to let some ignorant person deter me from making my living because he called me a name?
“It gives you a little added incentive. The more names they called me, the harder I played.”