Earl Lloyd, the first African-American man to play in the NBA, died Thursday at the age of 86. WXYZ in Detroit, where Lloyd lived, first reported the news, citing family sources.
A native of Alexandria, Lloyd was one of three black players drafted by the league in 1950; the others were Chuck Cooper and Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton. Lloyd was a ninth-round pick by the Washington Capitols, and in a 2007 interview with The Washington Post, he recalled being surprised to learn of his selection by that team, as he thought of the D.C. area as a “cradle of segregation.”
Lloyd came to break the NBA’s color barrier by a quirk of the schedule, as the Capitols began their season before the teams for which Cooper and Clifton played. On Oct. 31, 1950, the 6-foot-6 forward entered a game against the Rochester Royals, paving the way for thousands of black basketball players to come.
Jackie Robinson had integrated baseball three years earlier, and to much greater acclaim, both at the time and in subsequent decades. At the time, baseball was America’s dominant team sport, while the NBA was in just its fifth year.
“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 told NBA.com. “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.”
Lloyd did endure racially motivated abuse from some fans, but he didn’t let that deter him, telling The Post, “My parents taught me you don’t dignify ignorance.”
He only played seven games for Washington before getting drafted into the Korean War. When he returned two year later, the Capitols had folded, and he joined the Syracuse Nationals, which later became the Philadelphia 76ers.
Lloyd spent six seasons with the Nationals, winning an NBA title in 1955, then two more with the Detroit Pistons before retiring in 1960. He averaged 8.4 points and 6.4 rebounds per game over his career.
Detroit became Lloyd’s home, as he remained in the Pistons organization as a scout and then, in the 1971-72 season, its first African-American head coach. That only lasted one unsuccessful season, after which he worked for the city, including a lengthy stint with the city’s board of education.
The Virginia Sports Hall of Fame made Lloyd a member in 1993. The court at T.C. Williams, a high school that opened after Lloyd’s childhood in Alexandria, named its basketball court in his honor in 2007.
Lloyd was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2003 as a contributor. “I was a giant question mark in 1928” when born, he said at that ceremony, “and in 2003, I became a huge exclamation point.”