Earl Lloyd: NBA's first black player

When his Chuck Taylor Converse sneakers hit the floor at the Edgerton Park Sports Arena in Rochester, New York, on Oct. 31, 1950, Earl Lloyd became the first black player to appear in an NBA game.

"I stepped onto the court and the world kept spinning," Lloyd once said, recalling the moment. "No one said a word -- not the fans, players, anybody. Nothing was ever said about me being the first black. They acted as if I was a player, period. I don't recall any mention in the newspapers about me being the first black to play in an NBA game." He grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds and the Washington Caps lost to the Rochester Royals 78-70.

"It's amazing, but it was fairly uneventful," Lloyd continued. "It was too cold for the [Klu Klux] Klan there," he said with a laugh, recalling the story 55 years after that night.

The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle didn't mention the historic inaugural. The Rochester Times Union contained one sentence more: "Bones McKinney, the Caps' new coach, injected Earl Lloyd, Negro Star of West Virginia State, into the lineup [after halftime] and he took most of the rebounds."

Lloyd, who died Thursday at age 86, had offered two explanations for the "uneventful" nature of the feat. "If you wanted a place to play your first game with a black guy playing and you don't want a lot of controversy, Rochester, New York, was it," he said. "It was a sleepy town. The high schools were integrated. The University of Rochester was integrated."

And there was the state of the NBA, just a year removed from its first season in 1948-49. Professional basketball trailed far behind baseball (and college basketball and pro and college football) in popularity. "The attitude toward pro basketball in the 1950s was ho-hum," Lloyd had recalled. "The NBA had not even reached its infancy." Attendance at NBA games was so sparse that the Harlem Globetrotters were frequently brought in as a headline attraction to play a preliminary game to draw crowds. On other occasions owners would schedule pro doubleheaders.

To Lloyd's two reasons another can be added. The integration of Major League Baseball had come and gone three and a half years before. On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson played his first game for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Earl Lloyd -- and Chuck Cooper, the first black player drafted, and Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton, the first signed -- were tracing a path, but Robinson had already cleared away most of the brush. The overdue integration of baseball had stolen all the thunder. The integration of a fledgling basketball league was anticlimatic.

Lloyd deflected the praise when people compared him to Jackie Robinson. "I take polite homage when people compare me to Jackie Robinson," he said. "But you're doing the man an injustice. The fans vilified him. His teammates didn't want to play with him. The guys that played against him tried to maim him. He was on an island."

Lloyd's achievement as the first black player were celebrated more and more in his later years. But Lloyd was not given to hyperbole. Growing up in the Jim Crow South, he had learned to have both feet on the ground. He would encounter discrimination in several NBA cities. But in 1955 he teamed up with superstar Dolph Schayes as Syracuse won its first and only championship.

The feat ensured that Lloyd, who had a 10-year career, would be remembered for something else besides being the league's first black player. Oddly, his popularity grew after his name was mentioned on the television show "Jeopardy" in the early 1980s.


Earl Lloyd was born on April 3, 1928, and grew up Alexandria, Virginia. His mother, Daisy, was a domestic and his father, Theodore, worked in a coal yard. "My folks had very little to look forward to," Lloyd recalled. "What really spurred them on and kept them going were the needs of their children. The only thing they had to root for was us."

The separate and unequal status of life in Alexandria was evident to Lloyd early on. "As long as you are getting tender loving care as a kid, some things don't bother you," he said. "As you get older things start to crystallize. I'll give you an example: My high school, Parker-Gray High, was about as big as my house. We had no facilities. We didn't have a gymnasium; we had a makeshift auditorium. We didn't have a football field, we didn't have a baseball diamond, we didn't have a practice field. And as you got older, people dropped that mantra on you about 'separate but equal.' I would say, 'Don't insult my intelligence.'"

So segregated was the city that Lloyd never played against white competition. "It was like a wall; one side was black and the other side was white. You had Jim Crow fountains, Jim Crow waiting rooms, you name it. When people used to tell me about separate but equal, I used to look at George Washington High School. At their school, they had facilities galore. When they played a night football game, it looked like broad daylight out, you know. They had beautiful uniforms and they couldn't beat the Little Sisters of the Poor."

Lloyd laughed; there was no venom in his voice as he recalled Alexandria.

"I went to West Virginia State [an all-black college] and the segregation there was just taken to another level." Later, when people asked Lloyd about his experiences he would tell them the unbelievable truth: "From kindergarten to college graduation, I never had a white classmate." It makes you pause, for a long time. And it's not that long ago."

What about competition with white schools? "No, the twain never met."

Despite the difficulties in the South, Lloyd was quick to add that "Luck followed me around a lot." His college coach, Mark Hanna Cardwell, and high school coach, Louis Randolph Johnson, were teammates at the same school and played for the same coach. So from high school through college Lloyd basically got eight years of the same coaching philosophy.

He was picked in the ninth round of the 1950 NBA draft and signed for $4,500, an average figure for the time. Lloyd didn't fuss.

"You never know about signings," he said. "But given the times, you have to believe that a rookie and ninth-round draft choice -- that some folks are getting more money."

At the end of his career, he said, "Here I am making $7,500 or $8,000 working six months out of the year. I would go home and get a half-time job and I could save some money. It was better than most people, even some professional people. I never complained about that."

So Oct. 31, 1950, came and went and Lloyd remarked about the "ho-hum" reaction of the sporting world to his integration of the NBA. One reason for that reaction was that Rochester owner Les Harrison had integrated the National Basketball League (NBL) four years before. Harrison signed black star William "Dolly" King to a contract in October 1946. Harrison's motto was "If he can play, he can play." Harrison had also signed a second black player, Williams "Pop" Gates, in August, but Harrison let Gates go to the Buffalo Bisons.

Organized baseball and the National Football League excluded black players before and during the war. But professional basketball was more decentralized than those sports. During the war there were integrated defense plant teams, such as the Chicago Studebakers. The Harlem Globetrotters were famous and the New York Renaissance had won the first Chicago Herald-American championship tournament -- which involved the best professional teams -- in 1939.

So Dolly King had played four years before Lloyd. Rochester guard Bobby Wanzer played in Lloyd's first game and said its significance was diminished in his mind. "It had already been done," he said, referring to King's appearance in the NBL four years before.

Wendell Smith, sports editor of the black newspaper Pittsburgh Courier, congratulated Harrison for signing King. "I wish to take this opportunity to congratulate the officers of your famous team for signing a player without regard to race, creed or color. It is another democratic step in the field of sports, and I am sure your liberal attitude will be appreciated by thousands of basketball fans throughout the country," Smith wrote.

Lloyd's own experiences with race were colored by more than one game.

Right off, Lloyd made friends with teammate Bill Sharman, a future Hall of Famer. Sharman knew that Lloyd was the only player on the Caps without a car. So he drove to a black neighborhood in Washington, D.C., to pick up Lloyd and bring him to every practice. "It just has a resounding effect," Lloyd said. "Picking me up and driving me to practice [in northwest Washington, at American University] doesn't sound like a lot. But think of guys who are going to be teammates. This guy picked me up every day, dropped me off every day. It would have been an hour or hour-and-a-half bus ride for me. And going to practice ain't that bad, but coming back you're tired. A lot of folks wouldn't attach a lot to that act. But the way I put it is this: If he had never picked me up, he would never have been criticized for it. You see? Bill Sharman was a stand-up guy when it wasn't fashionable."

Matters involving race didn't always go as smoothly. "We went to Fort Wayne [Indiana] to play a game and stayed at the Van Ormond Hotel. You don't forget the names of places like that. Strange enough, they let me sleep in the hotel." Most hotels at the time that practiced wholesale discrimination prohibited black players from eating or sleeping at the hotel. "I could get room service, but they wouldn't let me eat downstairs." So coach [Horace] Bones McKinney came to Lloyd's room and knocked on the door. "You're not going to eat by yourself this evening," McKinney told Lloyd. "I said, 'Bones, you can't fix this and I can't fix this,'" Lloyd recalled. "But it was the gesture."

He played only seven games his rookie season for Washington before being drafted into the service during the Korean War. While Lloyd was spending time at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Washington folded after 35 games. Its 10-25 record was by far the worst in the league.

Upon returning for the 1952-53 campaign, Lloyd, who had gone into the dispersal draft with other Washington players, would build a career. His points, rebounds and assists climbed for three consecutive seasons, culminating with the 1954-55 campaign, when he peaked at 10 points, seven rebounds and two assists per contest.

Syracuse had been knocking on the door, having lost the seventh game of the NBA Finals to Minneapolis in 1954. That deciding game was the last NBA game played without a shot clock, the last game played by George Mikan and the last title won by the league's first dynasty, the Minneapolis Lakers.

Lloyd enjoyed a close-up view of the difference wrought by the 24-second clock. The Nationals couldn't beat the Lakers without a clock, but now had a chance at winning a title with it. "You couldn't hold the ball anymore," Lloyd said. "You had to give it up. You had to at least take a shot."

Fort Wayne had more to do with Syracuse owner Danny Biasone inventing the 24-second clock than any other team. It was Fort Wayne, in a dreary November 1950 game against Minneapolis, that froze the ball, attempting only 13 shots and winning 19-18.

With a clock -- and without Mikan -- parity ruled. No team won 50 games in the 1955 season. Six of the league's eight teams won between 33 and 43 games in a 72-game schedule. "Syracuse was where I had the bulk of my success," Lloyd recalled. "It was a great place for me with my teammates and the city."

Syracuse owned a bona-fide star in Schayes, the league's sixth-leading scorer and fourth-leading rebounder. They boasted balance with Red Kerr, Fred Rocha and Lloyd helping out with the board work and Paul Seymour, like Schayes a perennial All-Star, adding scoring and assists.

In the playoffs, the Nationals shot past smaller Boston in three of four games but in the Finals found themselves down 3-2 to the Fort Wayne Pistons, who were also seeking their first title. Fort Wayne was led by scorers Larry Foust and George Yardley. But Syracuse had a home-court advantage: the fans at the War Memorial Auditorium were rabid and Fort Wayne hadn't won once in 26 tries there. Syracuse eked out a 92-91 victory in Game 7 when George King hit a free throw with 12 seconds left and then stole the ball during Fort Wayne's last rush at the basket. Lloyd scored 12 points and had jumped center against Pistons center Larry Foust, who scored a game-high 24 points. "Fort Wayne didn't have the kind of foot speed that we had," Lloyd said, explaining the Nats' advantage. "That's how we benefited."

Syracuse had become the first titlist in the "new" NBA. "The way we played embodied the term 'team.' We played very well together," Lloyd said. "On some teams, people know their roles but deep down they don't accept them. We accepted our roles." Lloyd, who posted a personal high with 31 minutes per game in the 1955 season, was known for applying tough defense against the opponent's scoring forward and clearing the boards.

For the five seasons after the title, with Syracuse and Detroit, Lloyd was steady, usually playing between 15 and 25 minutes a game. But he retired after the 1960 season at age 32.

He would resurface with Detroit in 1966, when he scouted future Hall of Famer Dave Bing. "That year the top two players in the country were Dave Bing, from Syracuse, and Cazzie Russell. We lost the coin toss. Had we won, we would have taken Cazzie Russell. The Knicks chose first and picked Cazzie. Everybody in Detroit was lamenting. I said to my people, 'Look, don't worry. Be happy. We are getting a hell of a basketball player. This town will not be disappointed.'"

Fans were most disappointed because Russell was an icon in Detroit after starring at the University of Michigan. By contrast, Syracuse was an unknown quantity and didn't enjoy the kind of notoriety it enjoys now. "Syracuse was out there in the ice belt," Lloyd said. "But I said, 'We are getting one hell of a basketball player.'"

He didn't lie. Bing won the scoring title in 1968 and ended up being inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1990.

Lloyd took over as coach of the Pistons in 1971, winning 22 and losing 55 over parts of two seasons. "There are some things that are not for you," he said of his time coaching.

But around the time of the league's 50th anniversary, in 1996, when it began to celebrate its history, it also recognized Earl Lloyd. The new millennium was also the 50th anniversary of his breaking the league's color barrier. Many of his closest friends didn't know of his earlier accomplishment as a basketball player until the 1980s, when his name appeared as an answer on "Jeopardy," the TV game show.

In 2003, Lloyd was recognized for his contribution as a player and was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. Players had to be inducted by a Hall of Famer and Dave Bing did Lloyd the honor. "Dolph Schayes paid me a tremendous compliment," Lloyd said, recalling the moment. "They had him on the Jumbotron at the Hall and he said, 'Without the effort that Earl gave us night in and night out, we couldn't have won [the title in 1955].'

"Today, when I talk to young players, they ask me 'What was the one trait that was most outstanding for yourself?' I say I was coachable," Lloyd said proudly. "When you are coachable, that covers the whole spectrum. You are a team player, you're unselfish, and I was all of that."

Basketball historian Kenneth Shouler has served as managing editor and a writer for "Total Basketball: The Ultimate Basketball Encyclopedia."