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Earl Lloyd: The First Black Player In The NBA Makes His Debut

1950s | October 31, 2020

Basketball player Earl Lloyd dribbling a basketball, Virginia, 1966. (Photo by Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images)

On October 31, 1950, Earl Lloyd made his debut as the first black player in the National Basketball Association as a member of the Washington Capitols. This wouldn't be the last historic first that Lloyd made.

Earl Lloyd's Early Life

When Earl Lloyd was born on April 3, 1928 in Alexandria, Virginia, the South was still grappling with Jim Crow laws, segregation, and racial inequities. Lloyd's father, Theodore, worked in the coal mines while his mother, Daisy, stayed home to care for the children. By high school, Lloyd was well over six feet tall (he would eventually reach 6'5") and a standout on the basketball court. He played for the segregated Parker-Grey High School, but his talents got the attention of college scouts. 

After Lloyd graduated in 1946, he received an offer to play for the West Virginia State University Yellow Jackets. He quickly became a star of the team, taking them to two C.I.A.A. championships and earning the titles of All-Conference three times and All-American twice. During the 1947–48 season, West Virginia State was the only undefeated team in the country. In 1950, Lloyd earned his bachelor's degree in physical education.

Chuck Cooper, far right, playing for the Boston Celtics in the 1953–1954 season. (Hult Studio/Wikimedia Commons)

The First (Three) Black N.B.A. Player(s)

The N.B.A. had been exclusively white until this time, so Lloyd didn't expect his basketball career to go any further, but shortly after the season ended, a woman on campus congratulated him on his upcoming move to D.C. When he seemed confused, she explained that she had heard he was chosen to play for the Washington Capitols.

Earl Lloyd wasn't the only black player selected for the N.B.A. that year. Joining him was Chuck Cooper, who played for the Boston Celtics, and Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton, a former Harlem Globetrotter who was drafted by the New York Knicks. The season schedule for the Knicks and the Celtics started in early November, though, while the Capitols began the season at the end of October, which meant Lloyd got the slot in the history books. 

The Detroit Pistons playing in The Palace of Auburn Hills in January 2006. (Kevin Ward/Wikimedia Commons)

Earl Lloyd: N.B.A. Champion

Lloyd was naturally leery of joining an all-white team on the cusp of full integration, but he was pleasantly surprised that most of his new teammates had played on integrated college teams and welcomed him with open arms. The fans, however, were a different story. They often abused him with racial epithets, and in one particularly colorful incident, a man in the front row yelled at the start of a game, "Do you think this n----- can play any basketball?" Daisy Lloyd happened to be sitting right behind him, so she leaned over and told the man, "Don't you worry. The n----- can play."

Lloyd was at home on the court, and his immense talent was obvious even to the many fans who wanted the league to remain segregated, but his first season in the N.B.A. was cut short. After playing just seven games, Lloyd was drafted into the military. The Capitols assured him they would put his contract on hold and wait for his return, but by the time Lloyd finished his tour in Korea, the Capitols franchise had folded, and his contract was sold to Syracuse.

Lloyd meets then–Vice President Joe Biden at the White House, October 2010. (The White House/Wikimedia Commons)

Lloyd's Later Life

Lloyd didn't let this interruption blemish his career. He played six seasons with the Syracuse Nationals, averaging more than 10 points per game and leading the team to the N.B.A. Championship in 1955, where he and teammate Jim Tucker became the first black players to participate in the competition.

Lloyd rounded out his career with two seasons with the Detroit Pistons and then retired in 1961 to become their assistant coach. This career move broke yet another color barrier: He was the first black assistant coach in any of the four major professional sports leagues in the U.S. After coaching for the Pistons, he stayed in Detroit and worked first for the city's police department and then as a school administrator. He was inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2003, just 12 years before he passed away at the age of 86.

Tags: 1950s | racism | sports

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.