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

By | October 29, 2020

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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.

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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.