Earl Lloyd, who became the first black player to appear in an N.B.A. game when he took the court for the Washington Capitols in October 1950, three and a half years after Jackie Robinson broke modern major league baseball’s color barrier, died on Thursday in Crossville, Tenn. He was 86.
His death was announced by West Virginia State University, where he played before joining the N.B.A.
When Lloyd made his N.B.A. debut, pro basketball was an afterthought on the national sports scene. Lloyd’s milestone appearance received little attention. But Lloyd and three other black players who appeared in N.B.A. lineups soon afterward were nonetheless pioneers, enduring racist jeers from spectators in some cities as well as segregated hotel and restaurant accommodations.
A rugged 6-foot-6, 220-pound forward, Lloyd played in the N.B.A. for nine seasons. He was a strong rebounder and was so tenacious on defense that he sometimes guarded the Minneapolis Lakers’ 6-foot-10 center, George Mikan, the league’s first superstar.
In 1955, Lloyd and Jim Tucker, also a forward, became the first two black players on an N.B.A. championship team, playing for the Syracuse Nationals.
Lloyd was named the Detroit Pistons’ head coach in 1971, becoming the fourth black head coach in N.B.A. history, after Boston’s Bill Russell, Seattle’s Lenny Wilkens and Golden State’s Al Attles.
He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., in 2003 for breaking the N.B.A. racial barrier.
Lloyd said he had never encountered racial animosity from teammates or opposing players, but he remembered taunts from spectators, particularly in St. Louis; Baltimore; Fort Wayne, Ind., where the Pistons were based until 1957; and Indianapolis, where the Pistons played their home games in the 1955 N.B.A. finals against Syracuse.
“Those fans in Indianapolis, they’d yell stuff like, ‘Go back to Africa,’ ” Lloyd told The Syracuse Herald American in 1992. “My philosophy was: If they weren’t calling you names, you weren’t doing nothing. If they’re calling you names, you were hurting them.”
Lloyd recalled how a hotel manager in Baltimore refused to give him a room during a Nationals trip in the early 1950s and how his coach, Al Cervi, protested loudly to no avail. Lloyd left the hotel to avoid trouble.
“I owe Earl a lot of thanks,” Cervi, who coached him for four seasons, told Ron Thomas in the book “They Cleared the Lane: The N.B.A.’s Black Pioneers.”
“He’s an unsung star. Anybody can score. Lloyd was an excellent defensive player. That was No. 1 on my roster.”
Earl Francis Lloyd was born on April 3, 1928, in Alexandria, Va., where his father worked in a coal yard and his mother was a domestic worker. After playing at a segregated high school, he starred for historically black West Virginia State.
When the N.B.A., going into its fifth season, prepared for its April 1950 draft, many club owners continued to resist signing a black player. Apart from the prejudices of the time, some owners feared that Abe Saperstein, the owner of the all-black, crowd-pleasing Harlem Globetrotters, would pull them from appearances in N.B.A. arenas if his roster were raided, depriving the financially hard-pressed league of a gate attraction.
But everything changed when the Boston Celtics’ owner, Walter Brown, selected Chuck Cooper, a black player from Duquesne, in the second round of the 1950 draft, and Ned Irish, running the Knicks, said he planned to purchase the rights to the highly regarded Sweetwater Clifton from the Globetrotters. The Capitols followed their leads, picking Lloyd in the ninth round.
On the evening of Oct. 31, 1950, Lloyd made his debut when the Capitols opened their season on the road against the Rochester Royals at Edgerton Park Arena. He scored 6 points and pulled down a game-high 10 rebounds.
Cooper, a forward, made his Celtics debut the next night, and Clifton, a forward and center, appeared in his first Knicks game three days after that. Both went on to have fine careers in the N.B.A.
A fourth black player, Hank DeZonie, played in five games with the Tri-Cities Blackhawks during the 1950-51 season.
Lloyd entered the Army after seven games with the Capitols, who went out of business in January 1951. He later played six seasons for Syracuse, complementing the high-scoring Dolph Schayes, then played two seasons for the Pistons. He retired after the 1959-60 season with career averages of 8.4 points and 6.4 rebounds per game.
Lloyd became the Pistons’ coach a few games into the 1971-72 season. They finished last in the Midwest Division, and he was fired after a 2-5 start the next season.
He later held an executive position with Chrysler, supervised youth leagues for the Detroit Police Department and counseled students in the city’s school system.
Lloyd, who retired to Crossville after living in Detroit, is survived by his wife, Charlita; his sons, Kenneth, Kevin and David; and four grandchildren.
In reflecting on his experience as the N.B.A.’s first black player, Lloyd said he had been “in the right place at the right time.”
“I don’t play it up or down,” he told Mr. Thomas, the author. “I just hope I conducted myself where I made it easier for others, and I think I did.”
Earl Francis Lloyd (April 3, 1928 – February 26, 2015) was an American professional basketball player. He was the first black person to play in the National Basketball Association, in the 1950–51 NBA season. Three other African Americans played in the same season: Chuck Cooper, Nathaniel Clifton, and Hank DeZonie.
Lloyd, a forward known for his defense, played collegiately at West Virginia State College, was selected in the ninth-round of the 1950 NBA draft by theWashington Capitols. On October 31, 1950, Lloyd became the first African American to play in an NBA game, against the Rochester Royals.
Lloyd led West Virginia State to two CIAA Conference and Tournament Championships in 1948 and 1949. He was named All-Conference three times (1948–50) and was All-American twice, as named by the Pittsburgh Courier (1949–50). As a senior, he averaged 14 points and 8 rebounds per game, while leading West Virginia State to a second place finish in the CIAA Conference and Tournament Championship. In 1947-48, West Virginia State was the only undefeated team in the United States.
Nicknamed "The Big Cat", Lloyd was one of three African-Americans to enter the NBA at the same time. It was only because of the order in which the teams' season openers fell that Lloyd was the first to actually play in a game in the NBA. The date was October 31, 1950, one day ahead of Cooper of the Boston Celticsand four days before Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton of the New York Knicks. Lloyd played in over 560 games in nine seasons, the 6-foot-5, 225-pound forward averaged 8.4 points and 6.4 rebounds per game.
Lloyd played in only seven games for the Washington Capitols before the team folded on January 9, 1951. He then went into the U.S. Army at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, before the Syracuse Nationals picked him up on waivers. He spent six seasons with Syracuse and two with the Detroit Pistons before retiring in 1960.
Lloyd retired ranked 43rd in career scoring with 4,682 points. In the 1953-54 season, Lloyd led the NBA in both personal fouls and disqualifications. His best year was 1955, when he averaged 10.2 points and 7.7 rebounds for Syracuse, which beat the Fort Wayne Pistons 4-3 for the NBA title. Lloyd and Jim Tuckerwere the first African-Americans to play on an NBA championship team.
Lloyd once said; "In 1950, basketball was like a babe in the woods; it didn't enjoy the notoriety that baseball enjoyed." Like Lloyd, Clifton and Cooper had solid but not spectacular careers.
According to Detroit News sportswriter Jerry Green, in 1965 Detroit Pistons General Manager Don Wattrick wanted to hire Lloyd as the team's head coach. It would have made Lloyd the first African-American head coach in American pro sports. Dave DeBusschere was instead named Pistons player–coach. From 1972 to 1973, Lloyd did coach the Pistons and was a scout for five seasons.
Lloyd and his wife, Charlita, have three sons, and four grandchildren. Earl resided in Fairfield Glade, Tennessee, just outside of Crossville, until his death in February 2015.
Lloyd was inducted into the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame in 1993.
On December 1, 2007, the newly constructed basketball court at T. C. Williams High School in Lloyd's home town of Alexandria, Virginia, was named in his honor. Lloyd actually attended Parker-Gray High School, as Alexandria's schools were racially-segregated at the time. T.C. Williams—the subject of the motion picture Remember the Titans—was created as a combined, desegregated school two decades later.
In November 2009, Moonfixer: The Basketball Journey of Earl Lloyd, was released. Lloyd wrote this biography with Syracuse area writer, Sean Kirst.
In 2015 Lloyd, along with fellow basketball player Alonzo Mourning, was one of eight Virginians honored in the Library of Virginia's "Strong Men & Women in Virginia History" because of his contributions to the sport of basketball.