By Jim McElhatton (Photo/Jim McElhatton)
Back when Earl Lloyd played in the NBA, there were no multi-million dollar contracts to be had, so he returned to his hometown of Alexandria to work part-time in the offseason for the city’s recreation department.
Lloyd, a Basketball Hall of Fame inductee in 2003, was the Jackie Robinson of basketball, the first African American player in the NBA in 1950. When he returned home, he was a hero to the young players in Alexandria who dreamed of following in his footsteps.
One of those players, Jimmy Lewis, became a star in his own right. Like Lloyd, he graduated from the city’s segregated high school, Parker-Gray. Lewis figured he would go to school at Virginia State University like all of his older sisters.
But Lloyd recommended Lewis to West Virginia University when it was integrating its basketball team, and so he went there instead, got a scholarship and played in two NCAA Tournaments before starting a successful 40-year coaching career in top colleges and the pros.
Lewis’ son, Chris, told the story to Lloyd’s family last week. The occasion was the induction of the first class of athletes into T.C. Williams’ sports hall of fame, which included Lloyd and 19 others. Their careers spanned six decades, and the small gathering before the ceremony was a chance for athletes and members of the community to trade stories about the impact they had on and off the fields of play.
“That was just the story I grew up hearing about Earl, and he is a great mentor to my dad,” said Chris Lewis, who is vice president of the city’s school board. “Everybody looks up to him. We wanted honor him and all of our athletes who have achieved a lot and are products of the public schools.”
Among all of the athletes, perhaps only Michelle Griglione did as much to pack all of her accomplishments in such a short period of time. She competed only one year at T.C. as swimmer because the program didn’t exist until she was a senior.
“Never,” she replied when asked if she’d considered going to another school so she could swim. “I loved my time at T.C.”
A first-team all star as a senior, the 1986 graduate became an NCAA champion and qualified for the Olympic trials four times, winning a gold at the 1994 Goodwill games.
One of the youngest inductees, Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, played at T.C. just a few years ago. She now plays basketball professionally for the Washington Mystics after her years at the University of North Carolina, where she was first-team all ACC.
Before the ceremony Friday, she sat just a few tables from the family of Earl Lloyd, who decades ago helped pave the way for younger generations to play and earn a living in a way he never could have imagined.
“It’s something I’m really honored to be a part of,” Ruffin-Pratt said. “Especially, you look around this room and you see all of these older, great people who left their legacy. So it’s great to be a part of something like this.”
She grew up playing at Cora Kelly, following her cousin into the sport. She played in the boys rec leagues until she was about 12 with a crossover dribble that probably gave a lot of younger boy players a quick lesson in gender equality.
“I played pretty well with the boys,” she said, adding that she credited her family with helping her succeed.
There were athletes from just about every sport, including several track and field standouts: Rodney Bridges, a 1989 graduate who set state records in the 100- and 200-meter dash; Tynita Butts, 2009, a two time state champion in the high jump who won the prestigious Penn Relays and became a NCAA All-American at East Carolina University; and Mike Mansey, 1979, who won a state championship in the mile in a blistering 4:13.3. Craig Talley, a 1971 graduate, was the first individual track and field champion in school history.
Many of the inductees had stories of teachers, coaches or family members they said helped them along the way. Not all of the inductees were in attendance. A 1972 graduate, Gerry Bertier was the captain of the famous 1971 “Remember the Titans” football team.
He was paralyzed in an auto accident after the 1971 season and died in another accident a decade later. Lloyd was unable to make it. He lives in Tennessee, but his son, Kevin, and nephew, Reginald both attended.
“It was an incredible journey from Parker Gray to the NBA,” said Kevin. “And this his where it all started.”
While Lloyd didn’t attend the induction ceremony, a video of his 2003 Hall of Fame ceremony in Springfield, Mass., saw him talking at length about early days in Alexandria where he was influenced by his schoolteacher, mother and coach.
“I’ve been very blessed and it’s very easy to be successful when you’re surrounded by greatness,” Lloyd said. “The folks who told me how to do it, I was blessed that they knew what the hell they were talking about … and I did it exactly the way they told me to do it, and here I am.”