By Susan Hale Thomas (Photo/Susan Hale Thomas)
Alexandria native Earl Lloyd, who broke professional basketball’s color barrier more than 60 years ago, died last Thursday in Crossville, Tenn., at the age of 86.
Lloyd played basketball at Parker-Gray High School. After graduating in 1946, Lloyd attended West Virginia State College where he was a two-time All-American. In 1950, Lloyd was drafted in the 9th round of the NBA draft by the Washington Capitols, making him the first black player in the league.
Melvin Miller, long-time Alexandrian and a commissioner with the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority, said he first met Earl Lloyd in 1949 as a student at St. Augustine’s University in Raleigh, N.C. Lloyd’s Yellow Jackets had come to town to play the Falcons.
“Word got around that Lloyd, the ‘Moon Fixer’ was on campus,” Miller said. “And I was eager to meet him.”
The Falcons took a pounding that day.
“They killed us,” Miller said.
West Virginia State went on to win the then-Colored Intercollegiate Athletic Association championship that year. Miller didn’t forget his encounter with Lloyd.
Years later, Miller and Lloyd routinely ran into each other while attending the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament and became friends.
When construction of the new T.C. Williams building was underway in the mid-2000s, alumnus and Olympic rower Michael Porterfield contacted Miller and suggested the gymnasium be named after Lloyd.
Miller’s job was to convince Lloyd to assent to the honor. Lloyd was reluctant and said his Parker-Gray coach, Louis Johnson, deserved it more. But Miller was persistent and convinced Lloyd that the board would be more likely to approve an alumnus.
Darius Holland, a senior basketball player at T.C. Williams, wore Lloyd’s No. 5 jersey. Holland had the opportunity to meet Lloyd at a game between the Titans and West Springfield and said their meeting had a tremendous impact on him.
“He inspired me to wear No. 5, so I wore it every year except for last year because a senior chose No. 5,” Holland said. “I wore No. 5 for football and basketball because of Earl. … It gives me an extra sense of pride because someone who is legendary put this jersey on.
“Earl told me how hard it was battling racism and segregation and coming to a desegregated school and still have people stereotype him for not being able to make anything out of himself. And then to go and do it, that was a definite accomplishment — [to do it] on his own. It’s motivation because the racism part is gone. The fact that you can accomplish anything given those circumstances is phenomenal.”
Lloyd was a pioneer. Like other black athletes of the time, he was part of an era that began the integration of American professional sports.
Lloyd joined athletes like Bill Willis, the first black to be drafted into All-America Football Conference by the Cleveland Browns in 1945; Jackie Robinson, the first black player in Major League Baseball in 1947; and Althea Gibson, the first black tennis player to compete in what is now the U.S. Open in 1950. These were players that braved and endured racial abuse from fans and players and laid the path toward racial equality in sports.
In advance of the first T.C. Williams Athletic Hall of Fame induction ceremony last December, Lloyd told school officials that despite the disparaging remarks he heard from fans in those early days, he didn’t let it bother him.
“My philosophy was that if they weren’t calling you names, you weren’t doing anything. If they were calling you names, you were hurting them,” Lloyd said.
Lloyd’s first NBA game for the Capitols came against the Rochester Royals on October 31, 1950. Three other black players had been drafted that year — Chuck Cooper of the Boston Celtics, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton of the New York Knicks and Hank DeZonie of the Tri-Cities Blackhawks — but Lloyd was the first to play.
On that Halloween evening in Rochester, N.Y. before 2,184 fans, Lloyd led both teams in rebounding with 10, and scored six points. But the Capitols lost the contest 78-70.
Though the game was of historical importance, that night it was considered just another game. Neither the Washington Post nor the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle mentioned Lloyd’s performance in their coverage of the game.
Known as “Big Cat,” Lloyd had a reputation for being a strong defensive player. At 6-foot-6, Lloyd scored more than 4,600 points in his career and played a total of nine seasons with three different teams — the Capitols, the Syracuse Nationals and the Detroit Pistons. Lloyd missed the 1951-52 seasons after being drafted into the U.S. Army just before the start of the Korean War.
Upon returning from overseas, Lloyd played for Syracuse where he was instrumental in his team making the Eastern Division Championship in 1955. Syracuse played the Fort Wayne Pistons for the national championship and won the series four games to three, making Lloyd the first black player to win an NBA title.
In 1958, Syracuse traded Lloyd to the Detroit Pistons where he played for two years before retiring.
But Lloyd continued to work within the NBA, where he served as a scout for the Pistons. In 1968, he became the first black assistant coach in the league, again for the Pistons, and in 1971, the team promoted him to be the second black head coach in the NBA.
After leaving basketball, Lloyd worked for Chrysler and became the first black executive for Dodge. For 10 years, he served as an administrator for the Detroit Board of Education. From Chrysler, Lloyd went to work for a car parts company owned by another former Piston, Dave Bing. Lloyd had been Bing’s coach while both were with the Pistons.
Lloyd finally received recognition for his accomplishments when he was inducted into the national Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2003. Lloyd also was inducted into the T.C. Williams Hall of Fame last year.
Lloyd was living in Crossville, Tenn. with his wife, Charlita, when he died. The couple has three sons and four grandchildren.