The young players attending the NBA’s rookie symposium figured the tall, elderly black gentleman standing before them must be somebody important. But they didn’t know who he was. Even when Earl Lloyd was initially introduced, his name didn’t register any recognition from the audience.
Only when it was announced that Lloyd had been the first black man to ever play in an NBA game did the players begin to stir.
“Very few players know who I am,” Lloyd said. “…But once they find out who I am, I have their attention and they sit up.”
Lloyd of the Washington Capitols, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton of the New York Knicks and Chuck Cooper of the Boston Celtics became the first three African-Americans to play in the NBA during the 1950-51 season. Lloyd was the first to participate in a game – on Oct. 31, 1950, in Rochester, N.Y.
Yet with the 60th anniversary of the breaking of the NBA’s color barrier nearly a year away, the story of these three men remains virtually unknown.
When asked recently if he knew who Lloyd was, Memphis Grizzlies guard Allen Iverson(notes) replied, “Earl Lloyd? From where?” Celtics forward Glen Davis(notes) had no clue who Cooper was when told two years ago they shared the same No. 11 for the franchise.
“I'm sure that one day we'll be perceived as ones that created opportunities for people after us,” Celtics forward Kevin Garnett(notes) said last year. “It's only right we give respect to people that came before us, Martin Luther King included, Mr. Lloyd."
Cooper was the first of three pioneers drafted as the Celtics selected him in the second round on April 25, 1950. Lloyd was taken in the ninth round by the Capitols. When Lloyd entered training camp that fall, it was the first time he had ever interacted with whites. Clifton was the first black player to enter the NBA with a contract after he was traded from the Harlem Globetrotters to the Knicks for $12,500 on May 24, 1950. A fourth black player, Hank DeZonie, joined the league later in the season, but played only five games with the Tri-Cities Blackhawks.
Still in its infancy, the NBA wasn’t too popular in those days. Lloyd’s debut hardly attracted the attention Jackie Robinson did when he broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier three years earlier. The story received only a small mention in a Rochester newspaper.
“It was uneventful,” Lloyd said. “If you could have picked a place where it could be downplayed, Rochester, New York, was that place. It’s a city that had problems, too, but the city and schools were integrated.”
Unfortunately for Lloyd, Clifton and Cooper, many of the NBA cities weren’t as welcoming as Rochester. The racism the three men endured was unforgettable. They were regularly called the “N-word,” and they often weren’t allowed to eat in restaurants or share the same hotel with teammates. In some cities, people mocked them by asking if they had tails.
Lloyd used the insults to help motivate him. He played only seven games for Washington before the franchise folded. The Syracuse Nationals then picked him up on waivers.
“Sweets didn’t need any help because he was an older guy,” Lloyd said. “It was difficult for Chuck and me. Virginia got me ready for the name-calling, but Chuck was from the north in Pittsburgh.
“Cincinnati didn’t want me to come in to play. How can you not be angry when people near and dear to you are being treated different? You have to manage your anger. You could quit. But you can never quit.”
All three players had decent NBA careers, but nothing compared to those of the stars of the day like George Mikan, Bob Cousy and Bob Pettit. And nothing like that of the first black NBA star, Bill Russell, who arrived in Boston in 1956. Still, the three pioneers have reserved their place in both African-American and NBA history.
Cooper died in 1984 and Clifton passed away in 1990. Lloyd is now 81, and lives in small Crossville, Tenn. He had a noncancerous mass removed from his throat on April 10, but says he feels healthy. His only regular involvement with the NBA comes at the annual rookie symposium. No NBA team has contacted him to do anything in years.
“We are delighted to have him come to every Rookie Transition Program and have him tell his story to our players and to remind them that it was not always easy as it appears to be now,” NBA commissioner David Stern said in a recent interview with Yahoo! Sports. “The reminder in the flesh is the better way to communicate the message than in a book or by someone else communicating the story.
“It never surprises me. You can have a young player ask Lenny Wilkens if he ever has played the game. History in this day and age gets scrambled. A decade is a long time.”
In 2003, Lloyd was named to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a contributing member, and he has made the annual trip to the induction ceremony ever since. John Doleva, president and CEO of the Hall of Fame, described Lloyd as one of the more popular members at the induction each year because of his story and personality.
“That’s the greatest honor that’s ever been bestowed on me,” Lloyd said.
Still, until Clifton and Cooper join Lloyd there, the Hall of Fame is incomplete. The NBA could nominate them as candidates for the 2010 class through the veteran’s committee – the same year of the 60th anniversary of their landmark achievement. Doleva said Clifton and Cooper could also be nominated by another party, but the recommendation would be taken more seriously if it came from the NBA.
“That is something to be considered,” Stern said. “We need to keep reminding people that our league and other leagues are reflective of that terrible state of our country [in the past] in terms of segregation.”
NBA great Michael Jordan just led one of the greatest classes to ever be enshrined in the Hall. But long before Jordan ever rose to stardom, Clifton, Cooper and Lloyd opened the door into the league for African-Americans. The NBA now has an opportunity to help educate everyone about their story.
“A kid from UCLA, one of the O’Bannon brothers, once said, ‘We really owe you,’ ” Lloyd said, “I said, ‘You don’t owe me, but you owe the people coming behind you. It’s incumbent on you to help the people coming behind you.’ ”’
- Earl Lloyd