Earl Lloyd, first African-American to play in NBA game, dies at 86

Ball Don't Lie

Basketball pioneer Earl Lloyd, the first African-American ever to play in an NBA game, died Thursday. He was 86 years old.

Lloyd was one of three African-American pioneers to break into the NBA in 1950. Chuck Cooper became the first black player drafted by an NBA team, selected in the second round of the 1950 NBA draft by the Boston Celtics, seven rounds before the Washington Capitols picked Lloyd. Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton, a former Harlem Globetrotter, became the first African-American player to sign a full NBA contract, joining the New York Knicks on May 24.

But on Oct. 31, 1950, Lloyd became the first African-American ever to play in an NBA game, suiting up for Washington against the Rochester Royals, scoring six points and grabbing a game-high 10 rebounds in a 78-70 loss. Both Cooper and Clifton would see their first NBA game action less than a week later.

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"It's amazing how a scheduling quirk can change your whole life," Lloyd once said.

Born in Alexandria, Va., on April 3, 1928, Lloyd starred at historically black West Virginia State College, where he'd led the Yellow Jackets to an undefeated 1947-48 season and a second straight Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association title the following year. He'd later be named the CIAA's Player of the Decade for the 1940s. It was at West Virginia State where he received the nickname "Moonfixer," which would later become the title of a 2009 autobiography he wrote with Syracuse, N.Y., Post-Standard columnist Sean Kirst.

As Lloyd told the story, the seniors at West Virginia State assigned near-impossible jobs to all the freshmen, as a way of messing with them. Because Lloyd was the tallest at 6-foot-6, "my job was to reach up and make sure the moon was shining when [the seniors] were with their girls."

"That was my job, and they expected me to come through," Lloyd wrote. "They made me the 'Moonfixer,' and it stuck."

Earl Lloyd averaged 8.4 points and 6.4 rebounds per game in his nine-year career. (Getty Images)
Earl Lloyd averaged 8.4 points and 6.4 rebounds per game in his nine-year career. (Getty Images)

Despite the landmark nature of Lloyd's barrier-breaking Halloween 1950 performance, the fact he became the first black player ever to appear in an NBA game barely registered as a blip on the radar at the time, as Yahoo Sports NBA columnist Marc J. Spears once wrote for the Boston Globe:

The next day, the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle didn't mention Lloyd in its game story while the Rochester Times-Union only wrote: "Bones McKinney, the Caps' new coach, injected big Earl Lloyd, Negro Star of West Virginia State, into the lineup (after halftime) and he took most of the rebounds."

"In 1950, the NBA was like 4 years old," Lloyd said. "We were like babes in the woods. I wouldn't say it was ho-hum. But it didn't get the type of coverage that major league baseball got."

While Lloyd's initial foray in the NBA proved almost somewhat uneventful, thanks in large part to taking place in an integrated Northern city, many other nights featured more regrettable interactions.

“Those fans in Indianapolis, they yell stuff like, ‘Go back to Africa,'" Lloyd later said. "And I’m telling you, you would often hear the N-word. That was commonplace. There were a lot of people who sat close to you who gave you the blues, man.”

“Cincinnati didn’t want me to come in to play," he told Spears in a 2009 interview. "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.”

He responded to those slurs and slights by doing everything in his power to take his frustration out on the opposition.

“My philosophy was if they weren’t calling you names, you weren’t doing anything,” he said. “You made sure they were calling you names, if you could. If they were calling you names, you were hurting them.”

Lloyd would play in only seven games for Washington in his first season before being drafted into the U.S. Army to serve in the Korean War. The Capitols folded while he was serving, and the Syracuse Nationals snagged the rights to his contract. After he returned for the 1952-53 season, he carved out a niche as a rebounder and defensive stopper who could neutralize dangerous interior scorers and help free up top forward Dolph Schayes to focus on offense. When the Nats won it all after the 1954-55 season, Lloyd became the first black starter on an NBA championship team.

He'd play two more seasons in Syracuse before being traded to the Detroit Pistons, where he'd play the final two years of his NBA career before retiring after the 1960 season. He averaged 8.4 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.4 assists in 26.2 minutes per game over a nine-year career that included 560 NBA appearances. The comparatively pedestrian stat line belied Lloyd's impact, as he tailored his game to what he called in "Moonfixer" the "things that people watching the game from the stands won't necessarily appreciate," like face-guarding taller, better rebounders and establishing position to keep them off the glass.

"If I looked at the stats the next day, and I saw a guy only had two or three rebounds, that was my twenty points. You understand?" Lloyd says. "I don't know if you get remembered for that, but if you ask, that's how I want to be remembered. I don't call it a sacrifice because it was my job."

Lloyd would go on to have other jobs in the NBA. He made more history in 1968, when he joined the Pistons' coaching staff and became the league's first-ever black assistant. Three years later, he ascended to the head of the Pistons' bench, becoming just the second black head coach in NBA history, following Celtics legend Bill Russell. He'd last just one full season, going 20-50 in 1971-72 before being fired following a 2-5 start to the '72-'73 campaign. He'd stay on in Detroit, though, spending five more years with the Pistons as a scout.

Although Lloyd occupies an inarguable place in NBA history, he routinely refused comparisons to color-line-breaking pioneers in other sports. Throughout "Moonfixer," he emphasizes that he "was no Jackie Robinson" and "no Joe Louis," and he struck similar notes in interviews.

"I take polite homage to people who try to compare me to [Robinson]," Lloyd told Spears. "There's no comparison, man. Here's a guy who was all by himself, man. I thank God he had a beautiful, lovely wife who was smart. If he didn't have Rachel, no telling what could have happened to him. When I go to high school to speak sometimes and say, 'You want a project, go to your computer, go to Google and throw Jackie Robinson's name in there and see what you get.' The guy was a renaissance man. Any time your own teammates don't want to play with you? I never experienced that."

Downplay it though he might, Lloyd experienced his fair share of hardship, too. Yet he carried himself like a professional and a role model, and in 2003, he earned enshrinement in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in recognition of his contributions to the game.

“That’s the greatest honor that’s ever been bestowed on me,” Lloyd later said.

Despite his induction in Springfield, Lloyd still rarely received much recognition for his role in NBA history. He made regular appearances at the NBA's Rookie Transition Program, but relatively few younger players were familiar with Lloyd's struggle and place in the game's story; in fact, Lloyd told Spears in 2005, the only player who had reached out for his counsel was the famously mercurial Stephen Jackson.

But Lloyd never looked for much in the way of recognition or accolades. In keeping with his sacrifice-for-the-good-of-the-team playing style, he wanted his legacy to be about helping create something bigger than himself.

"One [young NBA player] said to me one day, 'Mr. Lloyd, we owe you,' " Lloyd said. "I said, 'Let me tell you who you owe, you owe the people that come behind you.' I know Chuck Cooper, Sweetwater Clifton, myself, we made it a better place. If we didn't do that, all of ya'll wouldn't be there now.' "

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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