“The NBA family has lost one of its patriarchs. Earl Lloyd, the first African-American to play in an NBA game, was as inspirational as he was understated. He was known as a modest gentleman who played the game with skill, class, and pride. His legacy survives in the league he helped integrate, and the entire NBA family will strive to always honor his memory. Our deepest condolences to the Lloyd family.”
(Official Statement from NBA Commissioner Adam Silver – February 27, 2015)
Earl Lloyd, the first African-American player in the history of the NBA has passed; at his home is Crossville at the age of 86 on February 26th. Lloyd was one of the three who integrated the NBA along with Chuck Cooper and Sweetwater Clifton at the beginning of the 1950-1951 season, Hank DeZonie debuted later in the season. Lloyd debuted with the Washington Capitols one day before Cooper’s debut with the Boston Celtics and four days before the debut of Clifton with the New York Knicks.
The West Virginia State star, who led the team to back-to-back CIAA championships, played only seven games for the Capitols before the franchise folded. Thinking his NBA career was over, Lloyd joined the Army. Two seasons later, Lloyd was signed by the Syracuse Nationals and his career took flight. Known as one of the game’s first defensive-minded forwards, “The Big Cat” played a style it was difficult to adjust to for fans and officials alike.
Seeing limited playing time in ’52-’53, Lloyd became a regular in ’53-’54 and with it, led the league in fouls and fouling out of games. But the truth was that Lloyd was simply playing the game with the same fervor he had used to get there in the first place. He was gaining respect throughout the league for his tireless work-ethic and attitude. By ’54-’55, he was indispensable in leading the Nationals to their lone NBA championship. Lloyd had his finest offensive season averaging 10.2 points and 7.7 rebounds per game, stout totals in a day without a shot clock.
Lloyd retired as a player in 1960 as the 43rd all-time scorer in league history with 4,682 points; he also tallied 3,609 rebounds, averages of 8.4 points and 6.4 rebounds. A finalist to coach the Detroit Pistons in 1965, Lloyd finally got his chance to coach them in 1971 where he coached for just over a season.
His accolades are many: CIAA Player of the Decade for the 1940s, member of the NAIA Silver and Golden Anniversary Teams, NBA Champion and in 2003, a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a contributor. But his influence goes far beyond those honors. Earl Lloyd always gave back to the game as a scout, and later as a mentor.
Earl Lloyd said this in a 2010 interview on National Public Radio…”One kid said to me, he said, Mr. Lloyd, we really owe you. And I explained to him, man, you owe me absolutely nothing. I said, whatever kind of career I had, it has served me well, but you do owe some people. And the people you owe are the folks who are going to come behind you. It’s incumbent upon each watch — when you play your 10, 11 years and you’re in your group — when you leave, I truly hope that you’ve done all you can possibly do to leave it a better place for the folks who come behind you.”
Pro basketball today is far better for Earl Lloyd having been in it.