When Earl Lloyd, a ninth-round pick of the Washington Capitols, made his debut Oct. 31, 1950, and scored his first points against the Rochester Royals, it was the shot that was heard around the world.
“Veni, vidi, vici” is the sentence that Julius Caesar was reported to have uttered when he took possession of Rome: “I came, I saw, I conquered.”
|COOPER TRIBUTE— RIGHT: NBA great Earl Lloyd speaks to crowd at a ceremony honoring Chuck Cooper at the August Wilson Center Dec. 4. LEFT: EARL LLOYD, Syracuse Nationals, circa 1954.
Lloyd shattered the NBA racial barrier by becoming the first African-American player to play in the National Basketball Association, which today is dominated by Black players.
Like Caesar’s war chests of gold and silver coins, Lloyd’s NBA legacy has produced more Black millionaires than all the Fortune 500 companies combined.
All who witnessed Lloyd’s step on the first rung of basketball’s ladder of success that October day nearly 60 years ago wondered how high up that ladder he would ascend. As it turned out, Lloyd and Jim Turner, a star on Duquesne’s teams in the early 1950s, were teammates on the Syracuse Nationals and became the first African-Americans to play on the NBA championship team in 1954-55.
“The NBA now has a Rookie Transitional Program at the IBM Convention Center and I’m invite to speak to the Rookies every year,” said Lloyd. “Now the NBA only has two rounds of the draft and I tell the Black players that during my time (1950), there would only be one player here Chuck Cooper, who was drafted in the second round.”
How Earl Lloyd came to play basketball in the NBA is right out of a movie script. “The racial climate was different in my day. In my day diversity was a tall guy and a short guy,” said Lloyd. “I went to West Virginia State because not a lot of schools were available to us. Most of the talent found their way into CIAA schools.
“You heard being in the right place at the right time, but most important is right people. My high school coach encouraged me to go to West Virginia State. I said to myself if this school can make me half the man that he is then I made the right choice.
“My high school coach and my college coach both played at West Virginia State. My college coach, Dr. Hamlin, has a science building named after him. That’s deep, man.”
Lloyd was looked upon by the youth in the African-American community as a version of Hercules, a man who conquered those monsters of doubt and uncertainty being voiced by a White America that believed that no Black man would ever play in the NBA.
But apparently Lloyd never got the memo and like Hercules of myth, Lloyd earned his place and nothing was handed to him.
“If I didn’t do it, it would have been somebody else. I was on a television show and the host asked me about Barack Obama,” said Lloyd. “I told him that we always told our kids that you could do anything you want to do. That’s one we can scratch off the list.
“My hometown is Alexandria, Va. You heard of the movie ‘Remember the Titans’? That movie was about my hometown. My high school was deep in the cradle of segregation. We were so good, because all the White kids would get all the summer jobs, so we played sports all day, every day. I finally wrote a book about my life that will be out soon.”
Jackie Robinson in 1947 was the first African-American to play professional baseball, but he was told that he could never retaliate. Was that the same with Lloyd and professional basketball?
“No, I knocked them out quickly. That’s the only advantage I had over Jackie,” said Lloyd. “We were in Philadelphia and the gym was always hot and I was sweating and a fan yelled “Lloyd, go back to Africa and I took some food and threw it right in his face.”
Lloyd, like Atlas, holds the National Basketball Association on his strong shoulders and the basketball in the palms of his hand. You could call him a poster child for dealing with adversity as he often stretched the boundaries of what is commonly practiced by others.
He has carved out a unique place in the basketball landscape. He played for 10 years and is in the NBA Hall of Fame. His life and what he stands for are the things that movies are made of.
Remember the life of Earl Lloyd.
(Editor’s note: There has been some confusion about who was the first Black in the NBA. In 1950 Chuck Cooper, Boston Celtics, was the first Black drafted by the NBA. Lloyd, Washington Capitals, was the first Black to play in the NBA, and Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, New York Knicks, was the first Black to sign with the NBA. Lloyd’s team opened a day before the Celtics and Knicks.)