African American Public Relations Corporation

Exalting a positive image of African Americans

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Basketball Pioneer Honored

T.C. Williams Names Court for Earl Lloyd
By Mark Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 6, 2007; VA03

As he had so many times before, Earl Lloyd stood at the center of a basketball court. The stands were packed with fans, and when Lloyd was called to center court, rapturous applause broke out.

It was the kind of applause NBA players hear at every game, and the kind Lloyd probably didn't get when he suited up as the first African American to play in the league 57 years ago.

Lloyd, 79, came back to his hometown of Alexandria last weekend to be honored for his trailblazing achievements. On Saturday, the court of the new T.C. Williams High School gym was dedicated to him. "Nothing beats to come back to your hometown for this kind of an honor," he said. "It probably stands right up there with the Hall of Fame."

During the dedication, Lloyd was heralded for inspiring generations.
"Today's basketball athletes are heroes to our children, and this was made possible by Earl Lloyd's accomplishments," School Board Chairman Claire M. Eberwein said during the dedication. "Mister Lloyd, welcome to your court."

Lloyd was born April 3, 1928. He started playing pickup ball on playgrounds and got his first taste of organized sports at the city's segregated Parker-Gray High School. He went on to West Virginia State University before being selected in the ninth round of the 1950 NBA draft by the Washington Capitols.
"If somebody said I'd be drafted by Washington, I'd never have believed it," Lloyd said, describing it as the "cradle of segregation."

He wasn't alone among African Americans joining the young league heading into its fifth season, but by fortune of schedule, Lloyd was the first to play in an NBA game, on Oct. 31, 1950.

"The game was so uneventful," he said of the team's 78-70 loss to the Rochester Royals. "If you were going to pick a city to play the first NBA game with a black guy on the floor, Rochester was the place to play."

That's because his Halloween debut was such a non-event, he said. "They probably thought I was a goblin," he joked. But he remains modest about his achievement: "How do you work it into a normal conversation?"

It was three years after Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier in baseball but four years before Brown v. the Board of Education and school desegregation. Lloyd was insulted and called names, but only by the people who bought the tickets.

"Fans only," he said. "I can truthfully say I was never called a name by an opposing coach or player." But a big difference between baseball and basketball is proximity to your opponents -- in baseball, a second baseman such as Robinson didn't have to interact with a right-fielder, Lloyd said. "When a guy is standing next to you on the foul line, it's a lot harder to call him names."

He didn't let the harassment from the fans get him down. "My parents taught me you don't dignify ignorance," he said.

He played seven games for Washington before he was drafted into the Army, and he spent two years in the service. Upon his discharge, he went back to the NBA. The Capitols had folded, and he was picked up by the Syracuse Nationals.

In 1955, a week after turning 27, he became an NBA champion. (Later that year, Robinson would win his first and only championship as well.) Lloyd, nicknamed "the Big Cat," played in 560 NBA games over his decade in the league, averaging 8.4 points and 6.4 rebounds per game, before retiring in 1960.

"The word 'blessed' is thrown around a lot," he said. "But my whole career, I've been blessed. When I tell you I've been blessed, you can take it to the bank."

He spent his last two seasons with the Detroit Pistons, a team he would later coach. As for why he retired in 1960, at age 32, he has two words: Wilt Chamberlain. Lloyd said he saw Chamberlain play for the first time in an exhibition game before the 1960-61 season and knew then that it was time to step aside for the next generation. He said he always thanked Chamberlain for that.

Lloyd doesn't follow the league too closely these days, but he's willing to converse about current players. He hasn't been to a game in years, and when he turns on a game, it isn't until the fourth quarter ("When I do turn it on, it's hard to turn it off," he said). But he reads the papers every day and tells children the importance of being informed.

Among today's players, he likens himself to Bruce Bowen of the San Antonio Spurs, a renowned defensive specialist. Lloyd's forte was as a defender and a rebounder, and just about every point he scored was a hustle point because no plays were drawn up for him.

In 2003, Lloyd was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a contributor. "A young black kid born in Alexandria in 1928 in a huge cradle of segregation . . . Those child's prospects went from dim to none," he said. "I was a giant question mark in 1928, and in 2003, I became a huge exclamation point."

After his stint as assistant coach, Lloyd worked for the Dodge division of Chrysler, becoming an executive before he returned to the Pistons as head coach in 1971. He was fired seven games into the 1972-73 season when the team started 2-5, and he became an administrator in the Detroit public school system.

He's now "extremely retired" in Tennessee, he said.

The dedication ceremony was part of the All Alexandria Tip-Off Challenge, a series of games featuring the city's four high school teams. Proceeds will go toward providing free preschool to at-risk children through the Child and Family Network Centers and the Hopkins House.

Jim Lewis, the new girls' basketball coach at T.C. Williams, called Lloyd his mentor and the biggest influence in his life outside his family. He sees a synergy in how things tie together and how he made his debut Saturday shortly before the dedication with a 82-24 victory over Fredericksburg's Chancellor High School.

"I'm so happy," Lewis said. "He's close to 80 now, and here I am, 60. We both grew up here with basketball as our love, as the conduit. I've watched him coach, he's watched me coach, and here we are on a basketball court again, in the center of our hometown. Things happen for a reason."

Walking around T.C. Williams before the dedication, Lloyd chatted with everyone who wanted a word with him. Thomas Wolfe said you can't go home again, but "I don't know what the hell he's talking about," Lloyd said.

He remains gracious. Just before the "Earl Lloyd Court" was unveiled, he thanked the audience and the event's organizers.

"You cannot understand what an honor this is," he said. "There's no better honor than being validated by people who know you best. I will always, always treasure this.''


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