College Basketball

Earl Lloyd, who died at age 86, made leap from CIAA to NBA

In this April 1955 file photo, Fort Wayne's Mel Hutchins (9) and Syracuse's Earl Lloyd (11) reach for the ball during an NBA basketball game in Indianapolis. Lloyd, the first black player in NBA history, died Thursday. He was 86. Lloyd's alma mater, West Virginia State, confirmed the death. It did not provide details. Lloyd made his NBA debut in 1950 for the Washington Capitals, just before fellow black players Sweetwater Clifton and Chuck Cooper played their first games.
In this April 1955 file photo, Fort Wayne's Mel Hutchins (9) and Syracuse's Earl Lloyd (11) reach for the ball during an NBA basketball game in Indianapolis. Lloyd, the first black player in NBA history, died Thursday. He was 86. Lloyd's alma mater, West Virginia State, confirmed the death. It did not provide details. Lloyd made his NBA debut in 1950 for the Washington Capitals, just before fellow black players Sweetwater Clifton and Chuck Cooper played their first games. AP

Editor’s note: This story on CIAA legend Earl Lloyd, who died Thursday at age 86, was originally published on March 2, 2007.

FAIRFIELD, Tenn. – Earl Lloyd can’t come up with the number of CIAA basketball tournaments he has attended. There are too many for him to keep track of.

Instead, he remembers the cities.

“Richmond, Norfolk, Winston-Salem, Greensboro, Raleigh, “ Lloyd says. “Now Charlotte.”

Lloyd is perhaps best known as the first African American to play in an NBA game. But this week he is content to be one of the thousands of CIAA fans in town for the tournament at Bobcats Arena.

But he is also one of the scores of former players who faithfully make the annual trip to the event, to reconnect with old teammates, foes and coaches in hotel lobbies and restaurants. They walk together to the games in a glistening uptown arena that’s nothing like what they played in almost 60 years ago.

Lloyd, 78, now lives comfortably with his wife Charlie in a sun-drenched home in a resort called Fairfield Glade, a retirement community that sits atop Tennessee’s Cumberland Gap.

“Coming to the tournament, that’s my social circle, “ Lloyd says. “It’s all about seeing the people I played with and against. The younger folks can’t always afford to stay at the hotels or fly in here or stay for a long time. I can do this because I am what I call ‘extremely retired.’

“That’s when you do what you want to do when you want to do it.”

It also means Lloyd loves to fold his 6-foot-6 frame into a soft chair in his living room, surrounded by the marvelous paintings and sculptures that decorate the house, and tell stories about his life in the CIAA and the NBA. The tales on this mid-February morning flow as quickly and smoothly as the melting snow outside.

’It was a beautiful thing’

After growing up in segregated Alexandria, Va., Lloyd attended West Virginia State - no longer in the CIAA - and was a star on teams that dominated the league from 1948-50. His days in the CIAA were the best of his life.

“I was like a caterpillar, “ he says. “All of a sudden this huge, beautiful butterfly comes out. I was so green, if you would have thrown me down on the floor and poured water on me, I would have grown into something.”

Tight bonds were formed by everyone in the league. On road trips through Virginia and North Carolina, CIAA teams didn’t worry about finding places to eat and sleep - as other black people might have while traveling in the segregated South. They slept in opposing teams’ gymnasiums and ate in their cafeterias.

“It was a beautiful thing under extremely adverse conditions, “ he says. “You got a great flavor of the other campuses. It gave you a relationship with your adversaries. I thought it was kind of fantastic. Back in the ’40s, there was a need for a port in the storm, a safe haven. And we had it.”

West Virginia State - still a historically black university but now a member of the West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference - dominated the CIAA in those days. Lloyd was a three-time All-CIAA selection, a bruising forward who averaged 14 points and eight rebounds as a senior.

The Yellow Jackets won CIAA championships in 1948 (beating Howard for the title and going 30-0) and again in ’49 (against N.C. College - now N.C. Central) at dark and dusty Turner Arena in Washington - a facility built for boxing.

Lloyd cried during his graduation ceremony in 1950.

“I didn’t want to leave, “ he says.

’Do I belong here?’

He also had little idea of what he would do with his life, until a friend approached him on campus and told him she heard the NBA’s Washington Capitols had drafted him.

“There was no precedent for that, “ Lloyd says.

Lloyd, taken by Washington in the ninth round, and Chuck Cooper, selected in the second round by the Boston Celtics, became the first two black players drafted by the NBA. Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton was also obtained that season by the New York Knicks from the Harlem Globetrotters.

Lloyd knew things were different during his first practice with the Capitols, who were coached by Bones McKinney, a former player at North Carolina and N.C. State who would later coach at Wake Forest.

“Do I belong here?” Lloyd asked himself.

He looked around and saw lots of white faces, including rookies Dick Schnittker, an All-American from Ohio State, and Southern California’s Bill Sharman, a future Hall of Famer.

“You’ve been treated as an inferior all your life - white and colored water fountains, back of the bus, crazy stuff, “ says Lloyd, who signed a contract for $4,500. “And here you are with a close encounter with guys you’re going to be traveling with, eating with, sleeping with.”

But Lloyd was immediately accepted by his Capitols teammates, many of whom played with blacks in college. On Oct. 31, 1950, Lloyd played in his first NBA game, a day before Cooper’s Celtics opened their season.

But there would still be barriers to break through. Two white men sat in front of Lloyd’s parents as the starting lineups were announced before that first game in Washington.

“Do you think this n----- can play any basketball?” asked one of the men.

Lloyd’s mother leaned forward and said, “The n----- can play.”

Three years earlier in 1947, Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier, a milestone Lloyd says towers above what he did for basketball.

“You can’t even start to compare, “ Lloyd says. “He had to battle his own team. His own fans. He got spiked, beaned and there was no retribution. And he’s playing first base and a guy who is harassing him is in left field. Their paths never crossed.

“In basketball, a guy is less apt to call you a name when he’s standing next to you on the court.”

Basketball Hall of Fame

Lloyd played nine seasons in the NBA. He also was the league’s first black assistant coach and its first full-time black head coach with the Detroit Pistons in 1970 (Bill Russell had already been the Celtics’ player-coach).

In 2003, Lloyd was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

“I don’t think we pay him the deference he deserves, “ says Charlotte Bobcats coach-general manager Bernie Bickerstaff. “We take for granted what he and others went through - the hotels, the buildings you couldn’t go in, the names you were called. Some of that was still going on in 1961 - and ’70 and ’80 and 2006.

“But you look at how he and Jackie Robinson handled themselves, with their demeanor and skills, and you know it escalated opportunities for others.”

That is what is important to Lloyd. But Lloyd isn’t looking for any further recognition. Something else is more important.

A favorite song of his is “Nature Boy, “ by Nat King Cole.

Part of it goes:

“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn,

Is just to love and be loved in return.”

“Every stop I’ve made, a lot of love has been there for me, “ says Earl Lloyd, home again for another CIAA tournament.

“That’s hard to beat, man.”

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