Earl Lloyd was a player and coach, an NBA champion and later a Hall of Famer. Within the basketball world, he’s something much bigger.
He was a pioneer.
Lloyd, the first black player in NBA history, died Thursday at 86. West Virginia State, his alma mater, confirmed the death but did not provide details.
“The NBA family has lost one of its patriarchs,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement. “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.”
Lloyd made his NBA debut in 1950 for the Washington Capitals, just before black players Sweetwater Clifton and Chuck Cooper played their first games.
Lloyd helped the Syracuse Nationals win the 1955 NBA title, joining teammate Jim Tucker as the first black players to play on a championship team. Lloyd later became the first black assistant coach with the Detroit Pistons in 1968.
The National Basketball Retired Players Association said Lloyd “forever changed the game of basketball” on Halloween night in 1950. The organization hailed him as “a leader, a pioneer, a soldier.” Lloyd missed the 1951-52 season while in the Army.
“Modest and willing to share his story with anyone when asked, Earl offered a vivid window into our nation’s segregated past and personified change in this country,” the NBRPA said. “A truly historic figure in American history has passed.”
The 6-foot-5 forward averaged 8.4 points and 6.4 rebounds in 560 regular-season games in nine seasons with Washington, Syracuse and Detroit. Inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2003 as a contributor, Lloyd was 22-55 as Detroit’s coach in 1971-72 and the first nine games in the 1972-73 season.
“Our franchise will always remember the impact and contributions Earl made to the game of basketball and to the Detroit Pistons as a player, head coach and television analyst,” the Pistons said.
Lloyd, a native of Alexandria, Virginia, lived in Crossville, Tennessee.
West Virginia State President Brian Hemphill called Lloyd a “trailblazer who was a true champion.” “When Earl stepped out on the court on that fateful date in 1950, this remarkable man rightfully earned his place in the historic civil rights movement and, more important, he opened the door to equality in America.”