For an African American growing up in Alexandria, Virginia in the 1930s, life was tough.
“Well, it was not a lot of fun,” Earl Lloyd, the first African-American player in NBA history, said in a recent interview with Bleacher Report. “Immigration had not taken place as you know and segregation was the order of the day and there’s nothing subtle about segregation, it was a nasty thing.”
If you were an African American every single day was a struggle as you could be put in jail for just something as simple as walking down the street. “I could never understand as a young kid why people were allowed to treat us like that,” Lloyd said.
Despite the everyday hardships that Lloyd endured, he would find life and equality in basketball. Starting basketball as a sixth grader, Lloyd endured hard days of practice and eventually matured into a rising young star.
After playing four great years at Parker-Gray High School, Lloyd followed in the footsteps of his former High School coach and attended West Virginia State College. “My High School coach went to West Virginia State College and my coach at West Virginia State, Marques Caldwell he and my High School coach were teammates, so I was kind of destined to go to West Virginia State,” said Lloyd. “It was really just a great place for me.”
Unlike when Lloyd was growing up and in high school, his days at West Virginia State were much brighter. “Campus life was fantastic, that’s all we had,” said Lloyd. Unfortunately at that time period, that’s all they did have. If they decided to leave campus, they were taking a high risk that could get them either killed or sent to jail.
“It’s really funny; we were 10 miles from Charlestown, and I bet you in the four years that me and my classmates were there, we probably went to Charlestown three or four times in the whole four years that we were there,” said Lloyd. “Because you weren’t welcomed, you never knew when it would maybe be your time to get hurt so to avoid those issues you stay away from places that you weren’t welcomed.”
At his first day at practice, Lloyd not only learned to appreciate the game of basketball more, but he appreciated life the most. “I was the one who was appreciative,” said Lloyd. “When I started my freshman year in college, I had about seven teammates who fought in World War II and they came home and we were teammates. Here I am, an 18-year-old kid from Alexandria, Virginia, and these guys probably had some narrow brushes with death; you know, it’s just a whole different thing.
During World War II hundreds of thousands of Americans went overseas and battled, about 125,000 of them were African American. Together they fought as one and as a whole for their country, but when they came home, life for an African American solider was still just as bad. “What angers you the most is our mothers and fathers can go over there and get killed but then you come back home and they tell you where you can’t have a house,” Lloyd said.
In Lloyd’s sophomore year he would help lead West Virginia State to an undefeated season of 33-0. “That’s saying something because there were about 500 schools playing then,” said Lloyd. “And here we are a little black school from West Virginia, maybe 2000 kids at most.”
Towards the end of Lloyd’s senior season he was heading to a class with a classmate and as they were talking she said to him I heard your name on the radio today. Lloyd then asked her what she heard. She said some team in Washington called the Washington Capitals drafted you to play for them. “It was different then, particularly at the black schools because they hardly came to the campus, I never saw a scout.”
A couple days later, Lloyd met with head coach Marques Caldwell as well as Hal Hunter—another African American kid from a little school in North Carolina. Coach Caldwell told Lloyd and Hunter what Lloyd already heard a couple days before, “You’re going to Washington and they're going to try you guys out, so show them your best,” said Caldwell. “I played against Hal for four years, Hal was a great player but during that time when the first black guys came into the NBA they weren’t taking any small guys…back court people,” said Lloyd. “Because the thing was like in pro football black guys couldn’t be quarterbacks because they weren’t “smart enough”, they said and in basketball they also said that black point guards couldn’t run a pro basketball team.” As of right now in the NBA out of the 30 teams 24 of the teams starting point guard is African American. “Think of all the years that they went with losing all of that good talent,” said Lloyd.
After hearing the great news of getting selected by the Washington Capitals, Lloyd would go onto graduate College and would also do something for the first time. “Would you believe this now, from Kindergarten to College graduation, I never had a conversation with a white person,” said Lloyd. “The closest I ever came to one was when I went to California, you know you’re out there warming up and you don’t converse, your warming up to win a game, you don’t have time to be chatting with the opponents.”
Before Lloyd officially became a Washington Capital he would have to make it through training camp or as he called it his salvation. “Training camp was my salvation,” said Lloyd. “[Reason why] anytime that your in a situation and you get a fair chance to show your skills and man I’m telling you man it was amazing.” Being one of the two African American’s to try out for the Capitals, Lloyd was looking to make friends and he didn’t care what the other players thought. “When you’re competing for jobs, you don’t make any friends until the team has been cut,” said Lloyd. “I was like the Tasmanian devil man and you come into that type of a situation where you have to impress someone and you have to impress them quickly, because you don’t get a second look.”
After making it through training camp Lloyd was officially a Washington Capital and officially a professional basketball player. “My wife really put it in perspective, there were eight teams in the NBA when I got there and each team had ten players, so that’s eighty players,” said Lloyd. “So you went into a profession that there were only eighty jobs in the whole world and here you are a little black kid from Alexandria, Virginia born and bread during segregation and one of those jobs belonged to you, you aught to feel good about yourself.”
After battling through all the ups and the downs that Lloyd faced throughout his life on October 31st Earl Francis Lloyd would make history. “Rochester, NY…cold weather, most people told to me about that the Ku Klux Klan is going to be there with ropes and all of that kind of stuff, you know,” said Lloyd. “And if you had to hand pick a town to play a game in with all of that controversy, they picked the right place, Rochester, NY a sleeping town in Upstate New York. And it would get so cold in the winter time that no one hates anyone. You see black folks pushing white folk’s cars, white folks pushing black folk’s cars. But the minute May or June came and all of the ice and snow was gone they would be back to hating again. But it was cool man no body calling you names and all of that stuff, Rochester was a nice little town and I appreciate that, they have a little niche in my heart, they treated me well.” On that night Earl Francis Lloyd would make history as the first African American to play in a professional basketball game.
However Lloyd would play in seven games before the Capitals franchise would fall apart. Lloyd would enlist in the Army and his former teammates would go to other teams. After spending some time in the Army Lloyd would make a return to the NBA. “I mean jobs were hard man and nobody was saving a job for me, I had to come in there and win a position,” said Lloyd.
After not getting a job right away after returning Lloyd’s career appeared to be in jeopardy “Nobody picked me,” said Lloyd. “I mean they were scared to death of me, a black guy coming back from the Army.” That was until a player spoke up. “But Fred Scolari a teammate, he told the Syracuse management look there’s a kid down there in D.C. that played with the Capitals and he’s going to be a player in this league if given a chance,” said Lloyd. “You know Fred Scolari, I owe him my career man.”
That season Lloyd would go onto play in 64 games in about 28 minutes a game, score 7.4 points per game, grab 7 rebounds a game and become a key contributor to the Syracuse Nationals. Despite having a great first season with the Nationals and for once being able to play the game that he loved and to play it without any conflicts due to segregation or other related problems to that issue Lloyd would experience it again.
“The front office scheduled a game in Greenville, South Carolina and South Carolina is a tough state there still flying the red flag. So this is 1953 and they weren’t going to allow any black kids to play against the white kids, I don’t understand it but it was convenient for them,” said Lloyd. “I had a teammate call me and say man, did we ever do anything that ever left you a little bit hurt? And I said yeah, right off the top of my head I have one for you, when they signed the contract to play in Greenville they agreed that no black players were going to play. He said well what could we have done? I said well what you could’ve done, somebody should’ve come to me and said Earl we have to play this game we don’t have a choice but it’s not right, that’s all you had to say. And when none of my teammates said that, you start reassessing your relationships with your teammates.”
Due to the segregation laws in South Carolina Lloyd not only wasn’t allowed to play, but he wasn’t even allowed to travel to that game. However Lloyd would put that behind him as he would still continue to play with the Nationals and in 1955 they would do what every team and every player always dreams of; become a champion.
“That’s what you play for man, to play on that stage and that’s the stage to play on and we were always under man,” said Lloyd. “In fact let me tell you something when my teammates came threw that door to get dressed to play you don’t have to ask are you ready because they were always ready. Because everybody always talked about us, “oh those are a bunch of bums, they only have one player and that’s Dolph Schayes”. And they couldn’t understand why we were winning, we were winning because we had some people that weren’t necessarily huge stars, but they were stars in their own right and they could play and they bought into a system where defense was number one, offense was number two. We had a slogan when we ran on the floor, eighty or under and victory will be ours.”
In 1960 Lloyd would go onto retire from the NBA playing in 10 seasons with three different teams, averaging a career 8.4 points per game to go with 6.4 rebounds a game topping it all off with a championship ring.
“An incredible journey—incredible, man. It was truly incredible.”