Jackie Robinson, NBA Style: Earl Lloyd on Breaking Basketball's Color Line

Doug Merlino@dougmerlinoGuest ColumnistApril 15, 2011

The following is an excerpt from the e-book The Crossover: A Brief History of Basketball and Race, from James Naismith to LeBron James.

Jackie Robinson broke major league baseball's color barrier 64 years ago today and, as it does every year, baseball is celebrating the anniversary of his first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers, April 15, 1947. 

But Robinson also cleared the way for black athletes in other sports, including Earl Lloyd, who on Halloween 1950 became the first black player in the NBA by taking the court for the Washington Capitols. 

Lloyd, 83, says with a laugh that those early days were a challenge, "but you’ve got challenges and then you got Jackie Robinson, right?" 

Two other African-American players—Chuck Cooper of the Boston Celtics and Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton of the New York Knicks—quickly joined Lloyd in the NBA, and while they faced the racism that was common at the time, Lloyd remains in awe of his baseball counterpart. 

"When you tell a guy like Jackie Robinson that if somebody hits you, you can’t hit him back, his stomach has to start churning," Lloyd says of Robinson's non-violence promise to Dodgers owner Branch Rickey. "I mean, this guy is so special, it’s unbelievable." 

A 6'6" power forward, Lloyd grew up in Alexandria, Va., and attended West Virginia State College (now West Virginia State University), where he was nicknamed “Moonfixer” for his height.

In 1948 and 1949, he helped to lead the school’s basketball team to consecutive black college basketball tournament championships. The NCAA and NIT tournaments were still segregated at the time. 

Lloyd played eight full seasons in the NBA—he missed almost all of two years for Army service during the Korean War—mostly for the Syracuse Nationals.

He later coached for the Detroit Pistons, becoming the league’s first black assistant coach and then one of its first black head coaches. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2003. 

He's the last of the early black NBA pioneers still alive. I called him earlier this week to ask about his thoughts on his career as well as the importance of Jackie Robinson. 

At the beginning of our conversation, Lloyd pointed out that he considered himself the second black player in the NBA, given that Chuck Cooper had been drafted in the second round while he had been picked in the ninth.

His status as the first black player on the court, he said, was only due to a “scheduling quirk” that meant his team played before the others. 

His modesty extends to his first game in the NBA, played in Rochester, N.Y, which he calls “uneventful.”

But Lloyd and the other early black players in the NBA endured many of the same things that Robinson did, including racial taunts from fans and being unable to stay in certain hotels or eat in many restaurants on the road. In the end, their determination cleared a path for all who would follow. 

Earl Lloyd meets Vice President Joe Biden in October 2010.
Earl Lloyd meets Vice President Joe Biden in October 2010.

I plan on writing more about Lloyd and the other black NBA pioneers next week in Part 4 of my series on the history of race in basketball (read the first, second and third parts), but for Jackie Robinson Day, it seemed right to take the opportunity to do a Q&A with Earl Lloyd.

The following is a transcript of our talk, edited for length and clarity. 

Bleacher Report: In your book, Moonfixer: The Basketball Journey of Earl Lloyd, you write that you had no idea you were going to be drafted into the NBA. You only found out when you were walking across campus at West Virginia State College and another student told you. 

Earl Lloyd: Yep, that’s how I found out. A classmate, a little girl, said, “Moon, I was listening to the radio and I heard your name. They said that some team in Washington called the Capitols drafted you to play for them.” Unbeknownst to me. That’s how I found out I was drafted. 

A week or so later they got in touch with my coach and told him a training camp was going to start, and they wanted me there. 

B/R: You were picked by the Washington Capitols. How was the camp? 

EL: My first training camp was fantastic, it couldn’t have been any better. When you’ve been treated like a second, third and fourth-class citizen all your life, I mean, you can assume that the playing field was not level. 

My first pro training camp, I believe for the first time in my life I saw a playing field that was level and I was going to be judged as to how I went up against these guys.

Not because we were white, black or green. We were vying for—what were there, eight teams in the league then and they carried 10 players—that’s only 80 jobs in the whole world. 

It was fierce. And race was never mentioned, never said anything about the chance that the first black player might come out of this camp, none of that stuff. In fact, I made a lasting friendship with a guy named Bill Sharman. 

B/R: You tell about how Bill Sharman, who was white, would come and pick you up every day and drive you to practice. 

EL: He didn’t have to do that. If he drove past me every day, he might have never been criticized. But here’s a guy, to this day, this guy has always been a class act.

B/R: There was also a black guard at that training camp that got cut, Harold Hunter. 

ET: I don’t think Harold got a shot, really. Harold came at a time when the NBA was kind of like the NFL. You know, “Black quarterbacks aren’t smart enough to run a team.” And if you take a quick peek at it, look at the first black guys who came into the NBA, they were all big people. 

B/R: Because they didn’t want a black point guard running the offense? 

EL: It’s not a question of wanting. The seed gets planted, and you start believing things like that. It’s unbelievable as we sit here now and talk about it, it’s unbelievable. 

B/R: You grew up in Virginia, which was very segregated, and then went to an all-black college. In the book, you say that the first time you ever had an actual conversation with a white man was after you started playing pro basketball. How was that transition for you? 

EL: We are who we sit across the dinner table from, during our formative years. That doesn’t sound simple, but it’s simple. You are who your parents made you to be, advertently or inadvertently. 

My folks were fair-minded people. My mother told me one time, we were talking about the race things and white folks, and she said, “Earl, look, there’s a whole lot of white people out there.” And then she said, “All of them can’t be bad.” [Laughter] 

And that’s how you receive that, and she’s right. And the counterpart of that is ridiculous. 

B/R: That first season, did you, Chuck Cooper, and Nat Clifton ever have a chance to talk about what was going on? 

EL: The only time that you would ever see Chuck or Sweets or have a conversation was when you played them. It was, “Hey, how you doing?” 

Nobody told me that the weight of the world was going to be on my shoulders and all this stuff. My thing was, I was kind of driven. Quietly, no screaming and hollering, but we knew, we didn’t even have to discuss it. 

If we didn’t comport ourselves as decent human beings along with being good basketball players, the next wave was not going to be forthcoming. Because there’s always somebody that says, “See, I told you.” But I’m pleased that Chuck, myself and Sweets, we debunked that theory. 

B/R: You’ve always said that you felt there was way more pressure on Jackie Robinson? 

EL: Just sit back and think about this. We’re talking about 1947, and baseball, man, three out of probably every four baseball players in the league came from the South. And plus, you know, the three of us—Chuck, myself and Sweets—we brought about a change. Jackie Robinson, this guy was a Renaissance man. 

I mean this guy did everything well, and was a tremendous competitor, man. When you tell a guy like Jackie Robinson that if somebody hits you, you can’t hit him back, his stomach has to start churning. I mean, this guy is so special, it’s unbelievable. 

For a man to perform in that arena under the kind of pressure he was under, playing his worst sport, and he makes the Hall of Fame in the first blush? I mean the guy’s electrifying.

Think about it. Try and remember him. When he got on first base, hearts started pumping, man. Because they knew something was going to happen. 

It’s been said in sports a lot: “A challenge, it breeds character.” I say, “No, that’s crap.” What a challenge will do, it will reveal your character.

That’s what a challenge does. It doesn’t build character, but it’s going to show up. When a challenge steps up, man, if you ain’t up to it, it’s going to be very, very obvious. 

B/R: As a professional basketball player, you were challenged, too. 

EL: It’s a challenge, but you’ve got challenges and then you got Jackie Robinson, right? [Laughter]  All I’m saying is that here’s a guy, he took care of the proper business to get it done, and let me tell you, he did it with very little help. 

When the road has been paved it becomes smoother. It’s never easy, but Jackie made it easier for us. 

B/R: Talking about groundbreakers, you, Chuck Cooper and Nat Clifton, along with Jackie Robinson, all of you preceded the civil rights movement. 

EL: No question. The three of us. It’s unheard of. I mean, the NBA’s got three black players? It’s unbelievable. But it all happened. 

B/R: When you came into the league, George Mikan, a white player, was the big star. You write about guarding him, which sounds tough. But then, during your career, you had more black players coming in: Don Barksdale, Oscar Robertson, Elgin Baylor, Bill Russell. Was there any time you looked and saw the nature of the game changing? 

EL: You know, when you have some people in the league who have star power, you have a voice. When Bill Russell talks, people listen. You know why they listen? The man got 11 rings! [Laughter] 

I don’t know about the rest of them, but when I hear a guy talking and he’s got 11 rings, you’ve got to listen to what the hell he’s talking about. The guy’s got 11 NBA championship rings, and you don’t want to listen to him? You’ve got to be crazy! But see, then you’ve got a voice. 

When the Celtics went down to Louisville to play an exhibition game and they wouldn’t feed them, they said, “The hell with it, we’re not playing,” and they came on home. So you know, when Russell speaks, you listen. When Oscar Robertson speaks, you listen to what the man has to say. 

B/R: You still speak to NBA players. What do you tell them? 

EL: There’s a rookie transition program and I’ve probably missed one in the last 15, 16 years. But it’s very hard to advise people who make a lot more money than you do. [Laughter] 

So I try to do something to keep it loose, so the first thing I tell them, I say, “Look, man, the only advice I’m going to give you is you make sure your agent or whoever, you make sure they pay the IRS. You pay them people on time, because once you get behind, in the category you’re in, you’re going to get hurt!” 

But basically, the one important thing I try to tell them is, “Tell me where else can we go and with one stroke of a pen become a millionaire?” 

One kid said to me, “Mr. Lloyd we owe you.” I said, “You owe me exactly nothing. But let me tell you who you owe—the people who come behind you. When you and your watch leaves, I hope and pray you left a place that’s a whole lot better for the people that come behind you. And they have to do the same. That’s our legacy.” 

B/R: One last question. Do you have any particular favorite NBA players? 

A favorite? I’ll tell you what. Anybody who can’t like LeBron James, there’s something wrong with you. The boy’s tough.

To learn about Doug Merlino's e-book, The Crossover: A Brief History of Basketball and Race, from James Naismith to LeBron James, click here.


Doug Merlino is the author of  The Hustle: One Team and Ten Lives in Black and White. Visit his blog. Follow him on Twitter.


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