Commentary

Happy anniversary to an NBA pioneer

Oct. 31 marks the 60th anniversary of Earl Lloyd breaking the NBA color barrier

Updated: October 31, 2010, 10:12 PM ET
By Dave McMenamin | ESPNLosAngeles.com

Earl LloydKent Smith/NBAE/Getty ImagesLloyd played nine seasons in the league, averaging 8.4 points and 6.4 rebounds.

You probably haven't heard of Earl Lloyd.

That's a problem if you consider yourself a basketball fan, or a sports fan in general for that matter.

Sunday, Oct. 31 marks the 60th anniversary of Lloyd breaking the NBA's color barrier, chipping in six points and 10 rebounds for the Washington Capitols in a 78-70 loss to the Rochester Royals. The stats of the game are forgettable, sure, but why isn't anybody making a bigger deal in 2010 about the history-making game Lloyd played in 1950?

Lloyd, Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton and Chuck Cooper made up the inaugural class of African-Americans to play in the NBA that season, a league that today has nearly 80 percent black players.

Even though he is responsible for delivering the spirit of African-American basketball to the NBA, for the most part Lloyd is as anonymous as the kids who will throw on a mask and go trick-or-treating Sunday.

I recently asked Los Angeles Lakers head coach Phil Jackson about Earl and wondered why everybody knows Jackie Robinson, but they don't know Lloyd, Clifton or Cooper.

"Do you know the football guy that broke the color barrier?" was Jackson's response.

I didn't know.

"Right, see?" Jackson said.

(Since we're giving Lloyd his due here, it's worth mentioning that the first African-American NFL players were Fritz Pollard and Bobby Marshall. I Googled it.)

Sunday is the time to pump the brakes on the hype machine that's pushing Miami's new big three, Boston's old big three, Carmelo Anthony's next move, Kobe Bryant's sustained excellence, Kevin Durant's offensive emergence, Dwight Howard's defensive dominance (all 10 of those players are African-American, by the way) and turn the spotlight on Lloyd instead.

Baseball did it for Robinson. On April 15, 2007, the Los Angeles Dodgers and all of Major League Baseball recognized Jackie Robinson Day to honor the 60th anniversary of Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball. Baseball commissioner Bud Selig attended the Dodgers game. Robinson's number had already been retired league-wide, but Selig unretired it for a day so all Dodgers players could wear Robinson's No. 42 on their backs in his honor for one game. All 10 other ballparks that hosted a game that day held a brief ceremony for Robinson and painted a logo commemorating his day on the field.

Lloyd, who currently resides in Tennessee with his wife, Charlita, will be honored by Tennessee Tech University's basketball program Sunday. It's hardly the event that Robinson received for his 60th, however. NBA vice president of basketball communications Tim Frank said the league is sending Bob Lanier, who currently works as a special assistant to NBA commissioner David Stern, as a representative at the Tennessee Tech ceremony (Lloyd coached Lanier on the Pistons).

But there are no special patches planned to be worn on the jerseys of the eight teams that play Sunday. No additional fanfare. No league-wide initiative. The NBA does a commendable job honoring Black History Month every year by playing afternoon games on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day that have educational presentations built in during pregame and at halftime so schoolchildren can attend. But the NBA is missing out on a golden opportunity to enlighten its fans and honor a pioneer by recognizing Floyd on Sunday league-wide. In fact, it's better than gold -- the 60th is known as the diamond anniversary, after all.

The league is quick to recognize Latino Night by sewing "Los" before Lakers or "El" before Heat on their jerseys to drum up attention and a handful of teams wear green uniforms on St. Patrick's Day, but where's the extra appreciation for Lloyd and his fellow pioneers?

"Without the sacrifices that they made, none of us would really have the opportunities that we have now," said Derek Fisher. "Or it would be vastly different at least, minimum. I think there are a lot of us who recognize that. Guys that don't, I don't know if it's a referendum on the league or any particular body, just more so similar to any other important parts of American history that we just tend to forget as the years go by."

[+] EnlargeEarl Lloyd
AP PhotoLloyd paved the way for other African-American players.
Reached on the phone Saturday morning after arriving home from a visit to Washington, D.C., to meet Vice President Joe Biden in honor of his anniversary, Lloyd reflected on his historic feat.

"The NBA was three years old in 1950 and it did not enjoy the notoriety of the current league," Lloyd said. "Not anywhere near it. But it's all we had. Everybody still wanted to play in the NBA. It was still at the top of the feeding trough."

Washington took a flier on Lloyd with a ninth-round pick in 1950 after seeing him play in a college tournament with West Virginia State University at Uline Arena, the same place the Capitols played their home games.

"The tournament was in their building, so they got a look at me man and hell, I didn't even cost them a quarter," Lloyd said, chuckling.

When he was drafted he didn't fly to New York City to put on a fresh cap and shake the commissioner's hand, either.

"I was walking on campus when a friend came up to me and said, 'I heard your name on the radio today, Moon,'" said Lloyd, who went by the nicknames "Big Cat" and "Moon Fixer" in his playing days. "I said, 'Who's chasing me today?' She said, 'Some team called the Washington Capitols drafted you to play for them.'

"First of all, you got no idea you're going to be drafted, because if you don't have a predecessor, you don't think about those types of things. Not in 1950, when you're going to the balcony to watch movies because you can't sit downstairs with the other folks."

Fortunately for Lloyd, he did not experience as much racism within the confines of the court when it came to his teammates.

"I've always said this: The ball does not know what kind of hand it's passing to," Lloyd said. "My thing was, I was not carrying the black world on my shoulders but I had some personal things that I wanted to address as related to whether or not I was a decent basketball player. And, I'll tell you what, if you go back into the annals of the NBA draft, you're not going to find a lot of ninth-round NBA draft choices making a team. But you're gonna find one. I guarantee you, you will find one."

But there was still a lot to deal with.

"Some of the fans were awful, man," Lloyd said. He remembered the times when he played in small Southern towns during the exhibition season and he would have to stay in a different hotel than his white teammates because the team hotel would sometimes not allow blacks.

He didn't have anyone to turn to. It's not like today, when he could have just called Clifton or Cooper on their cell phones to commiserate about the experience.

"There wasn't much communicating," Lloyd said. "But Chuck knew what was going on, I knew what was going on, Sweets knew what was going on."

Lloyd played nine seasons in the league, averaging 8.4 points and 6.4 rebounds before retiring in 1960. After starting with the Washington Capitols, he played the bulk of his career with the Syracuse Nationals (winning a championship in 1955) and played his final two years with the Detroit Pistons.

If Lloyd hadn't paved the way in 1950, who knows if Joe Bryant would have had the opportunity he got with Philadelphia in 1976. And if Joe hadn't come into the NBA in '76, who knows if his son Kobe would have had a chance to be the first guard to make the prep-to-pros leap in 1996. The domino effect Lloyd's career had on the NBA careers of African-Americans for decades to come cannot be overstated.

"Our game is so blessed to have the talent that we have and more than 70 percent of the talent pool comes from [African-Americans]," added Jackson, who has spent more than the past 40 years of his life involved with the game of basketball. "It's great that we've grown into what we've become in this league. One time when I was in this league it was like a 50-50 kind of bargain where the owners were a little worried if we had a contingent of 80 percent, 90 percent, 100 percent African-American players or people of color on the team that you'd lose your fan base. That's changed. We know that teams that win are exciting [no matter what race the players are] and our audience is diverse."

Despite being one of the first to engender so much positive change in his sport of basketball -- as Robinson did for baseball -- Lloyd is not jealous of the recognition that Robinson receives.

"Jackie Robinson is one of my heroes," Lloyd said. "Whatever came his way, he deserved. This guy, not only did he influence baseball, he influenced the whole world and he did it in his worst sport. Baseball was his worst sport in college. He was a Renaissance man."

Lloyd said that the setup of a baseball field led to Robinson taking on more verbal abuse from opponents than he ever heard on the basketball court.

"Think about this: In baseball, the left fielder and the first baseman, their paths never cross," Lloyd said. "So the left fielder can call Jackie all the names he wants to call him and Jackie has to run into the dugout to get him. He's not going to do that. In basketball, man, when you stand at the foul line together the dude is less apt to call you a name. He's going to get in some serious trouble if he does that."

Lloyd is reluctant to use the word "pride" to describe what he feels about his role in ending segregation in basketball (calling the former practice "a sin … at least"), but he does know that by doing the right thing, he allowed others to have a chance.

"Chuck, myself and Sweets has sense enough to know that if we did not play well or if we acted out like they expected us to, the next wave was not forthcoming," Lloyd said.

The waves have kept coming, flooding the NBA with African-American talent.

"A legacy is when you leave something good for somebody after you had it," Lloyd said. "I just believe that for Sweets, Chuck and me, when we left, we left it a better place … That's all I ask of the young guys. Man, don't mess this up. Where else can you go where overnight you can become a millionaire?"

Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter. http://twitter.com/mcten.

Dave McMenamin

ESPNLosAngeles.com