Earl Lloyd’s son maintains his legacy as an NBA icon
Kevin Lloyd is making sure the world knows his father’s impact — from the league, to players and more
As former NBA players Grant Hill, Steve Smith and Jason Collins began a private tour of the National Civil Rights Museum on Jan. 14, Kevin Lloyd proudly stood alongside them in place of his late father, who first opened the NBA door for black players.
Hill, Smith, Collins and every African-American NBA player past and present should know Earl Lloyd’s story. On Halloween night in 1950, Lloyd became the first black player in NBA history when he debuted for the Washington Capitals.
“I had the good fortune of meeting Earl Lloyd back in Detroit during the mid-’90s,” Hill told The Undefeated. “I was impressed with his enthusiasm for life and his overall love of people. But what was even more impressive was the courage and integrity he displayed in being the first to integrate the NBA. His fearless sacrifice opened the doors of opportunity in professional sports and, overall, helped change the world.”
Before the Memphis Grizzlies played the Chicago Bulls on Sunday night and on the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Hill, Smith and former WNBA star Lisa Leslie (who was unable to attend for personal reasons) were given the 12th Annual National Civil Rights Museum Sports Legacy award. The award honors athletes “who have made significant contributions to civil and human rights and who have laid the foundation for future leaders through their career in sports in the spirit of King.” Lloyd was an inaugural Legacy award winner in 2005 and was represented by his son.
The awards ceremony was just one part of a weekend full of the tribute to King in Memphis, Tennessee. The Grizzlies and the National Civil Rights Museum hosted a symposium on Jan. 14 in honor of Martin Luther King Day to discuss race in sports at the museum. Hill, Smith, Grizzlies coach David Fizdale were on the panel hosted by ESPN play-by-play announcer Mark Jones and National Civil Rights Museum president Terri Lee Freeman. The team also hosted a 3-on-3 basketball tournament on Jan. 14, a high school basketball game and a Coaches’ Forum and Reception with Collins and former WNBA star Jennifer Azzi on Sunday. The team also wore “MLK50 Pride” uniforms in honor of King during the game against Chicago.
“It was fantastic to be a part of that and to be included in something like that,” Fizdale said. “It makes you feel the gravity of it all. It’s truly humbling. To be a coach in this game and to be the coach of the Memphis Grizzlies, for me it’s an honor.”
Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley gives a personal tour of the iconic Memphis landmark where Martin Luther King died.
Despite similar groundbreaking accomplishments, Lloyd often said he shouldn’t be compared to baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson. But like Robinson, Lloyd, the Boston Celtics’ Chuck Cooper and New York Knicks’ Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton dealt with their share of racism as the NBA’s first black players when they entered the league during the 1950-51 season. And due to a scheduling quirk, Lloyd was the first to play.
In 2005, Lloyd told The Denver Post that fans in St. Louis, Baltimore, Indianapolis and Fort Wayne, Indiana, were very cruel to him. They spit on him, asked to see his “tail” and told him to go back to Africa. He was rarely able to go into restaurants or hotels with his teammates, and his most painful memory was not being allowed to play in a preseason game in Spartanburg, South Carolina.
“They have to play [the game], and if they didn’t play, they get rid of them,” Lloyd said. “I give them a pass on that. But what I don’t give them a pass on was that not one of my teammates – not one – said to me, ‘Hey, we got to go, but it ain’t right.’
“Teammates don’t do that to teammates. You expect something different from guys you played with.”
Lloyd averaged 8.4 points and 6.4 rebounds in nine seasons for Washington, Syracuse and the Detroit Pistons. Standing 6-foot-5 at the forward position, he and teammate Jim Tucker were the first African-Americans to win an NBA title in 1955 with Syracuse. In 1968, Lloyd became the NBA’s first black assistant coach with the Pistons. He went on to become the league’s second African-American head coach with Detroit in 1971. The veterans committee named Lloyd to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2003. He died on Feb. 26, 2015, at the age of 86.
Clifton was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2014 and Cooper is again a candidate this year. Lloyd’s son, Kevin, said he wished all three could have entered the Hall of Fame together since they were “tight-knit” and looked out for each other.
“They will forever be connected because they started at the same time,” Kevin Lloyd said. “It was just a scheduling thing that allowed my father to play before the other two did. My father just happened to be ‘The Chosen One’ for whatever reason. I think a lot of people know their story, but not enough people know.”
If you ask most NBA players who Lloyd, Clifton and Cooper were, most probably don’t know. Many rookies had never heard of Earl Lloyd until he told his story during some of the NBA Rookie Transition Programs he attended. But those who did know or those who learned about him would thank Lloyd, and he often left them with words of wisdom.
“A lot of players came up to my dad and said, ‘Mr. Lloyd, we owe you,’ ” Kevin Lloyd said. “My father would tell the players, ‘The only thing I want you to do is when you leave the NBA, leave it in a better place. And you tell other players before they leave, leave it in a better place.’
“My father left the NBA in a better place because in 1950 when he was called the N-word or got spit on, if he would have went into the stands and grabbed the guy or punched a guy, that might have set the NBA and black players 10 years back. When he got called the N-word or spit on, he had to wipe it off and keep playing.”
With a statue or more on the horizon, Earl Lloyd’s story could soon finally become a more familiar one. His alma mater, West Virginia State, erected a statue in his honor on its campus in Charleston, West Virginia, in 2014 before he died. The National Basketball Players Association is scheduled to debut a documentary on Earl Lloyd called The First To Do It on Feb. 16 during NBA All-Star Weekend in New Orleans. Lloyd’s widow, Charlita, has also started a Change.org petition to officially request that the U.S. Postal Service’s Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee issue a stamp in honor of her late husband. The petition is 1,700 signatures short of its 5,000-signature goal.
Kevin Lloyd hopes that the stamp will be approved by the end of February.
“From where my father came from to where he ended up is amazing,” Kevin Lloyd said. “My father grew up in the projects in Alexandria, Virginia. He ended up in the Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts. That’s incredible by itself …”
CORRECTION: This piece incorrectly stated Jarron Collins was at the event, it was in fact Jason Collins who attended. It has been corrected.