Earl Lloyd, who became the first black player in the NBA nearly 65 years ago, died Thursday at age 86.
Lloyd had a long career that stretched from West Virginia State to basketball’s Hall of Fame. He once told a young man who thanked him for being a pioneer, “Man, you owe me absolutely nothing.”
As a player, the 6-foot-5-inch Lloyd was nicknamed The Big Cat. He was drafted in the same year as other black players, but he was the first to play in the regular season, for the then-Washington Capitols.
In 1955, Lloyd helped the Syracuse Nationals win an NBA title; he later played for the Detroit Pistons.
At the time of his death, Lloyd had been living in Crossville, Tenn., with his wife, Charlita. He was a native of Alexandria, Va., who also lived for many years in Detroit.
Lloyd was a jazz fan. During his playing days, he carried around issues of Downbeat magazine during road trips, to help him find gigs in the cities he visited.
After his playing days, Lloyd had stints as a scout and coach in the NBA. He “is credited with discovering basketball talents Willis Reed, Earl Monroe, Dave Bing, Ray Scott and Wally Jones,” according to a statement from West Virginia State.
Lloyd went on to work at the Dodge division of the Chrysler Corp. and then in job placement for Detroit’s school system.
Lloyd spoke to NPR several times in the past 15 years. We’ve collected some of the most compelling quotes from those conversations here.
From 2000, speaking to NPR’s Linda Wertheimer:
“Here I am, a young black kid — from kindergarten right through graduating from college, I never had a white classmate. And you’re born and raised in the den of segregation, you’ve been treated third-class all your life. So you tend to believe that you’re inferior. And when you walk into a pro training camp … the first thing you ask yourself, very quietly, [is] ‘Do I belong here?’ And at training camp, where it’s on, and you start scrimmaging these guys and playing against them, you know — then the bulb lights up, and tells you that you belong.”
From a 2013 talk with NPR’s Gene Demby:
“My parents used to say it only matters if other people think you’re special. What you think is only as important as a rat’s behind.”
“I always say that if someone had to handpick a place to play their first game as a black player, it would be Rochester, N.Y. In that part of the country in the wintertime, no one hates anyone. You see black folks and white folks pushing each other’s cars through the snow. But the next day we were in St. Louis. That was not a nice place to be in 1950. That was not a nice place to be. But there was no Klansmen [at that first game] and all that, with signs and ropes. It was too cold for all that.”
From a 2010 talk with NPR’s Liane Hansen:
“Jackie made things a lot easier for me. But what happened, if you think about it, Jackie Robinson played first base. The guy playing left field, he can call him all the names he wants to call him and their paths will never cross. But in pro basketball, you stand on a foul line and some guy who might want to call you a name is less apt to — because the proximity is kind of immediate. And there’s a little danger involved in calling a guy a name who’s standing right next to you.”
“One kid said to me, he said, Mr. Lloyd, we really owe you. And I explained to him, man, you owe me absolutely nothing. I said, whatever kind of career I had, it has served me well, but you do owe some people. And the people you owe are the folks who are going to come behind you. It’s incumbent upon each watch — when you play your 10, 11 years and you’re in your group — when you leave, I truly hope that you’ve done all you can possibly do to leave it a better place for the folks who come behind you.”