Many people probably do not even recognize the name Earl Lloyd. But unlike the well-recognized Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball's color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Lloyd never became a household name.
But the Alexandria native is one of the key athletic figures in our time because of the social implications he had in the National Basketball Association and for the grace and class in which he accepted his role as a barrier breaker.
Lloyd attended school at Parker Gray in Alexandria and was the first African-American to break the color barrier in the NBA. He did so on Oct. 31, 1950. He spent nine years in the NBA and was a member of the NBA champion Syracuse Nationals team in the 1954-55 season. He concluded his playing career with the Detroit Pistons in 1960, and eventually became the Pistons' head coach — the second African-American to ever be named a head coach in the league.
"Earl is one of the most decent men I've ever met," said Boston Celtics legend Sam Jones a few years ago when he was in Alexandria for a special `Earl Lloyd Day' tribute at the Charles Houston Recreation Center. "I met Earl back in 1957 when I was drafted by the Boston Celtics. This guy was a leaper and a great defensive player. He could play."
KNOWN AS `THE BIG CAT' during his playing days, the 6-foot-6 inch, 220-pound Lloyd played nine years in the NBA from 1950 through 1960. The teams he played for were the old Washington Capitals (1950-51), Syracuse ('52-58), and Detroit ('58-'60). For his career, Lloyd, a forward, played in 560 NBA games and scored 4,682 total points (an 8.4 points per game average) and pulled down 3,609 rebounds (6.4 per game). His postseason numbers were just as good where, in 44 games, he averaged 8.1 points and 5.8 boards per contest.
Lloyd was actually one of three African-Americans to enter the NBA in the same year. But he was the first of the three to step onto an NBA floor to start that 1950 season with the Capitals. The other two African-American players who would also be members of NBA rosters that season were Charles Cooper (Celtics) and Nat `Sweetwater' Clifton (New York Knicks).
Amazingly, Lloyd played in only seven games for the Caps that season before the team folded on Jan. 9, 1951. When that happened, Lloyd went into the Army at Fort Sill, Ok., before the Syracuse Nationals elected to pick him up on waivers.
At that point, Lloyd settled in as an NBA player as a member of the Nationals for six seasons, followed by a two-year stint with the Pistons to cap his playing career. His best year came in the 1954-55 season when he averaged over 10 points a game while bringing down 7.7 rebounds for Syracuse. That was the season Syracuse captured the NBA title by defeating the Fort Wayne Pistons four games to three in the finals. Lloyd and Jim Tucker were the first African-Americans to play in a league championship series that season.
UNLIKE TODAY WHEN the NBA is near the peak of its popularity and known worldwide, the NBA of Lloyd's era was not nearly as popular. Baseball was the national pasttime, perhaps the main reason Lloyd did not become particularly well known. He once said, "In 1950 basketball was like a babe in the woods; it didn't enjoy the notoriety that baseball enjoyed."
Following his playing career, Lloyd eventually got into coaching. He became the NBA's first African-American assistant coach when he accepted a position with the Detroit Pistons (1968-70). In 1970, he became the first African-American to become a head coach. In that role, he coached two future Hall of Famers — legendary center Bob Lanier and the great backcourt player Dave Bing, who later spent a brief period as a member of the Washington Bullets.
Later in his career, Lloyd worked as an NBA scout where he discovered such outstanding young players as Willis Reed and Earl `The Pearl' Monroe.
LLOYD, WHO WAS BORN on April 3, 1928 in Alexandria, was a high school basketball star at Parker Gray (1946 graduate). Prep school highlights included: All-South Atlantic Conference honors three times and All-State Virginia Interscholastic Conference accolades two times.
He went on to play the sport at West Virginia State College. There, he led his team to numerous CIAA conference championships and earned All-Conference recognition three times. As a senior, he led West Virginia State to an unbeaten season, averaging 14 points and eight rebounds during that campaign. Years later, in 1998, Lloyd was named to the CIAA Conference Hall of Fame. He was also once recognized as the conference Player of the Decade' for the 1947-56 time period.
Today, in T.C. Williams' trophy hall outside the main gymnasium, Lloyd is honored for his importance to basketball and his hometown community. There, a plaque, which was presented to Lloyd by Alexandria City Public Schools and the school board on Jan. 27, 1995, is showcased.
David Stern, NBA Commissioner, wrote Lloyd a letter at that time which is also displayed at T.C. Williams. Dated Jan. 27, 1995, it reads in part, "It is with great pleasure that I join the city of Alexandria in commemorating your ground breaking contributions to the history of NBA basketball. ...As the first African-American to play in an NBA game, you set a precedent of commitment and dedication from which generations of African-Americans have and will continue to benefit. Through your undaunting perseverance, seemingly unreachable goals became attainable.
"Upon retirement from the game, your impressive accomplishments were not confined to the basketball court," the letter continued. "You have continued to give to your community by helping others realize their goals and dreams. As a true pioneer on and off the court, it is only fitting that Alexandria commemorate your accomplishments with a weekend of celebration and education. On behalf of the NBA and its players, I congratulate you on a lifetime of outstanding achievements. Sincerely, David Stern."
In 2001 in Alexandria, `Earl Lloyd Day' was celebrated. The city's youth, politicians, well-known figures from both the basketball and entertainment worlds, and an adoring public made their way into the Charles Houston Rec Center that day to pay tribute to the NBA pioneer. That day's event was in conjunction with Black History Month and also part of the weekend's NBA All Star game festivities.
"Whoever said you can't go home?" Lloyd asked the audience on that Homecoming day. "Whenever I feel I need to be loved, I come here. It's a real pleasure just to be here, but it's always good to see people from your past.
"I definitely didn't expect this [turnout]," said Lloyd later during the presentations. "This is fantastic, overwhelming. I want to thank you kids for being here."
And there are scores of sports fans who would like to thank Mr. Lloyd for what he has meant to the world of basketball.
Earl Lloyd is 44 in a survey of the area's Top 100 Athletes by Connection Newspapers in 2000.