Back in the segregation and Jim Crow era, the league prevented Black people from playing. Then, Earl Lloyd changed the game.
The NBA before 1950
Today’s NBA is a predominantly Black league, a stark contrast to what it was before 1950. According to Statista, 74.2% of the players in the NBA during the 2020 season were African American. Compare that to the league before 1950, where 0% of NBA players were African American.
During those times, segregation was still in effect. Black people were separated from their white counterparts in many public settings, often having to eat, drink, and use the bathroom in entirely different rooms. The NBA was just operating under what was considered the norm at the time.
Black basketball players didn’t play in the NBA, but they still participated in other leagues that allowed them to. Two teams with Black players stood out from the rest: the New York Renaissance and the Harlem Globetrotters.
The Globetrotters are famous for their entertaining basketball skills nowadays, but they dominated NBA teams back in the day. They’d do trick passes and shots during games because they beat teams so badly.
In 1950, The New York Knicks wanted to sign a Black player on the Globetrotters named Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton. According to the Washington Post, the owners didn’t allow it to happen. After threatening to leave the league in 1950, the owners allowed the Knicks to sign him. Chuck Cooper and Earl Lloyd also joined the NBA that year.
Earl Lloyd makes history and breaks the NBA’s color barrier
1950 was a historic year for the NBA, welcoming their first three Black players into the league. Cooper and Clifton didn’t have games yet, making Earl “Big Cat” Lloyd the one to shatter the league’s color barrier on October 31, 1950.
In a game against the Rochester Royals (now the Sacramento Kings), Washington Capitols’ coach Bones Mckinney put Lloyd in the game. He scored six points and grabbed 10 rebounds in the contest. Lloyd’s barrier-breaking moment might’ve not been as monumental as Jackie Robinson’s in the MLB to the public, but it still paved the way for many Black players afterward. Lloyd didn’t see the moment as more than an ordinary game.
“Rochester was a sleepy upstate town where schools were integrated, and they were used to seeing blacks and whites playing together. The game was totally, unequivocally uneventful except for the date — Oct. 31. Maybe they thought I was a goblin or something,” said Lloyd per the Democrat and Chronicle.
Clifton and Cooper made their NBA debuts shortly after Lloyd. The NBA Hall of Famer says he is the beneficiary of a “scheduling quirk,” allowing him to be the first Black NBA player to enter a game. Even though he’d hear taunts and hecklers in the stands, it was all part of Lloyd’s plan.
“They’d yell stuff like, ‘Go back to Africa.’ My philosophy was: If they weren’t calling you names, you weren’t doing nothing. If they’re calling you names, you were hurting them,” Lloyd said per The New York Times.
Earl Lloyd continued to be a basketball pioneer
Earl Lloyd continued to be a basketball pioneer, becoming the first Black player to do many things in the NBA. In 1955, he averaged 10.2 points and 7.2 rebounds with the Syracuse Nationals, helping them win the championship. Lloyd and his teammate, Jim Tucker, became the first Black players to win an NBA Title.
Lloyd joined the Pistons as an assistant coach in 1968, making him the first Black assistant coach in league history. Bill Russell beat Lloyd to being the first Black head coach in NBA history, but he was the second. He still made history, becoming the first Black bench coach in the league. Russell had the title of a player-coach.
After his coaching career, Lloyd became a scout. He used his skills as a scout to analyze future legendary players like Willis Reed, Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, and more. Lloyd received the highest honor for his career as a basketball pioneer, entering the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2003. Lloyd passed away in 2015 at 86 years old.
Earl Lloyd was a champion, legend, and basketball pioneer. In 1950, he changed the league forever, paving the way for great Black players like Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Magic Johnson, and more.