In February for Black History Month, USA TODAY Sports is publishing the series “28 Black Stories in 28 Days.” We examine the issues, challenges and opportunities Black athletes and sports officials continue to face after the nation’s reckoning on race following the murder of George Floyd in 2020. This is the third installment of the series.
Like many Black sports pioneers before him, Earl Lloyd, the first Black player to appear in an NBA game, encountered the ugly side of humanity. It didn’t stop him.
His parents were in the stands during one home game in Washington, D.C., and were exposed to numerous racist remarks. One fan, as Sports Illustrated noted, asked aloud whether ‘that (N-word)’ could play.
It didn’t stop Lloyd.
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‘Tough towns’ didn’t stop Earl Lloyd
After one win, he was spat on. Didn’t stop him. A fan asked to see his tail. Didn’t stop him. Another fan in a different city told him to go back to Africa. That didn’t stop him, either.
‘Indianapolis, Baltimore, Fort Wayne (Indiana) … tough towns, man,’ Lloyd said in 1994, as reported in Sports Illustrated. ‘When you went to Fort Wayne to play, you had to do some emotional yoga to get ready because you knew what was coming.’
Lloyd is a pioneer whom many may not know, but everyone should. While not as historically recognizable as Jackie Robinson, the first Black man to play Major League Baseball, Lloyd was a contemporary barrier breaker. He made history when his team, the Washington Capitols, played the Rochester Royals on Oct. 31, 1950, three years after Robinson debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
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Lloyd’s NBA career lasted nine years. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2003 and died in 2015.
Two other Black players entered the NBA in 1950, the same year as Lloyd. One was Nat Clifton, formerly of the Harlem Globetrotters, who signed a contract with the New York Knicks. The other was Chuck Cooper of the Boston Celtics, who was the first Black player to be drafted by an NBA team. The Celtics took him in the second round out of Duquesne.
Although the 1950-51 NBA season proved historic for their debuts, they haven’t entered into legend like Robinson. Baseball was the national pastime and the NBA didn’t grow into a sporting superpower until decades after Lloyd retired.
‘In 1950, the NBA was like 4 years old,’ Lloyd told The New York Times in 2008. ‘We were like babes in the woods … it didn’t get the type of coverage that Major League Baseball got.’