Earl Lloyd, who was the first black player in the NBA, died Thursday in Tennessee. He was 86.
His college, West Virginia State, confirmed Lloyd’s death but did not provide any details.
It was Halloween night in 1950 when Lloyd, a 6-foot-5 forward, made his NBA debut. His team, the Washington Capitols, lost to the Rochester Royals, and Lloyd scored only six points before 2,184 fans. But it marked the first time a black player had appeared in an NBA game.
A day later, Chuck Cooper, a black forward with the Boston Celtics, played in his team’s season opener.
“I’m the answer to a trivia question: Who was the first black to actually play in the NBA? Through a scheduling quirk, I beat Chuck Cooper by a day,” Lloyd told The Times in 1986. “You can win money on that one.”
“The NBA family has lost one of its patriarchs,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement. “He was known as a modest gentleman who played the game with skill, class and pride. His legacy survives in the league he helped integrate.”
Lloyd’s first NBA game drew little attention in the press, unlike Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. In 1950, baseball was the most popular sport in America, while the NBA was a struggling league with 11 teams, including forgotten franchises such as the Indianapolis Olympians and the Tri-Cities Blackhawks. Salaries were modest and NBA players needed off-season jobs to pay their bills.
As the only black player on his team, Lloyd faced racial challenges on and off the court. He was spat on by fans in Fort Wayne, Ind., after a Capitols’ win. “When you went to Fort Wayne to play,” Lloyd told Sports Illustrated, “you had to do some emotional yoga to get ready because you knew what was coming.”
Lloyd was not allowed to eat in some hotel restaurants with the team and had to settle for room service. Other hotels refused to let him stay.
“Remember, these were the ‘50s. When we played towns like Paducah, Ky., or Fort Wayne — well, I wasn’t there by choice,” Lloyd said in his 1986 interview.
Lloyd served two years in the Army, then returned to the NBA, joining the Syracuse Nationals. He played there for six seasons, including on the 1955 championship team. Lloyd retired in 1960 after two seasons with the Detroit Pistons.
He was the Pistons’ head coach from 1971-73 but was fired after a record of 22-55.
Lloyd was inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame in 2003.
After leaving basketball, he stayed in Detroit, working as a job placement administrator in the city’s public schools, then in the 1990s worked for one of his former players, Pistons star Dave Bing, who ran a steel company.
Lloyd, who was born in Alexandria, Va., in 1928, retired to Crossville, Tenn., with his wife, Charlita.
“Am I bitter about all this money that kids make now?” Lloyd told an interviewer in 2003. “I’m not. I felt real good about being in something early on, that allowed African American players into this league.”