I interviewed Earl Lloyd in 2013, the same year the movie 42 put Jackie Robinson’s journey as the first black player in major league baseball back in the spotlight. Easygoing and quick to laugh, Lloyd wanted me to understand first and foremost that his NBA story bore little resemblance to the Robinson’s tale of battling opposition on and off the field.
“When they say, you’re the Jackie Robinson of basketball, I say, ‘You do the man a tremendous disservice, because I had it so easy compared to what he had to go through,” Lloyd told me. “I had no problems.”
Professional basketball was only four years old when Lloyd became the first black player to compete in a game in 1950, and it was still considered a risky experiment at best. Several teams every year disappeared because of financial instability, and in fact Lloyd’s first team — the Washington Capitols — only remained solvent for seven games of the 1950-’51 season. Early in 1951, almost before his professional basketball career had begun, he was left without a team and with a Korean War draft notice, and he took off to fight overseas.
The fact that pro basketball was on such shaky footing was one of the reasons Lloyd’s entrance came with little fanfare. Another difference was the fact that most of the players in that fledgling league had come from colleges in the North and the Midwest, and so many had played with black players before (the earliest college teams to integrate was Indiana in 1947). And the most striking difference between Lloyd and Robinson? Lloyd didn’t have to make history alone. Chuck Cooper and Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton were also drafted in 1950, but Lloyd was the first one to actually take the court in a game, so he has always been credited as the NBA’s pioneer.
When I called Lloyd that day, I was looking for information about his first NBA coach, Horace Albert “Bones” McKinney. In the research for my biography of McKinney, I had discovered that as the player-coach of the Capitols in 1950 he was actually responsible for drafting Lloyd. Through his own extraordinary career McKinney, who later coached Wake Forest to its only Final Four in 1962, didn’t talk much about his role in making basketball history, but Lloyd was eager to share stories about the coach he also considered a friend.
“To know Bones McKinney was to love him,” Lloyd said. “One of the few regrets that I have in my whole basketball career is that I didn’t get to finish an entire season with Bones.”
The Capitols and his subsequent NBA teams — Lloyd played for the Syracuse Nationals and the Detroit Pistons after he returned from Korea — didn’t travel to segregated cities, so Lloyd doesn’t recall ever having to stay separately from his team the way some collegiate players did during those years. But he did remember one road trip with the Capitols when the restaurant at the team hotel refused to serve African-Americans, requiring Lloyd to order room service. He ordered his food quietly, and soon after it arrived there was a knock at the door. In strode the lanky, 6-6 figure of Bones McKinney. His coach walked in, sat down, and told Lloyd, “You’re not going to eat by yourself.”
The basketball world lost a kind and courageous man on Thursday. I consider it a privilege to have had the opportunity to hear a few of his stories, and I’m even more grateful to live in a world that has been stripped of so many barriers thanks to visionaries like Bones McKinney and Earl Lloyd.