Remembering Earl Lloyd, First African American Man to Play in the NBA

You may know him as “The Big Cat,” as he was called during his professional career in 1950 when he became the first African American man to play in the NBA.

Earl Lloyd
(Photos: Earl Lloyd Foundation)

Alexandria, VA – You may know him as “The Big Cat,” as he was called during his professional career, or you may recognize his name from the T.C. Williams gym named in his honor in 2007.

Earl Lloyd, an Alexandria native, was a 6’5”-6’7” (depending on the source), 200-220lbs basketball player. In 1950 he became the first African American man to play in the NBA. This was only due to scheduling, as two other black players, Charles Cooper and Nathaniel Clifton, played days later. Nevertheless, on October 31, 1950, as a member of the Washington Capitols, Lloyd became the first black player to set foot on an NBA court.

Earl Francis Lloyd was born in Alexandria on April 3, 1928, to parents Theodore Benjamin Lloyd and Daisy Mitchell Lloyd. Earl grew up in the Berg neighborhood of Old Town, just west of the waterfront. The Berg got its name from the influx of enslaved blacks who fled Petersburg and settled in northeast Alexandria after Union troops occupied the city in May 1861.

Lloyd was a good student at Lyles-Crouch Elementary School, due in large part to his mother’s influence, and as he grew he grew he became an amazing athlete. He got to showcase his talents at Parker-Gray High School, taking his game from the blacktop to the hardwood. It was his first experience playing organized basketball.

Racism was reality in Alexandria at the time, something Lloyd was very familiar with. In a Washington Post interview, he said, “A young black kid born in Alexandria in 1928, in a huge cradle of segregation…that child’s prospects went from dim to none.” But Lloyd was not going to let the color of his skin limit his progression through life.

Earl Lloyd in action
(Photos: Earl Lloyd Foundation)

Lloyd’s high school coach, Louis Randolph Johnson, advocated for him to enroll at West Virginia State University. At this point, Lloyd wasn’t known as The Big Cat yet; due to his impressive height and defensive prowess, he was affectionately referred to as Moonfixer. Lloyd went on to lead WVSU to two CIAA Conference and Tournament Championships in 1948 and 1949. He was named All Conference three times, and All American in 1949 and 1950 by the Pittsburg Courier. Lloyd graduated in 1950 with a Bachelor of Science degree in physical education.

Following the 1950 season, Lloyd didn’t expect to be drafted into the NBA, as no African American player had ever been drafted.

“Looking back, the only indication that my coach may have known something is that, at the end of the season, my teammate Bob Wilson and I were invited to travel with the Globetrotters (one of few professional outlets for black players at the time) for a week, but our coach was quite emphatic about not signing anything.” Lloyd said in a 2010 Slam Magazine interview.*

Lloyd was with a friend in 1950 when he heard his name mentioned on the radio. He didn’t find out why his name had been mentioned until he was informed that he had been selected in the ninth round of the NBA draft by the Washington Capitols.

“If somebody’d said I’d be drafted by Washington, I never would have believed it,” he told The Washington Post, calling the area the “Cradle of segregation.”

Lloyd was picked to start in his first game, the Capitols versus Rochester, on Halloween 1950. They lost 70-78. “The game was so uneventful.” Lloyd told The Post. “They probably thought I was a goblin!” he joked.

Lloyd had just become the first African American to play in an NBA game, but Lloyd humbly eschewed any comparison to his hero Jackie Robinson. “You can’t compare what Jackie did to what I did!” said Lloyd to Slam. “Jackie is my hero and his path was so much rougher than mine that any comparisons are trite.”

The Syracuse Nationals
(Photos: Earl Lloyd Foundation)

Asked why he didn’t have it as hard, Lloyd said, “So many reasons! First of all, the public generally didn’t [care] about basketball, while baseball was the grand old game and [Jackie Robinson] was considered an invader, a threat. I was lucky that we were under the radar and lucky that my first game was in Rochester, where high school teams had been integrated.”

When asked about the racism he encountered from fans, Lloyd said to Slam, “Well, it wasn’t a picnic…This was nothing shocking to me. The folks in Virginia made my transition an awful lot easier. They got me ready to be called names and denied things, and they made the hecklers in NBA arenas look like amateurs. Those people in Virginia were good at treating folks as less than human.”

Lloyd told The Post, in reference to racism he encountered in his life, “My parents taught me you don’t dignify ignorance.”

In 1951, after only seven games with the Capitols, Lloyd was drafted into the U.S. Army. In the military Lloyd captured four U.S. Army basketball titles. He returned to the NBA in 1952, when his rights were transferred from the then-defunct Capitols to the Syracuse Nationals. That year, Lloyd and his teammate Jim Tucker became the first African American players to win an NBA championship.

Lloyd went on to play with the Detroit Pistons from 1958-1960. He became the first African American assistant coach for the Detroit Pistons in 1965, and the third African American head coach during the 1971-1972 season, also with the Pistons. Lloyd was also a scout for the Pistons, credited with discovering Bailey Howell, Earl Monroe, and Walt Frazier. After retiring from the NBA, Lloyd worked in education and business in the Detroit area, and then moved with his family to Tennessee.

Earl Lloyd was inducted into the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame in 1993 and the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Lloyd in 2003. He returned to Alexandria in 2007when the new gymnasium and basketball court at T.C. Williams High School was named after him. He said, “You cannot understand what an honor this is. There is no better honor than being validated by the people who know you best.”

Earl Lloyd passed away in February 2015, at the age of 86. He is remembered as a trailblazer and a champion of oppressed people worldwide.

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