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MLK Day

Earl Lloyd: One of the NBA's first and most important trailblazers

When thinking about the players who changed the NBA forever, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and LeBron James are probably among the first names that come to mind.

However, there is one particular person who is often forgotten when it comes to their lasting impact on the league.

His name? Earl Lloyd.

Born in Alexandria, Virginia on April 3, 1928, Lloyd grew up in a segregated America. He attended high school at Parker-Gray and quickly proved himself to be one of the best players in the state, receiving three All-South Atlantic Conference selections. His play earned him a scholarship to West Virginia State University, where his high school coach, Louis Randolph Jackson, was a graduate of.

"In 1946, Black kids knew little about college," Lloyd said. "Though I had a few other scholarship offers, wherever Coach Jackson said I was going is exactly where I was going. And I didn't argue, because if school could make me half the man my coach was, that would be great."

Lloyd spent four years at West Virginia State University. In 1947-48, he helped the school go 30-0, making them the only undefeated team in the country. They captured the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) championship in 1948, followed by another championship in 1949.

Lloyd was named All-Conference three times and All-American twice during his time at West Virginia State University. He was also later voted as one of the CIAA's 50 Greatest Players, as well as the CIAA Player of the Decade for 1947-56.

His success in college set Lloyd up to make history.

In 1950, Lloyd was selected with the 100th overall pick in the NBA Draft by the Washington Capitols. He was one of three Black players who joined the NBA that season. Chuck Cooper, who was selected with the 14th overall pick in the 1950 NBA Draft, became the first African-American player ever drafted in the NBA. Nathaniel Clifton, who started his career playing for the New York Rens and Harlem Globetrotters, became the first African-American player to sign a contract in the NBA.

And on Oct. 31, 1950, Lloyd became the first African-American to ever play in an NBA game.

Lloyd posted six points and grabbed 10 rebounds in his debut.

Lloyd's rookie season lasted only seven games because he was drafted to the military during the Korean War. He returned in 1952 and played for the Syracuse Nationals (now the Philadelphia 76ers), who acquired his right after the Capitols folded. He spent the next six seasons with the Nationals, posting averages of 8.3 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game.

The best season of Lloyd's career came in 1954-55. Not only did he average career-highs of 10.2 points, 7.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game, Lloyd helped the Nationals win their first championship in franchise history. He and his teammate Jim Tucker became the first African-Americans to win an NBA title in the process.

Lloyd spent the last two seasons of his career playing for the Detroit Pistons.

According to a story by The Washington Post, Lloyd was quickly accepted by his white teammates during his playing days, but he still dealt with racism from others. There's a story of him being spit on by a fan, as well as a fan calling him a racial slur in his debut. There were also times where he was refused service at hotels and restaurants because of the colour of his skin.

Lloyd responded by using that hate as fuel.

"You can't jump in the stands and be fighting the fans," Lloyd once told NPR. "So, the only way you can make them pay is that they lose."

"My philosophy was if they weren't calling you names, you weren't doing anything," Lloyd said in a different interview. "You made sure they were calling you names, if you could. If they were calling you names, you were hurting them."

After his playing days, Lloyd was hired by the Pistons to be an assistant coach in 1968. He made history again, becoming the first African-American assistant coach in the NBA.

Lloyd took over as head coach of the Pistons during the 1971-72 season, although his tenure didn't last long - he was fired following a 2-5 start in the 1972-73 season.

Even so, Lloyd made the history books yet again, this time becoming the second African-American head coach in league history, the first being Bill Russell.

"Coaching is only fun if you win," Lloyd once said, laughing. "I didn't win. It wasn't fun."

In 2003, Lloyd was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a Contributor alongside Robert Parish, James Worthy, Chick Hearn and other legends.

"Lloyd's ability to conduct himself with grace, style and professionalism both on and off the court during an era of segregation became the model for others to follow," his Hall of Fame biography reads.

"A rugged power forward who became a starter on Syracuse's NBA championship team in 1955, Lloyd was known for his defensive play on the opponent's top scorer, rugged rebounding and effective offensive game."

Lloyd passed away in 2015 at the age of 86. His legacy will never be forgotten.

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