NEW YORK - Martin Luther King Jr. Day will be celebrated across the NBA today, including at the Celtics-Knicks game. And while the nation commemorates the slain leader of the civil rights movement, Hall of Famer Earl Lloyd will surely reflect on his belief that the Celtics ultimately opened the door for him to be the first African-American to play in an NBA game.
"I truly believe this, that if the Celtics did not draft Chuck [Cooper] in the second round, you could not tell me that the Washington Capitols in 1950 were going to make me the first black player to play in this league. No way . . . The Boston Celtics had a tremendous influence on my acceptance in the NBA," said Lloyd in a recent phone interview.
Lloyd, Cooper, and the Knicks' Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton became the first African-Americans to play in the NBA during the 1950-51 season. Boston made Cooper, a former Duquesne star, the first black ever drafted. After being reminded Cooper was black, then-Celtics owner Walter Brown reportedly said: "I don't care if he's striped, plaid or polka dot!"
Clifton, a former Harlem Globetrotter, was the first African-American player to sign a contract with an NBA team when he signed with the Knicks in 1950. Lloyd was drafted in the ninth round by the Capitols after playing at all-black West Virginia State. The Alexandria, Va., native had never interacted with whites until he made the Capitols at 22 and he signed a contract for $4,500.
"I don't think they purposely picked the three of us," Lloyd said. "They didn't do an extensive look into your background and all that to make sure we were the right kind of people. But they picked three good people.
"They picked three guys who were decent enough guys to play in this league and we [comported] ourselves as gentlemen and decent human beings. There was never any worry to my knowledge about "Sweets" or Chuck or me, none."
Lloyd became the first African-American to play in an NBA game Oct. 31, 1950, in Rochester, N.Y., when the Capitols played the Royals. Cooper made his debut the next day, while Clifton's bow came four days later. Lloyd scored 6 points and grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds in the Capitols' 78-70 loss to Rochester.
Lloyd's NBA debut paled in significance to the arrival of Jackie Robinson in major league baseball in 1947. At that time, the NBA had about as much fanfare as the Arena Football League today. The next day, the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle didn't mention Lloyd in its game story while the Rochester Times-Union only wrote: "Bones McKinney, the Caps' new coach, injected big Earl Lloyd, Negro Star of West Virginia State, into the lineup (after halftime) and he took most of the rebounds."
"In 1950, the NBA was like 4 years old," Lloyd said. "We were like babes in the woods. I wouldn't say it was ho-hum. But it didn't get the type of coverage that major league baseball got."
But the effects of the breakthrough resonate today.
"The history is what it is," said Celtics forward Kevin Garnett. "I'm aware of it. The words that come to mind are not only homage, but monumental."
Lloyd said fans in St. Louis, Baltimore, Fort Wayne, Ind., and Indianapolis were particularly hard on him. He was spit on, asked by fans to see his tail, and told to go back to Africa. Lloyd said he was rarely allowed to go into restaurants or hotels with his white teammates. While playing for Syracuse during the 1952-53 season, he wasn't allowed to play at a preseason game at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C., because he was black. The Nationals still played and to this day it pains Lloyd that none of his teammates showed any remorse.
But even with the racism he faced, Lloyd doesn't compare it to what Robinson endured.
"I take polite homage to people who try to compare me to him," Lloyd said. "There's no comparison, man. Here's a guy who was all by himself, man. I thank God he had a beautiful, lovely wife who was smart. If he didn't have Rachel, no telling what could have happened to him.
"When I go to high school to speak sometimes and say, 'You want a project, go to your computer, go to Google and throw Jackie Robinson's name in there and see what you get.' The guy was a renaissance man. Any time your own teammates don't want to play with you? I never experienced that."
Lloyd averaged 8.4 points and 6.4 rebounds in nine seasons for Washington, Syracuse and Detroit. During Syracuse's 1955 championship season, he and teammate Jim Tucker became the first African-Americans to win an NBA title. In 1968, Lloyd became the NBA's first black assistant coach with Detroit. In 1971, he became the second African-American head coach after the Celtics' Bill Russell. Lloyd was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2003.
Clifton died at 67 Aug. 31, 1990, in Chicago, while Cooper died at 57 Feb. 5, 1984, in Pittsburgh. Lloyd and his his wife, Charlita, live in a retirement community in tiny Crossville, Tenn. He turns 80 April 3.
"I'm in good health but lousy shape," Lloyd said. "My wife tells me I need to get out there and walk."
Lloyd isn't bothered that most NBA players have no idea who he is. All he hopes is that every black NBA player, present and future, live up to one request.
"One [young NBA player] said to me one day, 'Mr. Lloyd, we owe you,' " Lloyd recalled. "I said, 'Let me tell you who you owe, you owe the people that come behind you.' I know Chuck Cooper, Sweetwater Clifton, myself, we made it a better place. If we didn't do that, all of ya'll wouldn't be there now.' "
Said Garnett: "I always give homage to the people that have come before me and give a maximum amount of respect to them. I'm sure that one day we'll be perceived as ones that created opportunities for people after us. It's only right we give respect to people that came before us, Martin Luther King included, Mr. Lloyd."