Earl Lloyd was never one to seek attention.
“The Big Cat” as he was known (he also got the nickname “Moon” or “Moonfixer” in college) preferred to let others occupy the spotlight, which still seemed to follow him.
Whether it was being the first African-American to play in the NBA — which he attributes to "a scheduling quirk" — being the first African-American Head Coach of the Detroit Pistons — he quickly draws attention to Bill Russell, the NBA’s first African-American Head Coach — or being selected a Basketball Hall of Famer, Lloyd never made himself the primary focus.
The Alexandria, Virginia, native focused on the bigger picture, one that inspired him to succeed but was never solely about him.
“My worst nightmare was to let people down who invested in me,” said Lloyd, now 83 and living in Crossville, Tennessee. “As a consequence, I was driven."
The investment started in Alexandria, Virginia, where he grew up the youngest of three brothers (Ernest was six years older, Theodore was four years older), to Theodore and Stacy,
"They took care of me and made sure that whatever I needed I got it," he said. "I learned a lot of lessons from those folks. When people ask me, 'Who are your heroes?' I tell them, if you can't find a hero under your own roof, then you have a problem."
Lloyd also credited high school coach Louis Johnson and Marques Cardwell, his coach at West Virginia State College — now West Virginia State University.
“In my [Hall of Fame] acceptance speech I made a statement, 'Getting in for me was easy,'” he recalled. “[The audience] were aghast. I said, 'Before you roast me, let me expand on that.' I said, 'My thing is, you don't accept kudos for doing what you're supposed to be doing. As a young athlete in Southern Virginia, you did as you were told. I did everything they told me to do. Where I was fortunate was that the people who were telling me what to do knew what the [heck] the were talking about.' I have handprints all over me, but every one of them was positive.”
That, in turn, led to positives. After leading the school to a 33-0 record his sophomore year, the Washington Capitols drafted him in the ninth round of the 1950 Draft — he actually found out while walking on campus, from a fellow student, who admitted she knew little about basketball, but had heard the announcement on the radio.
Lloyd’s selection came, seven rounds after Washington chose future Hall of Fame player and coach Bill Sharman. But he remembers that second round for what transpired 10 picks earlier than Sharman, when the Boston Celtics selected Chuck Cooper from Duquesne University.
Together, Lloyd, Cooper and Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton, who had been playing minor-league baseball and basketball with the Harlem Globetrotters before his contract was bought by the New York Knickerbockers, became the first African-Americans to join NBA rosters.
Lloyd would be the first to take the court, making history on Oct. 31, 1950 in the Capitols' season-opener against the Rochester Royals.
Cooper and the Celtics opened their season on Nov. 1, and three days later, Clifton and the Knickerbockers started.
The trio obliterated the color line and the game would be changed forever. But Lloyd downplays his role.
“Chuck Cooper, who was the first African-American drafted into the NBA. For a black guy to be picked as high as No. 2, that was monumental,” he said. “Because of a scheduling quirk, I was the first black player to play in the NBA. But without Chuck Cooper there is no Earl Lloyd.”
Lloyd stressed that without Jackie Robinson there may not have been a Chuck Cooper and is as adamant about not using his same sentence as Robinson.
“Jackie Robinson was one of my heroes and you have to appreciate the racial conflict in this country when Jackie started. He started three years before I played,” Lloyd said. “He had no teammates to turn to. His teammates vilified him. His opponents tried to injury him. I had things a whole lot easier than Jackie. So I take polite umbrage when people call me ‘The Jackie Robinson of basketball.’”
Changing the NBA’s landscape was monumental, but changing society wasn’t as easy. The talents and character of Lloyd, Cooper and Clifton couldn’t change segregation, but they did their part in breaking it down, carrying themselves with dignity and class, while supporting each other.
"There were three of us. When Chuck came to Syracuse to play, I had a responsibility to make it as easy as possible for him then try to beat his brains out for 48 minutes,” he said with a laugh. “But, I was his responsibility and vice versa.
“It was important for us to pave the way for hopefully the folks that would come later," he continued. "The odd thing was, we never discussed it, but we knew that if we don't make it the rest of those folks they're not going to get a chance. I like to think that Chuck, Sweet and myself, when we left, it was a better place. We handled it the way it should have been handled. We were model citizens, we played hard and we were pretty good basketball players."
Despite standing only 6-5, 200, Lloyd earned a reputation as a tenacious defender and a hard-nosed battler on the boards. Unfortunately for Lloyd, his debut season would last seven games, as he was drafted into the army, where he would serve the next two years.
The timing might have led some to ask "Why me?" Not Lloyd.
"When you get a letter from the President saying, 'Greetings from your president, we want you,' you go," he said with a laugh. "My attitude is the Lord gave me some talent that some other people did not get but that doesn't make me any better than the guy who can't play professional basketball. I said, 'If this guy can go, why should I be exempt?' That was my attitude for two years. When I was discharged in November of 1962, I felt good about it. It was another hurdle maneuvered. In this life, if you can't maneuver hurdles you have a serious problem."
The next hurdle was getting back into the NBA. While he was away, the Capitols folded but the Syracuse Nationals selected him in the 1951 dispersal draft. At 24, with only seven games of NBA experience and two years removed from the game, Lloyd had his work cut out.
But there was that inner drive.
He made the Nationals and played with his usual fire. He played all 72 games in four of his six years in Syracuse, and only once played as few as 61 games. He was instrumental in helping the Nats to the 1954-55 Championship, beating the Celtics in the Finals (Cooper was no longer with the team).
He played his final two seasons with the Detroit Pistons, leading the league in 1958-59 in games played, playing in all 72. He retired following the 1960 season but stayed in the game, as a scout. In 1971, when Head Coach Butch Van Breda Kolff left the team 10 games into the season, Lloyd was promoted to head coach. He soon realized coaching wasn't for him.
"It's funny, the Lord will always send you a sign. I knew early that coaching wasn't for me. When I took over that team the first thing that happens is my best player gets a detached retina and he's out for 35 games. It's like somebody's trying to tell you something."
Ironically, that player, Dave Bing — who has been the Mayor of Detroit since 2009 — played a career-low 45 games that season. The Pistons finished 20-50 under Lloyd and he would be dismissed as head coach the next season after a 2-5 start.
He would not be forgotten in NBA circles, however, as In 2003, he was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame, as part of a class that included players Robert Parish, James Worthy and Dino Meneghin, coach Leon Barmore and fellow contributors broadcaster Chick Hearn and Harlem Globetrotter Meadowlark Lemon.
"That's a very elite club. I don't say it's elite that we think we're better than other folks. But it's hallowed ground,” he said. “It's the holy grail. You can't go any higher than that until you get up to the real holy place.
Lloyd still enjoys watching the NBA and is a fan of Hawks forward Al Horford, and looks forward to meeting him when the Hawks salute him on Feb. 12 as part of Black History Month prior to the game against the Miami Heat.
“Al Horford's the kind of player every good team needs,” he said. “He's a guy that works hard on defense, playing those big people down deep every night, he runs the floor, he rebounds, he sets pick and I'll venture the guess that in the time he's been playing with them, they don't run a lot of plays for Al Horford. Consequently, just about any and all points he scores, they're hustle points.
“When I watch him when he's on TV. I say, ‘But for a few inches and a few years, there goes Earl Lloyd,’” he added. “That's the area I performed for the Syracuse Nats. He's unselfish. I would guess nobody outworks him. When I get down there, I will shake his hand and say, 'I'm glad to meet you.'
Lloyd has another message for Horford, the Hawks and the Miami Heat as well.
“Some of the older guys get uptight about all this money these kids make,” he said. “It truly pleases me to have been part of something early on that allows these guys to make the kind of living that they make. And all I want to tell them is, ‘It's not what you make that's important, it's what you keep.’”