ALTHOUGH HE WAS the NBA's first African-American player, Earl Lloyd never felt he deserved to be called the Jackie Robinson of pro basketball. He took what he once called "polite umbrage" at the title because it was only by virtue of the schedule that he suited up for the Washington Capitols on Oct. 31, 1950, one day before the Celtics' Chuck Cooper became the league's second African-American player.
But Lloyd, who died last week at age 86, didn't have it easy. In the pros he faced the stereotype that black players were mostly useful for their brawn, not for their skills. At 6'5" and 200 pounds, his role was to battle under the boards and shoot only rarely, which was one reason for his modest 8.4 points-per-game output. But he was valuable enough to last nine seasons in the league, and he and teammate Jim Tucker became the first African-American players to win an NBA title, with the Syracuse Nationals in 1955. In '71 he became the Pistons' coach, making him the first African-American hired exclusively for that job—the Celtics' Bill Russell had been a player-coach—in league history. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2003.
Even after that honor Lloyd tended to downplay his status as a pioneer. Several years ago a young African-American player approached Lloyd and said he was indebted to him for opening doors for later generations of black players. Lloyd, humble to the end, replied that the young man owed him absolutely nothing. There are thousands of players who would no doubt disagree.