The biggest names on the list of trailblazing black athletes in American sports are well-known: there’s Jackie Robinson in Brooklyn, Jack Johnson in the ring, Jesse Owens and Wilma Rudolph in the Olympics and Arthur Ashe at Wimbledon. And then there’s Earl Lloyd.
You probably don’t remember Earl Lloyd.
Sixty-three years ago today, though, on Halloween in 1950, Lloyd became the first African-American to suit up in the National Basketball Association.
Lloyd wasn’t a pioneer like Robinson — he wasn’t chosen specifically to break an entrenched color barrier that symbolized, as much as anything in American culture, segregation between whites and blacks in all parts of society. The NBA then was an upstart league. It had only started in 1946 and was barely part of the American sporting or social conscience, far behind sports like baseball, horse racing, and boxing. And unlike Robinson, Lloyd wasn’t alone. He was one of four black players who played in the NBA that season. It was only because his Washington Capitols started the season before the Boston Celtics and New York Knicks, who had drafted Chuck Cooper and Nat Clifton, respectively, that Lloyd earned the “first” moniker.
It was three years after Robinson and, again, basketball wasn’t nearly as big as baseball, so it’s easy to understand why Lloyd, Cooper, Clifton, or Hank DeZonie, the fourth African-American to play during the 1960 season, have never gotten the recognition or prominence bestowed on black athletes of earlier years and bigger sports. But it didn’t take long for the wall those players cracked to come tumbling down for good and create a league that today has more players, coaches, and executives of color than any of our others.
Black players in the 1960s believed the NBA had an unspoken and unofficial quota system that limited how many black players could appear on a single roster, but over the decade that followed Lloyd’s debut, black players became not just commonplace but the NBA’s biggest stars. Bill Russell debuted for the Celtics in 1956 and turned into the NBA’s first black superstar. A decade later, in the midst of the Celtics’ era of dominance, he became the NBA’s first black coach. Wilt Chamberlain entered the league in 1959. Oscar Robertson in 1960.
The names that followed are some of the most iconic in NBA history, from Elgin Baylor to Julius Erving to Kareem and Magic. By the time Michael Jordan made his NBA debut in 1984, the NBA’s biggest stars were predominately black. Today, in LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, and Kobe Bryant’s NBA, more than three-quarters of NBA players are African-American.
That progress isn’t limited to the court. According to the Institute of Diversity and Ethics in Sports, the NBA set a new record last season when 45 percent of its assistant coaches were people of color. More than a third of the employees in the league’s front office are people of color, and there were six African-American general managers last seson. 12 of the NBA’s current head coaches are black, and though that number has declined over the past two years, it still far outpaces the number of black coaches in Major League Baseball or the NFL. Every president of the NBA’s players association has been black since Robertson became head of the union in 1960.
That doesn’t mean the NBA is perfect. It still has just one black owner (Michael Jordan) who holds a majority stake in his franchise, and the front office has taken steps, like instituting a pre- and post-game dress code, that can easily look like racially-motivated attempts to cast off what it believes white fans view as a “thuggish” reputation.
The front office, as some have argued, has long viewed the league’s perceived “blackness” as a problem that needs to be fixed to achieve broad popularity, and in many ways, it has succeeded in limiting the expression of its black players — though, to their credit, many of those players turned commissioner David Stern’s dress code into their own form of social expression.
Both the NBA’s racial history and the problems with the way it deals with race now are complex, and there will always be progress to make on race in both sports and society. But much progress has been made too, and even if he doesn’t register in our consciousness the way other black sporting pioneers do, it was Earl Lloyd who started it all 63 years ago tonight.