ATLANTA – Earl Lloyd remembers when he suited up for the Washington Capitols more than 60 years ago as the first black to play in an NBA game and wondering if he would make a good enough impression to stick around.
Lloyd and the Capitols lost the game. But he played well enough to earn a roster spot and break the color barrier in a league that had only three black players in 1950 and now features the highest percentage of African-American athletes in any of the major professional leagues.
"Before the game, I was terrified," recalled Lloyd, who scored six points and grabbed 10 rebounds for the Capitols in a 78-70 loss to the Rochester Royals on Oct. 31, 1950. "I had a fear of disappointing the people who depended on me. Luckily, letting people down was not a part of my DNA.
"I'm glad I was part of something that helped pave the way for others."
Now, as part of Black History Month, the 83-year-old Hall of Famer will be honored for his breakthrough at halftime of the Atlanta Hawks-Miami Heat game on Sunday. The former West Virginia State standout along with six other African-Americans will be recognized at all Hawks home games this month.
"I'm blessed to still have my health," said Lloyd, who also became the Detroit Pistons first black coach in 1971. "I know that there are a lot of people who didn't make it to 61 years of age. So for me to be around this long and still get some recognition."
Since Lloyd made history, the NBA has increased its number of black players to 78 percent, according to the league's racial and gender report last year. About 83 percent of the players in the league are people of color.
These days, Lloyd said some of his favorite players to watch are LeBron James and Dwyane Wade of the Heat. He personally met James a couple years ago, but has yet to meet Wade.
"They might be too busy with the game to come and see me," he said with a chuckle. "I've met LeBron before but hopefully if Dwyane slows down for a moment and decides to give me a high five, I'll be sure to return the favor."
Lloyd, who was drafted in the seventh round, was one of three blacks to play in the NBA in 1950. His debut was a couple of days before two other African-Americans who helped integrate the NBA — Chuck Cooper of the Boston Celtics, the first black draftee; and Nat Clifton of the New York Knicks, the first black to sign a league contract.
The 6-foot-5 Lloyd had his best season in 1955, averaging 10.2 points and 7.7 rebounds for Syracuse, which beat Fort Wayne for the NBA title. He and Jim Tucker became the first blacks to play on an NBA championship team.
Lloyd played in more than 560 NBA games in the league and became known for his defensive prowess. In eight seasons, he averaged 8.4 points and 6.4 rebounds.
When Lloyd first appeared in an NBA game, he said he couldn't have imagined the league as it is today. He gives credit not only to himself, but also to Cooper and Clifton for breaking the color barrier.
"The league has come a long way," he said. "I'm happy that Chuck, Nat and myself helped pave the way for others."
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