Black Basketball Pioneer Remembers A Barrier Broken
LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
Luck is the residue of design - words of wisdom from Branch Rickey, the legendary manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers who signed Jackie Robinson and shattered the racial barrier in Major League Baseball. Basketball player Earl Lloyd would probably say his destiny was determined by a fluke of the calendar.
On Halloween night 1950, Lloyd became the first African-American to take part in an NBA game. The six-foot-six power forward was a ninth draft pick for the then-Washington Capitals. Three other black players were also drafted into the league that season, but their games were scheduled later.
Earl Lloyd was inducted into basketball's Hall of Fame in 2003. He has just published his memoir called "Moonfixer." And Lloyd now joins us from member station WFAE in Charlotte, North Carolina. Welcome to the program, sir.
Mr. EARL LLOYD (Former Basketball Player, Author, "Moonfixer"): Thank you very much.
HANSEN: Basketball is a very different game from baseball and Jackie Robinson was told by Branch Rickey to turn the other cheek even in the face of racial epithets, and there were many. You, however, played a full body contact sport. Were you told to mind your manners too?
Mr. LLOYD: Well, I came later. I mean, Jackie made things a lot easier for me. But what happened, if you think about it, Jackie Robinson played first base. The guy playing left field, he can call him all the names he wants to call him and their paths will never cross. But in pro basketball, you stand on a foul line and some guy who might want to call you a name is less apt to because the proximity is kind of immediate. And there's a little danger involved in calling a guy a name who's standing right next to you.
HANSEN: Right. And you also say you were never really harassed in that way by players; it was more the fans.
Mr. LLOYD: Well, you know, it's amazing. It's like with Jackie Robinson - once he started playing, I mean, he got adopted real quick because, I mean, you know, the guy was a winning athlete. But now the fans, fans kind of tough. But I was prepared.
HANSEN: And the only way to convince the fans is to play hard.
Mr. LLOYD: That's all you can do. You can't jump in the stands and be fighting the fans. So, the only way you can make them pay is that they lose.
HANSEN: West Virginia State, you played with the Yellow Jackets and you were a star there. And you used to have to travel by car because of a decision that was made. And in the car you would listen to the baseball games with Jackie Robinson. Why did you have to travel out of town by car?
Mr. LLOYD: Not really cars. They were like eight-passenger DeSotos, touring cars. We're on a bus, we get on a bus in West Virginia and we travel down, and the minute we got into North Carolina, the bus driver, you know, would say, well, you boys got to sit in the back. Now, I'm not going to get killed, right? My coach, who was a really strong guy - you had to appreciate him - I mean, he took this guy to task. So, we're in the state traveling, we're sitting where we want, and when the coach turned around, his team was almost sitting on the bumper.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. LLOYD: But that told him that that was just what was in store for us, you know. So, we bought the two cars.
HANSEN: Your coach said: I'm not going to have my guys riding any back of any bus. We're going to get there on our own.
Mr. LLOYD: There's a lot to coaching other than Xs and Os. And this guy, my college coach, advertently - or inadvertently - the guy got me ready.
HANSEN: You also spent time as a coach. You broke barriers there as well. I know you had a nanosecond, I guess, coaching the Detroit Pistons. You said coaching is more than just Xs and Os. What did you take away from your experience as a coach?
Mr. LLOYD: Let me give you an example. You know, there are omens that let you know that you might be pursuing the wrong thing here. I started my first full season. Dave Bing, my very, very best player, got a detached retina. He was out for 35 games - and I think we lost 34 of them. That's one of the things. I had a white player, he made a comment that, you know, if you're not black you can't start on this team. And, you know, everybody was just running around screaming and hollering, what are you going to do about him? I said, well, this, to me, that's an in-house problem.
And I called a team meeting and told the young man, look, you owe it to me, you owe it to yourself and you owe it to your teammates to clarify that statement you made. I was misquoted. I said, man, Ray Charles could read that and not misquote you. I mean, it was so obvious, you know? But there was always something you had to deal with.
HANSEN: Yeah. And I have to mention when you were in the NBA in the '50s, you always carried a copy of DownBeat magazine with you.
Mr. LLOYD: That's right.
HANSEN: 'Cause you wanted to know, you know, what jazz artists were playing in the city when your team was out of town. When you played the Knicks, for example, you went to Birdland. But I'm interested in the music. Did the music -did you turn to the music in times of trouble?
Mr. LLOYD: Not really. I just - I was a jazz lover. Don't ask me how I come by being a jazz lover and finished high school in 1946. Everybody else was listening to singing groups, you know. And I just, I mean, you know, Dexter Gordon and Miles Davis and Yusef Lateef and Jimmy Smith, you know. I just took a liking, you know. And in a sense it was an escape. I mean, you got to do something. You know, I tried to going to the late movies. And, you know, the late movies, you know, some strange folks in late movies, you know, drunks, you know.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. LLOYD: You're on 42nd Street in New York and you get anything, you know. So, I said I better find me another avenue, you know? But I had a good ride. I had a good ride in professional basketball.
One kid said to me, he said, Mr. Lloyd, we really owe you. And I explained to him, man, you owe me absolutely nothing. I said, whatever kind of career I had, it has served me well, but you do owe some people. And the people you owe are the folks who are going to come behind you. It's incumbent upon each watch when you play your 10, 11 years and you're in your group, when you leave, I truly hope that you've done all you can possibly do to leave it a better place for the folks who come behind you.
HANSEN: That's pro basketball Hall of Famer Earl Lloyd. His memoir, written with Sean Kirst and published by Syracuse University Press, is called "Moonfixer: The Basketball Journey of Earl Lloyd, the first African American to Play with the NBA." Lloyd joined us from member station WFAE in Charlotte, North Carolina. Thank you so much, Mr. Lloyd.
Mr. LLOYD: It was my pleasure.
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