West Virginia has been associated with many great basketball players throughout the history of the game.
Many went on to the NBA.
Jerry West’s career is so unique, his silhouette serves as the iconic NBA logo.
Hot Rod Hundley was the number one overall pick in the 1957 NBA draft.
Hal Greer earned a spot among the 50 Greatest NBA players at the 50th anniversary, and in reality, belongs in the top half of that list.
For years, a special hero was known by basketball junkies, but high profile accolades were rare.
On Friday, February 28, West Virginia State University celebrated the trailblazing role of Earl Lloyd in grand style, and two NBA legends were there to support their old friend.
Who is Earl Lloyd? Simply stated, he is the “Jackie Robinson of the NBA.” He broke the NBA color barrier on October 31, 1950.
Earl “Big Cat” Lloyd grew up in Alexandria, Virginia and played his high school basketball at Parker-Gray High School. PGHS is known to many because of Denzel Washington’s role as coach Herman Boone in the movie Remember the Titans, which dealt with issues surrounding breaking the race-barrier in high school football.
Arriving at all-black West Virginia State College in 1947, Lloyd was a standout on the 38-0 CIAA National Championship team of 1948.
Lloyd was drafted in the 9th Round of the 1950 NBA draft by the Washington Capitols. He tells the story of learning he had been drafted from a West Virginia State co-ed while walking across campus.
Earl Lloyd was one of three African-Americans (along with Chuck Cooper and Sweetwater Clifton) to be drafted that year, and the schedule resulted in him being the first African-American to play in the NBA. Lloyd’s time with Washington was short-lived, but his play with the Syracuse Nationals (now the Philadelphia 76ers) brought about another first for this quiet trailblazer.
Lloyd’s 1954-55 Syracuse Nationals’ team won the NBA championship, making the Big Cat the first African-American to win an NBA championship. (In game seven of the 1955 finals, Charleston-native and University of Charleston – formerly Morris Harvey College – standout George King hit the game-clinching free throw and followed it with a steal to clinch the championship for the Nationals).
Later Earl Lloyd worked with the Detroit Pistons – as a scout, as the professional game’s first African-American Assistant Coach, and as the NBA’s first African-American Head Coach. Through the Pistons, he coached Hall of Famers Dave Bing and Bob Lanier.
Lloyd is in many halls of fame, including the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts.
Lloyd is revered by his colleagues. The tribute on Friday at West Virginia State included a representative of Wilt Chamberlain’s family, as well as the Harlem Globetrotters.
Also present to support Earl Lloyd on this special day were two of the greatest players to ever grace the hardwood: Oscar Robertson, the only man to ever average a triple-double for a full season, and 11-time NBA champion Bill Russell. Both legends shied from the spotlight, seeking to keep the focus on the special honor bestowed on Earl “Big Cat” Lloyd.
As he took to the podium to make his remarks, Lloyd looked around the room and said “This is what true love looks like.”
I’m his remarks, Lloyd reflected on his life journey, the special place he has in his heart for West Virginia State and the Kanawha Valley, and the trailblazing turns his life has experienced. A soft-spoken, humble man, Lloyd was gracious in describing the love he feels for West Virginia State and the love he felt from the crowd of 300 gathered to honor him in the newly-constructed Walker Convocation Center.
High School basketball across America began to integrate after the landmark U. S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.
Bill Russell entered the NBA in 1956, won his first of 11 NBA titles, and became the professional game’s first African-American superstar.
All-black Texas Western’s upset of all-white Kentucky in the 1966 NCAA national championship shattered race barriers across the country in college basketball.
Before any of that, there was Earl Lloyd.
With dignity and grace, he prepared the way. Today, 78% of the players in the NBA are African-Americans. With that penetration in the league, the unique impact on professional basketball by Earl Lloyd cannot be denied.
And now, his bronze tribute will live in perpetuity on the campus of West Virginia State University.
by Andy Richardson
(all photos by the author)