On October 31, 1950, 21-year-old Earl Lloyd becomes the first African-American to play in an NBA game when he takes the court in the season opener for the Washington Capitols.
Lloyd grew up in Jim Crow Virginia and went to West Virginia State, where he was the star of the school’s championship basketball team. He didn’t know he’d been drafted by the NBA until he ran into a friend on campus who told him she’d heard a rumor that he’d be moving to Washington. It turned out that the Capitols had picked him in the ninth round of the draft. Two other black players joined the NBA that season—the Celtics drafted Chuck Cooper in the second round and the New York Knicks got Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton from the Harlem Globetrotters—but the Knicks and the Celts didn’t start their seasons until November. As a result, Lloyd became a coincidental pioneer: the first black player to make his debut in the NBA.
Joining an all-white team was intimidating, Lloyd remembered, but his teammates—most of whom had played on integrated college teams—were immediately welcoming. Some fans, however, were less kind. As the announcer read the Capitols’ lineup on that first night of the season, a white man in the front row asked: “Do you think this nigger can play any basketball?” Lloyd’s mother, who was sitting just behind the man, leaned forward and told him not to worry: “The nigger,” she said, “can play.”
After seven games with the Capitols, Lloyd was drafted into the military and sent to Korea for two years. When he returned to the United States, the Capitols had gone out of business, and so he went to play for the Syracuse Nationals (who later became the Philadelphia 76ers). He wrapped up his nine-season career in Detroit. After he retired from playing, he stayed in the Motor City, serving as a scout and then as an assistant coach for the Pistons. In 1970, he became the first full-time black head coach in the league. He coached the Detroit team for a year, and then went on to work for the city, in the police department and as a school administrator. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2003.