First African American to Play Basketball

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Intriguingly, the National Basketball Association (NBA) initially had no African American players. However, currently, NBA has almost 75 percent, black players. Earl Lloyd was the first black man to play basketball in the NBA. Lloyd and three other African American men entered the league in 1950 . Conversely, because Lloyd signed the contract and played the first game before the other two players, he is credited for breaking the colour barriers of the league.

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Lloyd Biography

Lloyd success in the basketball game both as a coach and player, paved the way for other African American generations when he became the first African American to play in the NBA. Lloyd was born in Alexandria, Virginia, on April 3 1928, to Daisy Lloyd and Theodore Lloyd . His father was employed in a coal yard, and the mother was a housewife. As a star in high school basketball, Lloyd was played in the All-State Virginia Interscholastic Conference two times and the All-South Atlantic Conference three times . Although Lloyd went to school in segregated schools, he acknowledges his teachers and family with providing him with support as well as playing an important part in his later success.

??? Lloyd finished high school in the year 1946 and got a scholarship to a college in West Virginia. He led his team (Yellow Jackets) to two Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) championship in the 1948-49 season. He was nicknamed the Moon Fixer by his teammates due to his size. Lloyd was a good defensive player and his skills allowed other players to take many scoring plays . On October 31, 1950, Washington drafted him into the National Basketball Association after he graduated from college. His first game was against Rochester Royals making him the first black man to play in the league

Interestingly, Lloyd became one of the four African Americans drafted into professional teams in 1950. His Debut in the Halloween night became the first to break the race barrier in basketball . As a result of scheduling, Lloyd played before Chuck Cooper who joined Boston Celtics, and Nat Sweetwater Clifton who joined New York Knicks.

After playing seven games, Lloyd joined the army to fight in the Korean War. However, he returned in 1952 and joined Syracuse Nationals. The Capitols split in 1951 . Lloyd played almost six seasons with Syracuse Nationals, and together with Jim Tucker his teammate led their team to championships in 1955. The two players became the first blacks to play on a championship team in the NBA. Even so, racial discrimination negatively impacted Lloyd and other African American players in the sports. Lloyd was once refused dining room service in a hotel and got spit at by a basketball fan in Indiana . However, racial discrimination and mistreatment of blacks made him play even harder. He knew that hecklers shouted insults because he played well.

Lloyd relocated to Detroit in 1958. Here, he played with the Pistons in two seasons before he retired. He later returned to basketball around 1968, becoming the first black assistant coach in the league. In 1971, he got the head coach position, making him the second black head coach in the history of NBA .

After retiring from basketball, he worked as a job placement administrator in the Detroit system of public school in the 1970s and 80s. While working in his new job, he ran several programs that trained and taught job skills to poor children. In the 1990s, Lloyd served as a director of Bing Group’s community relations, a manufacturing organization in Detroit held by Dave Bing, a former player in the NBA. Lloyd was finally inducted in the CIAA, Virginia Sports and national Basket Hall of Fame in 1998, 1993 and 2002 respectively. In 2002, Lloyd received a Pioneer Award from NBA. Lloyd many awards for his accomplishments and bravery in breaking racial barriers in the society and sports. He retired in 1999 from Bing Group and relocated to Tennesse with Charlita, his wife . Nonetheless, he remained a big fan of jazz and basketball until he died.

How Earl Lloyd joined the NBA

Initially, NBA was called Basketball Association of America when it started around 1946 . The people who founded the league were arenas’ owners. They wanted a basketball to fill their arenas. Around the 1940s, baseball, college basketball and boxing were more popular than professional basketball. More than a hundred and fifty players in eleven teams played the first season, but there were no African Americans. This trend continued for three seasons. It was, however, unsurprising because back then America was segregated . African American people were restricted from going to public places, same schools and hold jobs that were reserved for white people.

Even though African American men did not play in the National Basketball Association league, they played basketball. Many of them played in small professional and semi-professional leagues that were scattered around the nation. The best players played on great teams dominated by blacks like the Rens (New York Renaissance) as well as the Harlem Globetrotters.

The Globetrotters and Rens had talented players. In Chicago 1939, the New York Renaissance won what came to be the first World Professional Basketball Tournament. The following year, the Globetrotters won the same tournament. The two teams travelled around the nation beating many teams including Minneapolis Lakers an NBA champion team. They easily defeated other teams and began using tricks shots and passes when the game was almost over to entertain the fans. The Globetrotters became so popular that owners of the NBA held two games or doubleheaders on one night. Two teams from the NBA played first, and then the Globetrotters usually played second in a featured game. The owners earned a lot from the games played by the Globetrotters . These owners never wanted to make the owner of Globetrotters Abe Saperstein mad by signing African American players who may play for his team.

Finally, New York Knicks’ owner expressed a desire to hire Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton of Globetrotter to a contract in the NBA. Initially, other owners objected, but they later changed their minds in 1950 when the New York Knicks wanted to leave NBA. In the same years, Boston Celtics signed Chuck Cooper and the Capitols signed Earl Lloyd. After a long time, African American were finally playing in the NBA. Cooper, Lloyd and Clifton went kick-started their careers in the NBA. Clifton even played in the All-Star game in 1957 . However, the three players faced a lot of prejudices common in that time, but their contributions paved the way for players like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Michael Jordan and other talented African American players.

Contributions of Cooper, Tucker, Clifton and Barksdale

As mentioned earlier, an unofficial census of the NBA players conducted in 2013 shows that 72.2 percent of all players in the league are African American. The league broke its race barrier four years after it was inaugurated. NBA decided to follow other major sports like baseball. Before legends like Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson emerged, there were others who possessed the bravery to join the league and pave the way for others . These brave made a long-lasting impression on basketball, via their unwavering character strength and determination. They altered the cultural landscape of basketball forever. Lloyd, Cooper, Tucker, Barksdale and Clifton may not be as talented as Russel, Big O and Wilt, but their lasting and positive contributions cannot be ignored. They faced challenges along the journey, but their perseverance and courage kept them going.

Chuck Cooper

Although Lloyd is the first black to play in the NBA league, history would not have unfolded the way it did if the Boston Celtics did not sign Cooper in the 1950’s second round of the draft. After graduating from Westinghouse High School Cooper was admitted to the West Virginia State before joining the Navy in the first semester . He later went to Duquesne University in 1945 immediately after the Second World War ended. Cooper studied business but after five years Red Auerbach, Celtics coach decided to hire him in the same years’ draft. Cooper’s military training and experience gave him the bravery to step in the NBA court in a politically charged environment. He only played six seasons averaging 5.9 rebounds and 6.6 points per game in his basketball career. After Cooper left the league, he concentrated on his education and in 1960 he got a masters in social work from the University of Minnesota. He, however, continued to support young players . At the age of 57, he succumbed to liver cancer.

Nathaniel Sweetwater Clifton

After Earl Lloyd played his first game, four days later, Clifton also made his debut. He was drafted by the New York Knicks and but his journey to the NBA league was somewhat different. Clifton was nicknamed “Sweetwater” because he loved soft drinks when he was young. He joined Xavier College in Louisiana after serving the in the Army during the Second World War. After the war, he was drafted by the New York Renaissance but only stayed with the team for two years. Later he was drafted by Harlem Globetrotters, and after moving around, he settled for the Knicks in 1950. By then, he was twenty-seven years old. Like Cooper, his time in the NBA was short. He left the league after four years, but in his short-lived career, he helped his team make their first appearance in the NBA finals. Clifton was irrepressible and was selected to the All-star game in 1957 as a player in the Pistons . After the end of the season, he retired from basketball and decided to pursue a career in baseball.

Jim Tucker

Tucker made his debut four years after Lloyd NBA debut. Syracuse Nationals selected him out of University. Apparently, Tucker and Cooper went to Duquesne University. He met Lloyd in the team, and the two formed a strong bond that went beyond the hardwood. Lloyd was Tucker’s role model. He would always get advice from Lloyd who used to caution him on what cities to avoid and how to behave himself because many people were looking for the slightest reasons to kick him out . With Lloyd advice, Tucker did not give them any chance.

Like the other mentioned pioneers, Tucker’s career was short-lived. It lasted exactly three years. However, he left a lasting impression in the game. He was the fasted triple-double in the history of NBA. In 1955. He scored twelve points, dished out twelve assists, pulled down ten boards in just seventeen minutes . The record stands even today.

Don Barksdale

Don Barksdale was the most talented player in the Boston Celtics before Bill Russel joined it. Barksdale was on a level of his own. In 1947, when he was at the UCLA in Oakland, Calif, he became the first black to be named an All-American. A year later, he played for Men’s Basketball team for the United States in the Summer Olympics of 1948 in London . The USA ended up beating France sixty-five to win a gold medal. He received these two honors before the integration of the NBA.

Barksdale was talented enough to join the league were it not for the color barrier. He really played a major role in the Olympic victory. After the Olympic, he went back to the AAU in Oakland. After the first wave of black players appeared, the twenty-eight-year-old, joined Baltimore Bullets. He was chosen for the All-Star Game in 1953, averaging 9.2 rebounds and 13.8 points per game. In the same year, Barksdale joined Boston Celtics, and this is how his career got interesting. His teammates described Barksdale as a refreshing man who really loved life. He was not racially biased and respected all his teammates. Barksdale was one of the most talented African American players at the time. He was known for his athleticism. Barksdale died on March 1993, from throat cancer . He died at the age of sixty-nine.


Ultimately, unlike in the period before 1950, currently, it is common for players from the African American community to be seen on the basketball court during the national basketball association games. As a matter of fact, the majority of the players in the NBA league are African American. The league also has executives, managers as well as coaches from the black community. Still, this all started with three men who had the courage, patience and capability to be pioneers. Earl Lloyd, Nathaniel Clifton and Chuck Cooper may not be as talented as Michael Jordan or LeBron James, but their place in the league’s history is secure.

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First African American to Play Basketball. (2019, Dec 31). Retrieved December 10, 2022 , from

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