Earl Lloyd became the first black man to play in the NBA 63 years ago this week. Lloyd was a forward for the Washington Capitols who grew up in Virginia. He didn't break the league's color barrier (the New York Knicks' Wat Masaka, a Japanese-American point guard, beat him to it by a few years), but it was a seminal moment for the league, which is now about 80-percent black.
We wanted to know what he was up to these days, and to our pleasant surprise and delight, the 85-year-old Lloyd happened to be at his home in Tennessee and up to talking for a few minutes.
Walk me through that first game. What was that like for you?
Well, to be honest, it was a walk in the park. I always say that if someone had to handpick a place to play their first game as a black player, it would be Rochester, N.Y. In that part of the country in the wintertime, no one hates anyone. You see black folks and white folks pushing each other's cars through the snow. But the next day we were in St. Louis. That was not a nice place to be in 1950. That was a not a nice place to be. But there was no Klansmen [at that first game] and all that, with signs and ropes. It was too cold for all that.
Do you remember how many points you had?
Six. I took three shots and had six points.
Three for three!
I figured I had a hell of a night.
So you weren't nervous at all as the league's first black player?
I had old coaches and teammates all over, I had my handprints everywhere. Every stop I made, there was some love waiting there for you. It didn't make things right, but it made them easier to deal with. ...
My mother called me one day, and she called me 'Earl Francis.' And when Southern people call you by your first name and your middle name, you know it was something serious. She said, 'are people still calling you [demeaning names]?' I said, 'Yes, ma'am.' And she said, 'Well, make them be quiet.' I said, 'Yes, ma'am!' So I did.
So why was your nickname was "The Big Cat"?
I really don't know where that came from. It just popped up. It made me a little nervous when they called me "Big Cat" because someone was going to slip and call me the "The Big Black Cat."
I want you to think about this. A young black boy born Alexandria, Va. Back then. What kind of prospects do they have? None. Then I got inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Do you remember what you said in your speech?
I just said that there was a lot of people who were responsible for me being there. It was a little different than the one Michael Jordan made. [Ed note: The legendarily vengeful Jordan made a notoriously angry speech when he was inducted into the Hall, in which he rattled off the names of the people who he felt had wronged him.] How can you cut up your teammates and your coaches?
But I remember, the day I stepped onto the West Virginia State campus. It all changed.
We were just down in West Virginia at Bluefield State a couple of weeks ago. They were your rivals, right?
Oh, we played them, but they weren't rivals. Bluefield was always good for ending your losing streaks.
Next month, my school is going to name their court after me.
That's deep, man. It gets no better that, man.
So what did you do after you were done playing?
I went to work for the Dodge division of the Chrysler Corporation for about six or seven years. A friend of mine was the superintendent of schools in Detroit, and so I went there to work in voter education.
Did people there know who you were?
In Detroit? That was my town. See, people treat you differently if they think you think you're special. My parents used to say it only matters if other people think you're special. What you think is only as important as a rat's behind.
[This interview has been condensed and edited.]