I just concluded reading “Moonfixer: The Basketball Journey of Earl Lloyd.” His autobiography was released in November 2009.
The narrative highlights Lloyd’s long journey from a segregated childhood in Jim Crow America, his 42 years in Detroit, to his being selected to the NBA Hall of Fame in 2002.
I’ve read many sports books about people like Jim Brown, Bill Russell, Dr Leroy Walker, Spencer Haywood, John McLendon and Willie Horton, to name a few. However, Lloyd’s narrative was especially interesting in its presentation of how he negotiated the negative, segregated times he grew up in.
“This is not just a sports book,” Lloyd told me. “It is a book about the human spirit. If you are not dreaming about the possibilities, you could miss the message.”
Lloyd, an All-American at West Virginia State, is a true pioneer in American sports lore, even though he did not lead the league in scoring or rebounding during his tenure in the NBA. He played for Washington Capitols, Syracuse Nationals and Detroit Pistons. What he did do was become an ultimate teammate, superior defender and an impressive character guy.
I suppose those aforementioned things are just a few of the reasons Lloyd has produced a résumé that has a number of noteworthy firsts attached to it. Like being the first African American to play in an NBA game (1950 with Washington), first Black player to win an NBA title (1955 with the Syracuse), first Black assistant coach in NBA (1968 with the Pistons), and the NBA’s first Black bench coach (1971 with Pistons).
Lloyd, who was born in 1928 in Alexandria, Virginia, explained in his book many of the realities of his living there: “My parents never had it easy. To be Black in Alexandra in the 1920s, ’30s or ’40s meant that you were treated like you were subhuman. At my high school we had no facilities. One coach coached every sport and we did not even have a bus to take us to games. We rode in the back of friends’ trucks.”
“That’s why when I hear our young people use the N word it makes me cringe,” Lloyd told me, “because I’ve seen it used in the worst way, by experts. It is like seeing the Confederate flag being flown over American cities. The fact of the matter is millions of families have been brutalized and torn apart under that flag and what it represented to the ruling gentry.”
Lloyd said his time in Syracuse was not wrought with overwhelming negative racial experiences because all knew their place. When he got to Detroit in 1958 it all seemed to “crystallize” for him. “Sure, Detroit had its restricted areas like ev erywhere in America,” he noted, “but I had never been to a city that had as many Black homeowners and professional people.”
Lloyd wrote in his book that Chuck Cooper, Nathaniel Clifton and he were all drafted in 1950 and broke the racial barrier and helped integrate the NBA. He noted that it was just the luck of the draw that he was the first to suit up for an NBA game. Still he refuses to look at his good fortune as something special he did.
“I’m no Jackie Robinson,” he said. “When he broke in with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1945 it was a hostile situation. He was a renaissance man who played baseball, football and basketball at UCLA. And you know baseball was not his best sport. Add in the fact he was told to turn the other cheek and not fight back. That took something special from that man.
“When I came into professional basketball folks were used to seeing integrated teams at the college level. There was a different mentality because Jackie had already (paved the road).”
Lloyd noted that he had much respect for Dave Bing who played for him, Pistons owner Fred Zollner who hired him and allowed him to hire Ray Scott, making them the first all African-America coaching staff. He also said Dick McGuire was someone he would go to war with.
“He asked me to be his assistant coach in 1960,” Lloyd recalled. “I remember as we were getting ready for the season and I was contemplating retirement, we had to play Philadelphia and Wilt Chamberlain. Man, I looked at him, because I had to check him and that made it that much easier for me to retire and take the assistant coaching position after the game.”
One of the many remembrances I like from the book is Lloyd’s recounting how when he became assistant coach he had to wear a suit and tie.
“We were playing in San Francisco,” he said, “and a fan yelled at me, ‘What’s the matter? Are you injured?’”
This antidote is just a sample of the many things he had to endure.
“In a way I understood,” he said. “I had no predecessors. He could not imagine a black man in a suit actually coaching from the bench. It was just that way.”
Lloyd’s book is about life lessons, the value of education, family and community footprints and the human spirit faced with daunting social challenges. “A challenge will reveal your character,” he said. “How one responds to pressure will show and dictate what your success level will be.”
Leland Stein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.