NBA’s 1st African-American player Earl Lloyd dies at 86

The NBA lost one of the most recognizable pioneers and a Hall of Famer, known as “the Big Cat,” the 6’5″ forward Earl Lloyd - who was one of the first ever African-American to play in the NBA has passed away at the age of 86 on Thursday, NBA announced.

“The NBA family has lost one of its patriarchs. Earl Lloyd, the first African-American to play in an NBA game, was as inspirational as he was understated,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement Friday morning.

“He was known as a modest gentleman who played the game with skill, class, and pride. His legacy survives in the league he helped integrate, and the entire NBA family will strive to always honor to his memory. Our deepest condolences to the Lloyd family.” Silver added.

You probably don’t remember Earl Lloyd.

Sixty-three years ago today, though, on Halloween in 1950, Lloyd became the first African-American to suit up in the National Basketball Association.

Lloyd wasn't a pioneer like Robinson — he wasn't chosen specifically to break an entrenched color barrier that symbolized, as much as anything in American culture, segregation between whites and blacks in all parts of society. The NBA then was an upstart league. It had only started in 1946 and was barely part of the American sporting or social conscience, far behind sports like baseball, horse racing, and boxing. And unlike Robinson, Lloyd wasn't alone. He was one of four black players who played in the NBA that season. It was only because his Washington Capitals started the season before the Boston Celtics and New York Knicks, who had drafted Chuck Cooper and Nat Clifton, respectively, that Lloyd earned the “first” moniker.

Black players in the 1960s believed the NBA had an unspoken and unofficial quota system that limited how many black players could appear on a single roster, but over the decade that followed Lloyd’s debut, black players became not just commonplace but the NBA’s biggest stars. Bill Russell debuted for the Celtics in 1956 and turned into the NBA’s first black superstar. A decade later, in the midst of the Celtics’ era of dominance, he became the NBA’s first black coach. Wilt Chamberlain entered the league in 1959. Oscar Robertson in 1960.

Lloyd suited up for the Washington Capitols on Oct. 31, 1950, the first of three African-American to play in the NBA in 1950-51.

Lloyd went on to play 10 seasons in the league, finishing with 4,682 points and 3,609 rebounds. Lloyd retired in 1960, after serving in the U.S. army, playing for the Detroit Pistons and winning the 1955 NBA championship for the Syracuse Nationals. He was also the NBA’s first black assistant coach in 1968 and was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2003.

Rest in Paradise Mister Lloyd, you will never be forgotten.