A friend of mine, a man who spent the early part of his journalism career covering professional basketball, reminded me the other day that Earl Lloyd had died. Lloyd, 86, had been an insightful, articulate source for my friend, who didn’t want Lloyd’s death to go without a proper mention.
In a way, I sensed my friend’s frustration that a man he respected so much hasn’t earned his due from a broader section of American society.
The death of Earl Lloyd should have been more than trivia, as any pioneer’s death should be. The man broke the color barrier in the NBA, and what Lloyd did was as significant to sports and to American history as what a more celebrated barrier-breaker, Jackie Robinson, had done earlier.
In that sense, Lloyd’s death should have gotten the kind of tribute North Carolina coach Dean Smith got when he died last month. For Lloyd, as a player, opened doors for Black athletes as wide as Smith, a white coach, did.
This is not to discount Dean Smith’s contribution. It’s just to say that Smith and other white coaches might not have had the talent they recruited if not for men like Lloyd.
I guess that’s what my friend wanted to tell everybody — or least tell me — that Lloyd was important to our history. He connected Black America to a period when things weren’t what they are today.
How could I have been so disconnected with him then?
His career in the public’s eye bumped into my early years as a sportswriter, and I heard his name often during those years. I never met him.
As I think about it here, no Black man in the early 1980s could cover sports in America without some knowledge, passing as that knowledge might have been for me, of Lloyd. I should remember the date of his first game just as I remember April 15, 1947, the day Robinson broke into the Major Leagues.
I will remember it as I go forward.
For Oct. 31, 1950, Lloyd’s first NBA game, will be one of the seminal days in my life as a writer. I’ll remember the date the way I’ll remember April 15, because transformative events like Robinson’s and Lloyd’s are what helped reshape America.
Now, America has more reshaping to do. I’ll defend that stance against anybody who dares to mention how post-racial the country is. I don’t dance with illusions; I look life into its eyes and try to see all the realities of it.
The reality here is simple: Lloyd gave me and everybody else more than we gave him.
I have a hunch that’s the point my friend, now a professor at Morehouse College, wanted to make. Like me, he’s put his press-box days in mothballs, and he’s spending his time inspiring the next round of Black sports journalists. He doesn’t want them heading into the marketplace with a warped sense of perspective.
And their perspective will be warped if they have no understanding or zero appreciation of what Lloyd did.
Maybe his contribution wasn’t as direct, but each time a Black sportswriter or a Black doctor or a Black engineer or a Black lawyer walks into his place of work, he should thank those men — and those women — who have made the pathway there smoother.
Perhaps that’s the salient message all people of color should take from Lloyd’s death. Today, a generation later, America isn’t what it should be on the racial front. The country finds itself still struggling to bridge its racial divide: Black vs. white vs. Latino.
What kind of progress is that?
Yet to obsess about race tires many people. I see it in their faces and often hear it in their voices. But I also see that their success has made them ambivalent about what and who played roles in that success.
It hasn’t just been the people in their immediate sphere who’ve shaped them; it has been men and women that were tangential to their lives who’ve played a part, too. It has been men like Jack Johnson, Nat Turner, W.E.B. Dubois, Carl T. Rowan, Curt Flood, Madam C.J. Walker, Wilma Rudolph, Jesse Owens, Edward Brooks, Carl B. Stokes, Bobby Seale, Thurgood Marshall and Ralph J. Bunche.
It has been a man like Lloyd as well.
Lloyd felt racism when it was naked, not merely visceral as some people claim it is today. He heard the raw taunts. He saw the white-hot hatred, but he played on.
He played on so that a generation 60-plus years later could play without the open hatred he faced. For that, he deserves to be more than some $2,000 question on Jeopardy! that nobody can answer.
Earl Lloyd deserves, as he is to my old friend, to be our "hero."
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(Photo: AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File)