As an avid basketball fan, I was gassed for a particular late summer night in 2008. The Foxwoods was launching an inaugural weekend in conjunction with the Basketball Hall of Fame to turn the induction ceremony into a weekend event.
Arriving early for the celebratory dinner, I kinda stuck out because I wasn’t quite tall enough to be an ex-ball player. I was approached by an older gentleman who extended his hand and was curious about how I found myself there. I explained I was a fledging journalist and that this was one of my first ventures covering basketball, a sport I loved to watch, and never in such an intimate setting.
He hit me with a warm smile and began to talk, and talk, and talk. All jewels. When I responded to his question of whether I went to college with “yes, Howard U,” the floodgates opened. He obviously played ball, but the stories had very little to do with his exploits on the court. He spoke of his family and growing up in the Washington D.C. area; the fierce competition he faced playing at a historically Black college, his alma mater, West Virginia State University; and the racial climate of America in the ’40s and ’50s and how it related to his professional career.
The more he spoke, the more I pieced things together. This man was Earl Lloyd, a member himself of the Basketball Hall of Fame, who, on Halloween 1950, became the first African-American to play in the National Basketball Association when he took the court with the old Washington Capitols against the Rochester Royals in Rochester, N.Y. Granted in 1950, two other African-Americans had joined the league, Chuck Cooper of the Boston Celtics and Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton of the New York Knicks, but the schedule determined that Lloyd would make the initial impact.
We wrapped the conversation with pleasantries, and he told me not to be intimidated, that the room and the world were as much mine as anybody’s. A few years later, in an NPR interview, Lloyd offered, “One kid said to me, he said, ‘Mr. Lloyd, we really owe you.’ And I explained to him, ‘Man, you owe me absolutely nothing.’ I said, ‘Whatever kind of career I had, it has served me well, but you do owe some people. And the people you owe are the folks who are going to come behind you. It’s incumbent upon each watch—when you play your 10, 11 years and you’re in your group—when you leave, I truly hope that you’ve done all you can possibly do to leave it a better place for the folks who come behind you.’”
Feb. 26, as he passed at the age 83, he knew firsthand that his efforts in the NBA were well worth it. Thanks for that.
Ironically, especially this week, it was at the same function that Patrick Ewing, Pat Riley and Hakeem Olajuwon were all inducted into the Hall of Fame. All three had intimate knowledge of the grit and toughness of Anthony Mason. All their paths crossed at the highest level of competition in the 1993-94 championship finals as the Knicks fell to the Houston Rockets in a tough seven-game series.
En route to finals though, “Big Mase” was one of the integral figures, having defended against Derrick Coleman, Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant and Dale and Antonio Davis of the Indiana Pacers. That was just in the playoffs. No fear, no retreat. Let’s go! That summarizes his tenure while ballin’ in the city. If he wasn’t the heart of the team, he was at least a ventricle. Thanks for the memories and showing the importance of effort. You’ll be missed, Number 14.
Over and out. Holla next week. Till then, enjoy the nightlife.