Three years after Jackie Robinson famously broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, a 21-year-old from Alexandria, Virginia, became the first African-American to play in the NBA.
Now, several current NBA stars including Carmelo Anthony of the New York Knicks and Tony Parker of the San Antonio Spurs have paid homage to the hardwood pioneer in a new documentary, “The First to Do It: The Life & Times of Earl Lloyd.”
Lloyd, who was born in Jim Crow-era Virginia in 1928 to a father who worked in the coal industry and a stay-at-home mother, was drafted in the ninth round of the 1950 NBA Draft by the Washington Capitols.
Known as “The Big Cat,” Lloyd debuted on Oct. 31 and scored six points. He would go on to play nine seasons in the NBA with Washington, Syracuse and Detroit where he averaged more than eight points and 6 rebounds.
Throughout the spring, private screenings of the film are scheduled in Detroit, where Lloyd played and later coached; West Virginia, where Lloyd attended college; Alexandria, Virginia, where he was born; and D.C. and New York.
It’s anticipated the film will receive wide release in theaters in April or May, a spokesperson said.
“It is important to make this type of film because it’s imperative to know the history of our pioneers, those who pushed the needle forward for us,” said Coodie Simmons, one of the film’s directors. “If we don’t tell their stories, who else will care enough to tell them? It’s our responsibility as storytellers.”
The documentary was also screened Feb. 16 in New Orleans during NBA All-Star Weekend.
Directed by Simmons and Chike Ozah, and produced by Arka Sengupta, the film boasts an executive producer list that includes Anthony, Parker and teammate Kawhi Leonard, and retired All-Star Michael Finley.
On Oct. 31, 1950, Lloyd stepped onto the court with the Washington Capitols and became the first African-American to play in the NBA. He went on to become the first African-American to win a NBA championship with the Syracuse Nationals, and the first African-American head coach in the NBA for the Detroit Pistons.
Lloyd, who died in 2015 at the age of 86, was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2003.
When asked what was his most important achievement in basketball, he replied, “Getting there.”
The film recounts Lloyd’s journey, from growing up in deeply segregated Alexandria, Virginia, to witnessing the first black president of the United States.
The film also tells the story of how the modern game was formed, from the dominance of the Harlem Globetrotters to the introduction of the 24-second clock.
Additionally, it examines the legacy of desegregation in America and the ongoing role basketball has played in its inner cities.
“The story of Earl Lloyd needed to be told, in a way that would reach today’s young generation of basketball fans,” said Sherrie Deans, executive director of the NBPA Foundation, which producers said provided a substantial grant for the making of the film.
“He is one of the founding fathers of what the NBA has become today, paving the way and setting an example for athletes both on- and off-court. His legacy isn’t just a part of black history, it is a part of American history, and we are proud to be involved in this film.”
It is important to learn from Lloyd, who represented a model citizen and lived a life worth dissecting, Ozah said.
“His journey alone tells us about our progress or lack thereof in America, which is relevant now more than ever,” he said. “Earl’s story should never be forgotten simply because of his contributions, not just as a basketball player but as a human being whose life touched so many others. Earl Lloyd planted a seed that grew into the type of tree that a lot of people can continue to eat from.”