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Sean Kirst: What would NBA's first black player think of anthem debate?

This is not the first time I wished I could still make the call. For the last few days, as the nation debated and agonized over the question of what defines respect for the national anthem and the flag, as the president said the issue threatens the future of the National Football League, I kept thinking of the powerful stories, easy laugh and intense presence of Earl Lloyd.

Earl was a friend, which placed me in a group of thousands. When he died more than two years ago at his Tennessee home, his widow Charlita – known by everyone as Charlie – remarked with gratitude and wonder at the number of people from all walks of life, from elderly neighbors to basketball immortals to college students he once mentored, who described Earl not simply as a friend, but a best friend.

That was his gift, said Charlie, the one who truly held that mantle.

A new documentary about Earl's life, "The First to Do It," will soon be released, a reminder of an astounding achievement that's too often overlooked: In October 1950, with the now-defunct Washington Capitols, Earl became the first African-American to set foot on the court during a National Basketball Association game.

Contemplate today's NBA, and think of what that means. Many of Earl's greatest moments occurred upstate: He played his first game not far from here, in Rochester, when the Capitols took on the old Royals. After that Washington club disbanded, he was signed by the old Nationals of Syracuse.

In 1955, with teammate Jim Tucker, he became one of the first two African-Americans to earn an NBA title when the Nats won it all. He later served as the league's first black assistant coach, adding to a string of accomplishments that lifted him into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

I met him in the 1990s, when I was a young writer. Those early interviews triggered a friendship, and the friendship generated countless hours of conversation. Often, amid moments of racial tension in the nation, I'd call just to hear his precise and thoughtful take. Sometimes it was for a column. Sometimes, I simply listened.

Certainly, right now - after many players took a knee during the anthem before last Sunday's NFL games, in response to a president who said it should cost them their jobs - I miss the days when he would pick up the phone.

Those years of conversations led to a book, "Moonfixer," a title based on Earl's college nickname, a narrative offered through his voice. In the final months before publication he winnowed it down, removing a lot of musings about greatest players and greatest teams, because his goal was not really a basketball book.

What he wanted was an honest testament to his life in America.

He was born in 1927 in Alexandria, Va., a place he described as a "cradle of segregation." The nation, at the time, was only 62 years beyond slavery and the Civil War.

Earl grew up conscious of the fear of lynching. He attended a crumbling all-black high school with old textbooks and no decent athletic fields – but with extraordinary teachers. Those educators went far beyond everyday obligations to help him. He always described them as his heroes.

In college, he played on an unbeaten basketball team in his sophomore season at all-black West Virginia State, a team informally ranked that year as the national black intercollegiate champions, yet a team barred from the major "white" tournaments.

He remembered one road trip when his coach told a bus driver the players ought to sit in the front of the bus — and the driver responded by reaching toward a gun.

Earl laughed in disbelief when he told the story.

But he knew the driver was prepared to use the weapon.

To his eternal wonder, at a time when the NBA was all-white, the Boston Celtics selected Chuck Cooper in the second round of the 1950 college draft – and seven rounds later, Earl was drafted by the Capitols. He made the squad, but it was not easy. There were times in his career when he was not allowed to sleep, eat or travel with the rest of the team.

He used to recall how Coach Horace "Bones" McKinney once showed up with a meal at the door of his room, upset at the idea of Earl eating alone.

Such moments of kindness, of unexpected kinship, allowed him to be fiercely realistic without growing embittered. He put his fragile basketball career at risk to serve his nation in a segregated Army. He was never sent overseas, but he knew young men who died in all-black units in Korea.

He returned to play on the road in cities like St. Louis and Fort Wayne, where he heard some of the worst names — shouted from the bleachers — that one human being can call another.

The 1954-55 Syracuse Nationals, National Basketball Association champions; Earl Lloyd is in back row, second from right. (Courtesy of Le Moyne College)

All those factors shaped Earl Lloyd, keen observer of the American condition. He never forgot any act of quiet courage or support on his behalf, and he was revered by Oscar Robertson and Bill Russell and Dave Bing and other African-American legends who saw him as a mentor once they arrived in the NBA.

Earl felt lucky about the chances that came his way, and he spoke often of all those who came before him, people of great talent whose dreams were crushed by segregation. In his 80s, he celebrated decades of progress, but he'd also ask a simple question, with deep sadness:

If you could hand all Americans a magic wand, and tell them they had the secret ability to return the nation to the way it was in the 1940s – to a time of legal separation, of Jim Crow – how many people, he'd sometimes wonder, would say yes?

I think, when Earl considered his experience, he found a litany of contradictions. Certainly, he saw revelation and possibility, the building blocks of the American experiment. Yet he had also seen, throughout his years, too many lives of potential brought to dust.

His concern, always, was for struggling young people and children. He believed in the system: I remember him speaking to a group of college players, most of them African-American, and imploring them to vote, telling them the privilege had been earned through the sacrifice of those "who were hung or burned or thrown in lakes …. for you to have that right."

Earl died in 2015, at 86. Charlie is still coming to terms with his absence. The other day, on the phone, she thought it over, then told me she believes he would have quietly supported the young men who took a knee Sunday during the anthem, that he'd always hoped more young athletes would concern themselves with the world beyond the arena.

We also spoke of the reverence he held for what America is meant to represent, of his gift for building bridges where none had stood before, of the warmth and respect he brought to every new acquaintance, of the way so many men and women — often from wildly varied backgrounds — saw themselves as his best friends.

In difficult times, he could make even people from different worlds glad to be in the same room.

In that sense, more than ever, I wish this nation still had Earl.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at or read more of his work in this archive.

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