This is a guest post written exclusively for The Black Fives Blog by Ron Thomas
Sports history, like competition itself, is often a game of inches. So if speedy point guard Harold Hunter had been a few inches taller, then his coach, Basketball Hall of Fame member John McLendon, might not have found an excuse to make him the first black player to sign an NBA contract.
Halloween Night is the 57th anniversary of Earl Lloyd becoming the first African American to play in an NBA game. Lloyd debuted on Oct. 31, 1950 with the Washington Capitols against the Rochester (New York) Royals. More than ghosts and goblins appeared that Halloween. In Lloyd, a two-time All-American power forward who had led all-black West Virginia State College to two CIAA Conference Championships, appeared the beginning of the future of pro basketball.
Lloyd could have been the first black player to sign an NBA contract except that six months earlier, McLendon suddenly thought up a reason to make Hunter the groundbreaker. It doesn’t matter that Hunter later was cut in training camp.
McLendon was an outstanding coach at North Carolina College (now N.C. Central) when he drove Hunter and Lloyd to a secret tryout a few weeks before the 1950 NBA Draft. For the previous four seasons, NBA owners had secretly banned black players. But McLendon and other coaches at historically black colleges had been urging NBA teams to sign African Americans, and the cash-poor Capitols were in a listening mood.
Hunter and Lloyd were already local attractions because they had starred in the CIAA Tournament that was played in the Capitols’ own Uline Arena, particularly Lloyd who was from nearby Alexandria, Va. After they played extremely well in workouts against established Capitols’ players, history soon would be made. Caps officials invited McLendon, his assistant coach LeRoy T. Walker, Hunter, and Lloyd upstairs to the team offices. The players were offered contracts, and McLendon wanted his own star to sign first.
“I decided I should get something out of this,” McLendon said. “Harold was 5-11, Earl was 6-6, so I said, ‘Harold, you sign first because you’re the shortest.’” The salary was $4,000 per year. “Teachers were starting at $1,000 or $800 a year, so $4,000 was a heck of a salary for me,” Hunter said. Not so today, when the NBA rookie minimum is over one hundred times that, at $427,163.
The Capitols couldn’t officially claim Hunter and Lloyd, yet. They had to wait until they drafted the players on April 25, 1950, which is why Hunter’s contract is dated that day. The much better known Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton often is credited with being the first black player to sign with an NBA team, but the New York Knickerbockers didn’t purchase his contract until May 3, 1950.
Back then, black players with pro ambition were limited to virtually one suitor – Abe Saperstien’s Harlem Globetrotters – so the idea of being an NBA player was “almost foreign,” Hunter said. “It was like getting a black astronaut out of a P.E. [physical education] class and saying you’re going to the moon.”
Lloyd later played with the Syracuse Nationals, with whom he won an NBA Championship in 1955, before retiring with the Detroit Pistons. Lloyd was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2003. He now lives in West Virginia.
Ron Thomas, who covered the NBA for eleven years as a sports journalist, is Director, Journalism and Sports Program at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Ga., and the author of They Cleared The Lane: The NBA’s Black Pioneers (University of Nebraska Press, 2002).
Photo: Above, courtesy of West Virginia State College; below, courtesy of Morehouse College.