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November 1, 2010

For one, meeting this legend a humbling experience

Basketball team, Coach Sutton host Celebrating 60 with Earl Lloyd

By: Kate Nicewicz, age 23, TTU Sports Information

COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – My footsteps echoed through the concourse level of the Hooper Eblen Center Sunday afternoon. The floor seemed all but deserted, save a few stray walkers here and there. There was no fanfare of greeting, no crowd of onlookers as I stepped on to the elevator. I pressed the number four and started up to the basketball suites, wondering if I would encounter a similar scene.

I stepped off of the elevator to a small crowd of people – signed my name in the guest book and began the inevitable mingling. I smiled and shook hands with countless people – including Bryan Poore, head basketball coach at West Virginia State – but couldn't keep my eyes from constantly scanning the crowd for the guest of honor.

The irony was that I wasn't quite sure that I would recognize Earl Lloyd when I saw him. It troubles me slightly to admit that – despite being an avid, lifelong fan of the game of basketball – prior to the planning of what would inevitably prove to be one of the most memorable events of my life, I had little knowledge of Earl Lloyd and his accomplishments.

An influx of pictures had found their way into my inbox over the past few weeks, those that had captured timeless moments in Lloyd's life, and as guests flooded off the elevator, I continued to scrutinize the crowd for the face I had seen in all of those photos.

Once again, the lack of commotion was significant as a tall man emerged from a conference room and made his way into the Eagle's Nest. I immediately wondered why I had questioned my ability to recognize the man that we had all gathered to honor. I'll reiterate – there was no fanfare to indicate his appearance – and yet Earl Lloyd brought with him a presence that was nearly tactile.

He glanced at me a few times – I'm afraid because I may have been staring – as he greeted guests with hugs, handshakes and kind words. I knew immediately that I was about to have an opportunity to celebrate a true basketball legend. A man who had shouldered hardships and hatred to showcase his passion for the game. A man who preceded the "royalty" of today – Kobe, Carmelo, Shaq, LeBron, even Jordan and his class of players.

The common denominator between Mr. Lloyd and those aforementioned players is the reason for our celebration, and a fact that is little known to many who consider themselves experts and historians on the game of basketball. Today, basketball is accepted without question as an interracial game – with some of the greats being African-American.

History is comprised of and based on firsts. Black history, even more so. Which is why it is borderline inconceivable that so few people know Earl Lloyd as the first African-American to play in an NBA basketball game. So few people are aware of the impact that Lloyd has had on this worldly game, let alone on the human race in general.

October 31, 2010 marked 60 years since Lloyd first set foot on a basketball court during an NBA game. Since that day back in 1950, Lloyd remained as a player in the league for nine seasons – beginning his career with the Washington Capitols, winning a championship with the Syracuse Nationals in 1955, and closing out his playing days with the Detroit Pistons. He continued his involvement in becoming the first African-American coach in the NBA, acting as an assistant coach and a bench coach for the Pistons.

As I stood in the back of the room, I was almost impatient with excitement for who I was about to hear speak. I won't hesitate to admit that I was somewhat star-struck staring up at the head table. Seated there, with University President Dr. Bob Bell, Dr. Robert Owens, Coach Mike Sutton (pictured above) and Coach Poore were NBA Hall-of-Famers Bob Lanier and Earl Lloyd himself. Thinking back, I'm proud of the awe that I was in – too few people have expressed the feeling of being truly impressed by these men.

Listening to Dr. Bell and Dr. Owens speak made me seriously proud to be a part of the Tennessee Tech community. Sincerity radiated throughout the room as they spoke of the privilege that we all had to be able to celebrate Lloyd.

Bob Lanier stood to speak. An imposing man to say the least, Lanier is still openly humble in stature, for what reason I can't conclude. The man was an All-American at St. Bonaventure and a No. 1 NBA Draft pick by the Detroit Pistons. While some may have questioned his place in the 1970 draft – as he signed his contract from a hospital bed, nursing a knee injury – Lanier went on to average a 20-10 double-double over the course of his career with Detroit, going up against Chamberlain, Kareem and the likes. He made eight all-star game appearances, earning the 1974 MVP award. As if that's not enough, Lanier currently works as Special Assistant to NBA Commissioner David Stern. I must have looked star-struck, as I have no poker face to speak of and was running through the "six degrees of separation" scenario in my head, thinking how much closer I'd be to some basketball greats after I shook this man's hand.

Lloyd had acted as Lanier's coach at Detroit, where the two men established a lasting friendship enhanced by their physical resemblance to one another. While Lanier is humbled by his own accomplishments, it was obvious that he was anything but humble in talking about Lloyd. The affection and gratitude was catching, and all things said about the quiet groundbreaker being honored captivated me.

Lanier passed the mic on to West Virginia State head coach Bryan Poore – the man who has the privilege of coaching at Lloyd's alma mater. That's not to say that the privilege hasn't been earned – Poore has coached five championship teams in 11 years with the Yellowjackets. The generation gap is undeniable yet insignificant, as Poore detailed his friendship with Mr. Lloyd, and his passion for coaching at West Virginia State.

Speeches are moving, when speakers exude passion for what they are speaking about. But what came next took the event to a new level in my eyes, as I watched Earl Lloyd enjoy a video tribute in his honor.

The sound of Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World" filled the room and I watched Lloyd watch himself on the flat screen – moments enshrined via photograph of his time with the Capitols, the Nats, the Pistons… on the sidelines coaching, newspaper clippings, the works. I saw emotions springing from past memories, of both his playing and coaching days as well as pictures of him playing with puzzles, motorcycles and shoveling snow, and knew for sure that Mr. Lloyd was truly and sincerely grateful and thankful for what we all had done to recognize him. I was at my proudest moment thus far to be a part of the celebration.

The men's basketball program also presented Lloyd with a framed poster comprised of different black and white photos, and with a retired no. 22 jersey, Lloyd's favorite number. Coach Sutton announced that for as long as he continues to coach at Tennessee Tech, that the jersey would maintain retired status.

Finally, to a packed house and an impressive standing ovation, Earl Lloyd stood to speak. Thinking to myself 'what is the proper response to being recognized for some of the greatest accomplishments in sports history?' I was unsure of what to expect. Mr. Lloyd, however, looked upon the room with such appreciation that he hardly needed to say much of anything.

Speak he did though, once again captivating me and, I'd hazard a guess, everyone else in the room. With a charming balance of humor and earnestness, and with a permanent smile in place, Lloyd told stories of his life as he grew to become a basketball legend. He and Coach Poore shared a look of understanding as Lloyd referred to West Virginia State as a "magical place." I didn't doubt it for a moment, honestly believing that Lloyd had brought some of that magic to the Hoop on Sunday.

He laughed about times when he was mistaken for Bob Lanier, joking that whenever someone mistook him for Lanier, he was sure to leave a good tip, so as to preserve Lanier's reputation.

He opened the floor for questions, willing as always to share his spotlight with those around him, encouraging people to question him about things that they've always wanted to know, but never had the opportunity to ask. He joked about his favorite sport growing up being baseball, and some of the time that he spent on the diamond.

He thanked Coach Sutton, Dr. Owens, President Bell and the rest of Tennessee Tech for the hospitality and gratitude displayed that afternoon, asking only that no one "offer him any jobs," following the day. "I am VERY retired," he said with a laugh. He spoke of how much he and his wife, Charlita, enjoy being close with the TTU community. After all of that, he flashed a grin and stepped down, ready to greet anyone and everyone who had come to celebrate with him.

As guests rose to salute Lloyd once again and mingle with one another, I snuck through the crowd to the front of the room. First order of business: congratulate Coach Sutton. Having shown himself the ultimate emcee and point-person for this celebration, it was only fitting that he be proud of co-hosting the Celebrating 60 event. Coach Sutton spent countless hours reaching out to media representatives and notable guests, fielding RSVP's from Woody Paige and Ben Jobe, Larry Brown and Roy Williams, among others, and deserved more credit than he was given for the ceremony.

After speaking with Coach, I – almost literally – ran into Bob Lanier. He looked down on me, as I  stuck my hand out - silently thanking my father for instilling the importance of a strong  handshake in my head growing up - introduced myself and asked if he would mind if I took a picture with him. "Of course not," he replied, and an NBA Hall-of-Famer put his arm around me and smiled.

My moment captured with a legend, Mr. Earl Lloyd

 I made my way over to the front corner of the room, where Mr. Lloyd was greeting guests. As I waited my turn, I tried to figure out what I would say to a man who had earned so much of my respect in such a short time. When he looked at me, I stepped forward, hand extended, and said, "Mr. Lloyd, I'd just like to shake your hand – it would be a privilege."

Not only did he oblige me the handshake – again, the "six degrees of separation" in the back of my mind – but also stood for multiple pictures, for which I had no problem holding my smile. Then someone thrust MoonFixer, Lloyd's biography, across the table in my direction, and I asked Lloyd if he would autograph it for me. I shook his hand one more time and, with my new book under my arm, walked away, thoroughly appreciating how lucky I was to have been a part of this event.

In 2010, it's often easy to forget that the culture that we appreciate today was literally built on other people's trials, tribulations and accomplishments. For 60 years, Earl Lloyd has quietly gone on his walk of life – having become the first African-American to play in the NBA, and following that up with serving our nation as a member of the armed forces. He graciously accepts credit where it is due, but strives to share it with those surrounding him as well. Thousands have followed in Lloyd's wake, many not realizing that they're doing so. On Sunday, in a momentous experience that I can only hope to recount to others to the best of my ability, Lloyd was deservingly recognized for the standard that he has set for his race – the human race – as both an athlete and as a man, and Tennessee Tech will proudly be known as an institution that is fortunate enough to have been "Celebrating 60 with Earl Lloyd."

Comments on Earl Lloyd:

"Earl Lloyd is in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, but I say he is in a bigger Hall of Fame - Life's. His dignity and character put him at the highest level of the human race, and we plan on letting people know who he is and what he accomplished. His lifetime reflects a part of the growth of America and his poise, dignity and commitment to serve and care about others are a testimony to his character and spirit. Earl Lloyd has promoted education as a key for success and with this event we hope to educate the world about a true American success story." - Mike Sutton, Tennessee Tech

"What a wonderful celebration to honor Earl Lloyd... no one deserves this more. He is such a tremendous human being, and we admire him so very much. We know that it will be a spectacular event." - Bill Sharman, Former NBA player and coach

"Thank you for the invitation to honor Earl Lloyd. Unfortunately, we have started our NBA season and I will be unable to attend. Earl is a great person. He paved the way for all who have followed. I hope you have a great day in his honor. He certainly deserves it." - Larry Brown, Charlotte Bobcats

"Thank you for the invitation, albeit a bit late for me, since I will be in London for an NFL game. I share in your love and respect for Earl, not only because I'm a native Tennessean who has covered both the ABA and the NBA for almost 40 years, but mainly because Coach/Mr. Lloyd has been an incredible credit to his race - the human race. I'm sure it will be a great tribute and event. Good luck with it, and thank you for thinking of me." - Woody Paige, ESPN's Around the Horn