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JERRY GREEN

Green: Lloyd was trailblazer whose dignity stood out

Jerry Green

Back then the Pistons had no roots.

They shuffled from arena to arena — from the redbrick Olympia Stadium to Calihan Hall on the campus of the University of Detroit. Then for a playoff game they were shuttled to Grosse Pointe (now South) High School. At last they migrated to a semi-permanent home, in Cobo Arena alongside the Detroit riverfront.

At each game they faked the announced attendance to reduce the embarrassment, hide the apathy in Detroit for the sport of professional basketball.

They went through an array of coaches and general managers without any success in the seasons after their arrival in Detroit in 1957 from Fort Wayne.

During one of those coaching changes, Don Wattrick — a gruff former Detroit sportscaster turned GM — approached Earl Lloyd, an old Pistons player who served faithfully as an assistant coach and scout.

"You'd be the answer to my problem," Wattrick told Lloyd, "if only you were white."

Earl told me that story of ignorant bigotry years and years ago. I don't believe that I've ever written it before — not with the actual quote.

Lloyd laughed when he told me those words. His laughter was bittersweet.

Earl had just happened to be the first black athlete to play in an NBA game, with the Washington Capitols in 1950. He had earned the opportunity to become the first black coach.

He was a sensitive man about race and society. I understood how that comment must have stung. Earl died Thursday night, at age 86, with those words, I'm certain, in his memory.

Up above, in my opening sentence, I used the word "roots." It was a calculated, deliberate usage. A decade after Earl Lloyd was snubbed, Alex Haley published an epic of American literature entitled "Roots." It was turned into a popular TV miniseries.

Earl Lloyd was a man of dignity and honor. He was loyal and proud. He continued in his service to the Pistons.

Wattrick appointed Dave DeBusschere, home-grown, mature and savvy, as the Pistons' player-coach — at age 24.

The coaching carousel continued — and so did the apathy for pro basketball in Detroit. After DeBusschere. Donnis Butcher became the coach. Then Paul Seymour. Then Butch van Breda Kolff, aka VBK. The Pistons employed eight coaches in their first 13 seasons in Detroit.

All the while, Earl Lloyd was overlooked.

Early in the 1971-72 season, VBK walked out on the Pistons. He quit in frustration 10 games into a new two-year contract.

"Life's too short to short to prostitute yourself," VBK told The Detroit News.

His chance

It was in this situation that Lloyd, at last, was hired as head coach of the Pistons. What Wattrick had not done, Ed Coil, the GM of the moment, did without controversy and without criticism.

Too late by seven years. Lloyd coached Dave Bing, still the greatest of all Pistons players, Bob Lanier and Terry Dischinger. Too little.

Earl became the fourth black head coach in the NBA — after Bill Russell, Al Attles and Lenny Wilkens.

He was a professional. He was quotably funny with us, the press. He was emotional.

"When you sign to coach any professional sport, you're signing your termination papers," Lloyd to The News.

". . . Ed and I didn't talk black or white, green or polka dot. Black and white never entered into the conversation with Ed Coil.

"I'll take it a step further. If I thought he was hiring me because I was black, I wouldn't take the job."

Lloyd displayed the humanity that Seymour and van Breda Kolff, the two coaches before him, lacked.

"You don't handle people," Lloyd told News Sports columnist Pete Waldmeir. "You handle animals. I want to deal with players. If I can do that I'll have no problems."

On Nov. 10, 1971, Lloyd coached his first game with the Pistons. He shuffled the lineup. He reinserted Dischinger and Butch Komives into the starting group. Both had been benched in anger by VBK.

The Pistons won the game, 139-122, over the Portland Trail Blazers.

In the postmortem of his debut, Lloyd scratched out his words.

"I lost my voice the first night," he said.

"You sit on the bench with an 18-point lead and seven minutes to go and you still worry."

But Earl, as he had said, had signed his termination papers when he accepted the head job.

And, of course, the Pistons were locked — it seemed forever — in the doldrums.

Lloyd finished his first season, the Pistons traditionally in last place, out of the playoffs.

The next season, the Pistons had another rotten start.

They were 2-5 when Lloyd got the ziggy, our own precious Detroit word for the unceremonious firing of coaches.

Earl Lloyd left with his usual dignity. His replacement was Ray Scott.

The long white line had been broken.

Anonymous in retirement

And funny, through the years as the NBA became more and more popular, Earl Lloyd's heritage remained virtually anonymous. A question about a legacy that has stumped now generations of professional athletes.

I doubt if 80 percent of today's NBA players, could name Earl Lloyd as the first black athlete to play in the NBA. The guesses would be Chuck Cooper or Sweetwater Clifton, NBA rookies, in the same breakthrough season as Earl.

But Earl played first. He was the Jackie Robinson of pro basketball, three years after Robinson broke into Major League Baseball.

Earl Lloyd was a true pioneer in sports in America. The roots flourish.

Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sports columnist. Read his web-exclusive columns Saturdays at detroitnews.com.