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Foster: Pioneer Lloyd paved way for black athletes

Terry Foster
The Detroit News

Auburn Hills — Former Pistons General Manager Edwin Coil loved to light up a cigar for rare Piston celebrations and in times of stress.

So it wasn't surprising that Ray Scott's first big meeting following his playing career came in a smoke-filled cigar club inside a Portland hotel.

The Pistons were in turmoil on this winter day in 1972. They'd just lost a game in Houston and were about to play the Trailblazers. Future Hall of Fame guard Dave Bing (detached retina) was out of the lineup and the Pistons were in free fall.

Scott entered the room with his mentor, Pistons head coach Earl Lloyd, and Coil. Scott was six games removed from retiring as a player and now served as Lloyd's assistant coach.

Coil turned to Lloyd and said: "I've spoken to owner (Fred) Zollner and we've decided to relieve you of your duties as coach. It just isn't working out."

Scott stood in silence, his stomach churning, wondering about his own future.

Coil then turned to Scott: "We want you to replace Lloyd as head coach."

Scott was speechless.

Lloyd was a legend in the game. He came into the league in 1950 as one of three black pioneers. He was the first black player to play in an NBA game, with the Washington Capitals as a 10th round draft pick out of Syracuse. Chuck Cooper was the first black draft pick. The Boston Celtics used the first pick of the second round to select him. Nate "Sweetwater" Clifton is credited with being the first black player to sign an NBA contract because Harold Hunter, who signed before him, was cut in training camp.

Scott received the phone call Thursday night from Kevin Lloyd, Earl's son, telling him his longtime friend died at age 86 in Tennessee, his home the past few years. It was a sad moment for Scott, but he knew his friend had been in decline for some time. The call was not unexpected.

Scott wanted to pay tribute to his friend, who helped set a path that allows NBA players to be millionaires today.

The three men broke an important barrier. And today's players have taken advantage. All are credited with being the first to play in the NBA but Lloyd played in his first game four days before Cooper's debut.

Passing the torch

Scott understood how important Lloyd was to the NBA and to black Americans when he sat in that smoke-filled room.

Scott was in a tough spot. As a black male he did not feel comfortable replacing the first black coach in Pistons history, a pioneer who remains important to the league even today. He would be perceived by other blacks as a sell-out. He'd walked over the corpse of a man who helped him to get to where he was.

As a friend he did not want to replace a man who brought him to the Pistons as a player and again as an assistant coach.

"I cannot take this job," Scott told Lloyd after Coil left the room.

Lloyd pointed a finger at Scott. His voice turned low and it turned stern: "You have to take this job."

And if anybody had a problem with Scott taking that job, well, they had to go through Lloyd. Lloyd was not just interested in establishing an important base. He saw the importance of passing along the torch to others, even at his own expense.

Scott took the job and Lloyd spent the rest of the evening helping his friend get through the transition of taking over a team. When the Pistons won 50 games two years later, Lloyd played a key role in the background, helping the Pistons get Don Adams, George Trapp and John Mengelt.

Lloyd was all about establishing foundations. Although he was born in Virginia and made Tennessee his home, he was also a big man in Detroit. He worked for the Detroit Public Schools and worked with former Mayor Dave Bing in his steel business. Lloyd also spent a lot of time speaking to school groups and the business establishment who wanted to hear his story.

"He was always the biggest guy in the room and he was also the smallest guy in the room," Scott said.

Lloyd was the biggest guy in the room because he stood 6-foot-5 and towered over most people. Musicians, actors and politicians also loved to gather around as he swapped stories.

He was the smallest guy in the room because he was simply Earl Francis Lloyd, a man who was as humble as he was tall.

No. 1 forever

During a book signing a few years ago in a downtown Detroit restaurant I saw the same things Scott saw. He greeted people and signed books and he invited people — including me — to his table later just to chop it up a little bit and talk about basketball and real life.

Scott hopes players in the NBA pick up a book and learn about Scott and other pioneers.

"He will always be No. 1. You can't take that away," Scott said. "As these players sit in their mansions and look at what the NBA has given them, they need to learn how it all began. It began with one simple guy, Earl Francis Lloyd. Earl was the first guy and the No. 1 guy, and when you are No. 1 you don't have to embellish. He will remain No. 1 no matter what anyone says or does."

Former University of Detroit star Spencer Haywood is also a pioneer. He fought for free agency and eventually won. Current Piston Greg Monroe will get a huge pay bump next season because he will become a free agent. He spent Friday morning fielding questions about whether he wants to go to New York and play with Carmelo Anthony.

Monroe is in a special position because of Haywood and Lloyd.

"Damn, it wasn't that long ago," Haywood said during a telephone interview from Las Vegas. "It is kind of weird. The players say they are students of the game. They all say the right buzz words but they don't seem to know about the game, the people that came before them. It's a shame."

It is a shame. Everybody knows baseball's pioneer, Jackie Robinson. That's great. But there is still a mystery about Lloyd because people cannot agree who was the first. But Scott knows.

"He was the greatest," Scott said.