The National Basketball Association’s first African American players in the twentieth century all joined the league in 1950. Earl Francis Lloyd (Washington Capitols), Charles Henry Cooper (Boston Celtics), and Nathaniel Clifton were among them. They were all educated at historically black colleges and universities.
Lloyd, 6′ 6′′, was born in Alexandria, Virginia on April 3, 1928, and graduated from Parker-Gray High School in 1946. In 1946, he enrolled at West Virginia State University, where he was an All-American and earned a Bachelor of Science in health and physical education in 1950. The 21-year-old was drafted in the ninth round and became the first Black athlete to play in the NBA with the Washington Capitols on October 31, 1950.
Lloyd also spent nine years with the Syracuse Nationals (who later became the Philadelphia 76ers). Lloyd became the NBA’s first full-time African American head coach when he took over the Detroit Pistons for a year in 1970.
Cooper, 6’5″, was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on September 29, 1926. In 1944, he enrolled at West Virginia State University after graduating from Westinghouse High School in Pittsburgh. In 1946, he transferred to Duquesne University. He joined the Harlem Globetrotters in 1950. When the Boston Celtics selected him as the 14th overall pick on April 25, 1950, he became the NBA’s second African American draftee. Cooper made his NBA debut against the Fort Wayne Pistons on November 1, 1950, one day after Lloyd.
He played four years with the Celtics and then was traded to the Milwaukee Hawks. He ended his career with the Ft. Wayne Pistons. After retiring from professional basketball, he earned a Master of Social Work from the University of Minnesota in 1960.
Nathaniel Clifton, 6′8′′, was born Clifton Nathaniel on October 13, 1922, in England, Arkansas, and raised in Chicago, Illinois, beginning at the age of eight. He changed his name during his senior year at Chicago’s DuSable High School, where he graduated in 1940. He attended Xavier University in New Orleans, Louisiana, from 1942 to 1943 and played one season there. Clifton signed with the Harlem Globetrotters in 1948. Clifton became the NBA’s third African American player when he signed with the New York Knicks on November 4, 1950, three days after Cooper. Clifton was the oldest player in NBA history to be named a first-time All-Star at the age of 34.
Clifton was traded to the Detroit Pistons in 1958, but he left the team a year later. Following that, he joined the Harlem Magicians, a new professional team. He continued to play for several seasons, first with the Globetrotters and then with another new team, the Chicago Majors. Clifton retired after suffering a knee injury in 1965. He was also inducted into the Black Athletes Hall of Fame in 1978.
Charles Henry Cooper died on February 5, 1984, at the age of 58, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Nathaniel Clifton died in Chicago, Illinois, on August 31, 1990. He was 67. Earl Francis Lloyd was inducted into the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame in 1993 and the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame a decade later. Lloyd died on February 26, 2015, at the age of 86, in Crossville, Tennessee. Cooper was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame posthumously in 2019.