Quick – name the first man to break through Major League Baseball’s color barrier. Easy, right?
Now, name the first African-American to play in a National Basketball Association game.
If you didn’t know, the answer is Earl Lloyd, who stepped onto the court on Halloween night, 1950, don’t feel bad. For several reasons, Lloyd’s story isn’t widely known.
For one, basketball didn’t occupy the same lofty space in the national consciousness that baseball did at that time, says filmmaker Chike Ozah. In addition, there were two other higher-profile black players – Chuck Cooper and Nate “Sweetwater” Clifton – who entered the league the same year. (Cooper was the first African-American to be drafted, and Clifton was the first to be signed.)
Lloyd was a ninth-round pick, but due to the schedule, his Washington Capitols played before Cooper’s Boston Celtics or Cliftons’ New York Knicks, so it would be Lloyd who was the first to step on an NBA court.
Ozah and his filmmaking partner, Coodie Simmons (the duo is known professionally as Coodie and Chike) want more people to know Lloyd’s story. Their documentary, The First To Do It: The Life and Times of Earl Lloyd made its world premiere at Le Petit Theater in the French Quarter during NBA All-Star Weekend.
“Growing up and playing basketball myself and loving the sport so much, and not knowing the answer to that question myself of who was the first black person to play in the NBA, that alone was enough for me to say ‘we had to tell the story,’” says Ozah.
“And then once we got into it, it just uncovered layers that became even more important, bigger than just him being the first to play,” Ozah adds. It was his whole story “based on just the life that he lived and how he lived it, and seeing America progress or regress, we’ll leave it up to you to decide.”
The fact that Lloyd was still living and able to tell his story directly was further reason to jump at the idea, says Coodie Simmons. “He can really walk us through 1950, coming into the NBA, the first black player, to seeing the first black president.”
But fate would intervene. As the filmmakers were on their way to interview Lloyd at his West Virginia home, he suffered a stroke. Still, Coodie and Chike felt his story needed to be told, and they found ways to tell it even if Lloyd was in a hospital bed unable to speak.
Through interviews with family and friends, as well as through a narrator (Deon Cole) who channels Lloyd’s words, we learn Lloyd knew very well the importance of how he handled his situation. “Similar to Jackie Robinson’s challenge, he understood the role that he was playing in this whole scenario,” says Ozah. “He had the foresight to understand how his actions could impact the change that was being made, so he had to be willing to take on the brunt of a lot of anger from people that didn’t want to see the league integrate, and he had to be accepting of it and just sort of swallowed it, he had to take the ‘L’, he had to take it for all the people that are playing in the league now, with a league that’s close to eighty percent black.”
Imagine what it would be like, says Simmons, to be “in the building with just all white people, at that time, when they hated us, and you’re the only black in the building. The announcer, everybody, the audience is white, and you’re there – that’s powerful.”
Ozah, a New Orleans native, says he found certain parallels with Lloyd in his own life. “I grew up in an all black neighborhood and went to a predominantly white school, so I understand kind of being that unique person in a situation where there aren’t too many people who look like you, there aren’t too many people who share the same culture, but finding relationships and life-long friends in those situations as well, I think that’s the same kind of thing with Earl.
“He’s got teammates that he doesn’t share the same culture and background with, but they still embraced him and welcomed him, “ adds Ozah, “and some of those friends remain friends the rest of his life as well, so I think, obviously, I could relate to him on a lot of those levels.”
The First To Do It isn’t the first movie from Coodie and Chike – it’s not even their first sports film. They made the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary Benji as well as a documentary on Muhammad Ali for BET.
But they took a different approach to this project, Ozah says. “A lot of projects in the past, like when we did the Benji film, that was ESPN, so they financed it, and it was their film. We did the Muhammad Ali doc for BET; it was their film.
“This is the first time that we actually raised the money from private investors. It’s our film, so we have the opportunity to maximize on how we want to roll this film out. So we’re not just trying to come out the gates putting it out on a network. We want to build grassroots momentum with it within the inner cities and do cool initiatives around it in ways that haven’t been done. We want to create experiences…we want kids to be able to get on and come to a theater to watch it, and having panels and discussions after it.”
True to form, a contingent of students from McDonough 35 at the film’s premiere, and a panel discussion followed featuring the filmmakers as well as NBA player Festus Ezili.
The filmmakers received a lot of help from the NBA Players Association on the project. “One of the first people in was [ex-NBA star] Michael Finley, which was dope… because of him we were really able to get this off the ground,” Ozah says, “and then Tony Parker got involved and Carmelo Anthony got involved and Kawhi Leonard got involved, so it was cool to see the players realize how important it was to tell the story of the people that paved the way for them and their legends to soar.”