The Unheralded True Story Of The NBA’s First Black Player

NEW ORLEANS – In the opening scene of their fantastic new documentary, The First Do It: The Life And Times Of Earl Lloyd, filmmakers Coodie Simmons and Chike Ozah take their camera to a local basketball court in an impoverished area of Alexandria, Virginia and train their lens on a pair of elementary school children.

The question: who was the first black player in the NBA? One boy sheepishly admits that he doesn’t know. The other, after a long pause, hazards a guess: “Michael Jordan?” The directors’ question is a rhetorical one, aimed as much at the audience as it is the pre-adolescent subjects onscreen.

The central thesis of the film is clear: why don’t we know more about the life and career of one of the NBA’s pioneering figures? From there, they endeavor to take a random bit of sports trivia and rescue it from obscurity.

Film-making duo Coodie and Chike are known primarily for their work in the music industry. They’ve directed music videos for Kanye West, Pitbull, Mos Def, Erykah Badu, Lupe Fiasco, Wale, Christina Aguilera, and more. They made their first foray into documentary film-making a few years ago with the powerful ESPN 30 for 30 film Benji, about a high school basketball star from Chicago who fell victim to senseless gun violence.

When they pose the question about the first black player in NBA history, it’s an admonishment for audiences everywhere, particularly fans of NBA basketball. Yet, they’re careful to implicate themselves along with everyone else. It was the revelation that they could’ve asked that question of almost anyone and gotten a similarly-puzzled response that gave them the initial impulse to undertake this project.

Injured NBA forward Festus Ezeli, who headlined a panel discussion following the world premier of the film in New Orleans over All-Star Weekend, admitted that he wasn’t aware of Lloyd’s legacy until he had to start taking monthly quizzes on NBA history upon signing with the Portland Trail Blazers last summer.

Lloyd was once a staple of the NBA’s transition program, sharing his triumphs and travails with incoming rookies, but following his death in early 2015, Coodie and Chike hope their documentary can continue that legacy of educating young players on the history of the NBA, its parallels with the Civil Rights movement and how the league ultimately got to where it is today.

“Every player should probably have to see this documentary,” Chike told DIME. “It’s almost like in anything you do, any craft, whether you’re in journalism or you’re a filmmaker, and not doing the due diligence to research the work of the people who came before you, the greats, to understand how they carved out a space for you. In every craft, that’s important. We had to do it in film. You go watch some of the classic films so you can see the nuances of why film is film. It’s the same in the NBA.”