Sports are much more than just games and matches… This especially true of the relationship between basketball and the city of Philadelphia. Youth, high school, collegiate and professional basketball are social phenomena in the City of Brotherly Love. For thousands of people, they are an important part of the individual, external, social constructions that influence our lives and development. Moreover, this relationship is constantly evolving as we age. In short, basketball in Philly has a meaning that goes far beyond box scores, standings and championships.
Basketball is intricately related to the social and political contexts in which many Philadelphians, especially Black males, live. Basketball provides stories and images that many use to explain and evaluate these contexts, the events in our lives, and our connections to the world around us.
For example, the playing careers of John Chaney, Tee Parham and the late Claude Gross inform those willing to probe rigidly enforced Aparteheid-like racism/white supremacy and segregation in Philadelphia throughout the late 1940’s, 1950’s and early 1960’s. One reads/hears about their magnificent exploits in cramped gyms across the city and wonders how they would have actually fared if given an opportunity to compete in what we now refer to as the Big 5. Alas, it was not to be… For one reason and one reason alone they were denied access to the Palestra playing floor. They had melanin in their skin and, thus, it was of a darker hue. That fact forbade their participation. In this way, basketball can help explain and evaluate the proliferation of racism/white supremacy in Philadelphia and across the entire United States of America during that period.
By the mid-late 1970s and the 1980’s two issues were vying for center stage in most policy debates surrounding urban centers in America. One, adequately educating Black American public school students and two, the decimation of millions of Black families through the scourge of drug addiction.
Just as an analysis of the playing careers of Chaney, Parham and Gross informs and explains the racism/white supremacy of their era… An analysis of the illustrious playing career of the recently deceased Lewis Lloyd forces us to confront the monumental shortcomings of urban public education and address the ongoing problem of chemical dependence within the Black community.
Lloyd came to the fore during one of the most competitive eras in the history of scholastic basketball in Philadelphia. His career overlapped that of one of the greatest schoolboy basketball players of the past half century, West Philadelphia’s Gene Banks. Banks was the Golden Boy… He was the great player that also did everything the right way. Banks crosses all of his t’s and dotted all of his i’s. He named HS All-American three times. He was named to the very first McDonald’s All-American game and was the MVP of the contest. Banks also played in the prestigious Dapper Dan Classic and won MVP honors in that game. He was the consensus number one High School player in America and, fittingly, accepted a scholarship to Duke University where he was named ACC Rookie of the Year and ultimately became an All-ACC and All-American collegiate player.
Everybody knew exactly who Gene Banks was in 1977… Even a skinny 7th grade student at Thomas Studevan Middle School in Darby Township. Basketball was a religion in Darby Township and Banks was a prodigy. In 1977, Darby Township put together an undefeated regular season only to lose to eventual state champion Elk Lake in the Final Four of the PIAA playoffs. Alton McCollough (6’8 Center) was a junior and he teamed with Billy Johnson (6’7” PF) and Mike Gale (6’5” SF) to provide DTHS with a frontline that trounced every opponent Delaware County had to offer. These were my basketball heroes. I saw them everyday, I lived down the street or around the corner from them. They were accessible to me. Banks was on a totally different level. Even at 12, I was voracious consumer of sports journalism. I read the Delaware County Daily Times and the Philadelphia Daily News sports sections every single day.
As a result, I was intimately aware of the exploits of Gene Banks and the legendary Speedboys…
Lewis Lloyd’s exploits, however, escaped me as child. I pretty sure I heard the name, but it most certainly wasn’t revered like that of Gene Banks.
Unlike Banks, who easily acclimated himself to the rigorous academic environment at highly selective Duke University in the Fall of 1977, Lloyd traveled a far more treacherous academic path. His career almost ended before it even began because of academics.
Late in the public league playoffs of 1977, following yet another majestic performance where Lloyd dropped 37 points (14-19 fgs) and grabbed 17 rebounds in a win over Southern, Daily News sportswriter Ted Silary wrote:
“Despite all his talent, Lloyd’s climb up the basketball ladder of success will be tough at best. Though a senior eligibility-wise he still carries a 10th grade course load.”
The great “Black Magic” was playing basketball in the Public League as a senior, he was in his 4th year of high school and he was a sophomore academically. Yup… This is problem that has persisted for far too long and impacted the life chances of far too many talented young Black men. Fast forward 31 years, Jared Denard was the Associated Press, Class A Pennsylvania Player of the year in 2008. He was first team All-State, All-City and All-Public. Like Lloyd, three decades earlier he also a sophomore academically at the conclusion of his scholastic playing career.
The ability of guys like Lewis Lloyd and Jared Denard persevere and flourish despite the odds stacked against them serves as a guidepost for younger player experiencing academic struggles. Their struggle and subsequent academic success must be celebrated. Too often we seek to hide the academic pain and suffering while only celebrating the athletic accomplishment.
Fuck that! Lewis Lloyd had to do it from the muscle… He had to dig himself out of the dirt and I truly admire him for that.
While Gene Banks played in the Final Four as a freshman, Lloyd toiled away at New Mexico Military Academy. While Gene Banks captured bright lights in the finest basketball conference in America, Lloyd was playing in little, cramped and suffocating JUCO gyms for 2 years.
But, to his credit, he never lost focus and worked diligently on both his game and his academics. By 1979, Lloyd was in a position to accept a scholarship to play for Drake University in the Missouri Valley Conference.
They had no idea what was about to come…
Clearly, Lloyd had some unresolved issues on the court. He had a BOULDER on his shoulder! As a result, he punished opponents. He was relentless on both ends of the court as he led the nation in scoring and rebounding. He quickly assumed the throne vacated by Larry Bird as unquestioned best player in the MVC. Lloyd was the man… He was a two-time All-American and two-time MVC Player of the Year. His number 30 will never be worn by another Drake University player.
Back in Darby Township… As a high school sophomore in 1981, I read about Lloyd. But this was before ESPN, before social media, before youtube. I knew he was from Philly. I knew he was from Overbrook. I knew he was “Black Magic” but I had never really watched him play. I just knew he was in “the league.”
Lloyd would spend two nondescript seasons in Golden State. During his rookie year, he appeared in just 16 games and averaged a mere 5.9 mins in those appearances. He managed to squeeze out 3.6 ppg in these limited minutes. His second season saw Lloyd emerge as key member of the rotation. He played in a total of 73 games, with 24 starts, and his minutes tripled to 18.5. His production also jumped as he averaged 9.4 ppg.
Then came the breakthrough… At the age of 24, Black Magic was traded to the Houston Rockets…
For the first time he was entrenched as an NBA starter. Lloyd appeared in all 82 games for the Rockets that year with 82 starts. He logged 31.4 mpg and put up 17.8 ppg while shooting 52% from the field.
Ohhhhh… So that’s Lew Lloyd… It all began to make sense to the kid from Darby Township. By 1986, Lloyd was one of the leaders of a strong Rockets squad that knocked off the mighty Lakers to reach the NBA finals where the faced the Boston Celtics.
The playoffs that year were a total immersion into the game of Black Magic. He would dunk on Kareem, guard Magic, post up Byron Scott all while looking like he was going about 3/4 speed! How did he do it? It looked so effortless…
Once they knocked off the Lakers, you had to root HARD for Lloyd and the Rockets. But Kevin McHale and Larry Bird were some Bad Muthafuckin white boys… McHale averaged 25.8 ppg and 8.5 rpg while Bird (Finals MVP) damn near averaged a triple double 24 ppg, 9.7 rpg and 9.5 apg. They were just too much for the Rockets.
Fuck the Celtics!
But at 21, I was able to fully appreciate the subtle, smooth greatness of Lewis Lloyd on the court. I found myself trying to will in his floaters over the outstretched arms of Robert Parish. I wanted him to BUST Danny Ainge’s ass! I tried to mentally close the rim when Bird and Ainge launched those picture perfect jumpers… To no avail… Swiiiiiish! Damn near every time… FUCK!
Pass the blunt… Lew will be back! So I thought…
Later that year, Lloyd and teammate Mitchell Wiggins tested positive for cocaine and were suspended from the NBA for 2 1/2 seasons. Like with his academic difficulties, many Lloyd fans feel a need to try to obscure this aspect of Lloyd’s career. It’s an understandable urge. But doing so prevents us from placing his career in it’s proper historical context. Lloyd, Wiggins and others like Michael Ray Richardson were caught up a wave of cocaine that flooded the Black community.
By 1986, crack cocaine and all the mayhem that came with it were ravaging Black communities all across America. Cities like Philadelphia and Houston were hit especially hard. In Philly, the Junior Black Mafia (JBM) was aggressively seizing control of cocaine distribution throughout the city utilizing a classic American strategy of brute force. “Get down or lay down” was the last thing any ”independent” drug dealer wanted to hear in the mid 1980s. You either had new business partners or you made reservations for a dirt nap.
As a college sophomore, trying to explore city nightlife for the first time, I saw grown men just hand over the keys to their EXPENSIVE cars out of fear. It was not unusual to see a guy one evening and hear about his death the next day. Guns, crack, violence, prostitution and dysfunction came together to form stew of misery that flooded Black communities, destroyed families and ended the playing careers of some fantastic NBA players.
Cocaine abuse, like opioid abuse today, represented a health crisis.
But Lloyd, Wiggins and tens of thousands of other Blacks with cocaine addictions were not treated like opioid “patients” are today. The focus was not on treatment as it is the predominantly white opioid addict population of today. They were not considered ill men in need of medical attention, they were “addicts,” if not “criminals” that needed to be isolated and ostracized.
While suspended, Black Magic played for the Cedar Rapid Silver Bullets in the CBA where he averaged 18.9 ppg and 6.6 rpg during the 1988-89 season.
Lloyd was finally reinstated in September 1989. He would never regain the form he had shown as a starter for the Rockets. Houston released him and he played two games with his hometown 76ers before retiring from professional basketball.
Every once in a while I would venture into the city to catch a summer league game and there he was… Still going strong… Giving the youngins hell… Same floaters… Same eurosteps… A little slower but still extremely effective…
Over the last couple of years, I actually got to know Lloyd a little bit… About five years ago, while watching an AAU tournament at Philly U, I was seated right next to Lloyd. We chatted and he told me his son was playing. He was always extremely gracious. If you didn’t know he was a college All-American and high profile NBA player, there was nothing about the way he carried himself that would tip you off. He was just Lew Lloyd from Philly.
Indeed, that day a good friend of mine who happened to be an NBA agent at the time asked, “who is that”? I became irate, “you don’t know who that is and you’re an NBA agent from Philly… Shame on you!” But he didn’t know…
Indeed, far too many didn’t know.
In attempt to pay proper homage to his illustrious playing career, the Philadelphia Black Basketball Hall of Fame inducted Lloyd in his first year of eligibility. The committee was excited and eager to embrace Lloyd… But he was away seeking treatment when the induction ceremony was held. I got to speak to him over the phone and he was proud and anxious to receive his award recognizing his enshrinement.
Since he returned to Philly, every once in a while we would cross paths and he would remind me that I still had HIS award in my possession.
On June 8, 2019, I took a picture of Lloyd’s Hall of Fame Award and posted it on his facebook page. I wrote “I have something that belongs to you in the caption.”
On July 5, 2019, Lloyd passed away.
I look forward to presenting the award to his family. Like Lew, his brother Daryl (Drake University) and his nephew Sean Lloyd (Southern Illinois) had much success competing in the Missouri Valley Conference. Like Lew, they are both gentlemen of the highest order.
To those that want to hide the obstacles Lloyd had to overcome and ignore the demons he battled to the end, I say you just can’t skim through the music. You have to listen to the whole album.
Despite the challenges he faced… Black Magic played some sweet, sweet music. One of the GREATEST to ever lace ’em up in the history of Philadelphia… Rest in Peace.