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Resurrecting Don Barksdale: Basketball’s Forgotten Pioneer


Should someone who averaged 11 points and eight rebounds over a four-year NBA career make the Basketball Hall of Fame? I’m not talking about Chris Kaman or the immortal Eddie Lee Wilkins. This is the story of a gentleman named Don Angelo Barksdale and a movement to compel the NBA to do right by their own past. Today, Don Barksdale is sports history’s invisible man, a trailblazer who resides in shadows.

 

Everybody knows Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color line in 1947. Fewer will know the NFL was desegregated by Robinson’s UCLA teammate Kenny Washington and future Hollywood actor Woody Strode. The more serious sports fan will also will tell you that Nate “Sweetwater” Clifton was the first African American to sign a contract with an NBA team and Earl Lloyd the first to actually get off the bench and log some playing time. More will know the immortal Bill Russell was the first black basketball head coach.

 

But I challenge even the most die-hard hoops junkie – someone who mainlines Allen Iverson youtube videos in their lunch hour – to name the first black NCAA All American. I challenge you to name the first African American to make the U.S. Olympic team. I challenge you to name the first black man to play in the NBA All-Star game. Go on, ask your most hoops-fiending friend and I promise you’ll get that  “Bush in the headlights” look. The answer to all these questions is Don Barksdale. Barksdale died in 1993 of throat cancer at the age of 69, and there is a push simmering to make sure the history he represents doesn’t die with him.

 

The charge to put Barksdale in Springfield is being led by a 6 foot 6 inch former pro baller named Doug Harris. Harris is the executive director of Athletes United for Peace, and works teaching videography skills to underprivileged kids who otherwise would never see a camera. He also directed a documentary on Barksdale called Bounce.

 

As Harris said to me, “Don Barksdale left a positive impact on just about everyone he came in contact with in both the sports and entertainment world. His presence in the Basketball Hall of Fame would be a breath of fresh air for sports enthusiasts who appreciate true sports heroes and treasure our history.”

 

This history is one of struggle against the racial barriers of bigotry, but it’s also the history of a great player who refused to be defined exclusively by play. The Don Barksdale Story is not another tale of a playground legend who ended up wrecked on the rocks of what-might-have-been. When the NBA slammed its door in Barksdale’s face after his All American UCLA career, he switched gears toward his other passion and became the San Francisco Bay Area’s first African American disc jockey.  Barksdale found an audience, and parlayed his dough from spinning records into becoming the first African American to own his own beer distributorship.  But none of this dulled his passions for the game, and Barksdale at age 25 desegregated the gold medal winning 1948 Olympic team, where he was coached by “The Baron” from Kentucky, Adolph Rupp. (Barksdale was so good, Rupp even gave him significant court time; 20 years before he started recruiting blacks for his own Wildcat teams.)

 

When Barksdale finally signed with the slowly desegregating NBA in 1951, the 28 year old made sure the cash was worth his time. He signed a two-year deal for $60,000 with the Bullets, a big money deal in its day.  Barksdale’s hoops career stalled after four years and one historic All-Star game. He later started the music label Rhythm Records, and opened several nightclubs. But Barksdale’s contributions didn’t end there. In 1983, as the Bay Area was ravaged by drugs, poverty, and budget cuts, Barksdale started the Save High School Sports Foundation to keep strapped sports programs in Oakland alive. As Harris points out, “Without the Save High School Sports Foundation in the Bay Area, maybe we don’t have Antonio Davis, Greg Foster, Gary Payton and to a certain extent Jason Kidd. They may not have had an opportunity to play had it not been for Barksdale’s work.”

 

This past February, the NBA higher ups decided yet again to not include Barksdale on their annual list of Hall of Fame inductees. They need to ask themselves the question: how seriously do they take their own past? Is the history of the game sacred, or just filler material for more highlight videos?

 

So the question gets repeated: Should someone who averaged 11 points and eight rebounds over a four-year NBA career make the Basketball Hall of Fame? If that person is Don Angelo Barksdale, you’re damn right they should.

 

Dave Zirin is the author of the forthcoming books: “The Muhammad Ali Handbook” (MQ Publications) and “Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports” (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by e-mailing [email protected]. __Contact him at [email protected]

 

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