Commentary

A pioneer in green

Before Bill Russell, there was Don Barksdale -- and he's finally getting his due

Updated: September 6, 2012, 4:42 PM ET
By Marty Dobrow | Special to ESPNBoston.com

You would have needed a well-sharpened knife to cut through this tension. The smoky air in the basketball arena in Lexington, Ky., was thick with anticipation. All eyes focused on the collision of cultures, the will-he-or-won't-he moment of truth.

Everyone looked at a single bottle of water.

The United States men's basketball team was playing an intrasquad exhibition, getting ready for the Olympics in London. No, this was not LeBron and Kobe and KD. This was the 1948 team, a crew of little-known amateurs that retrospectively could be dubbed the "I Have a Dream Team." After all, the roster featured the first African-American basketball player to represent the U.S.: Don Barksdale.

Consider the context. The Olympics had not taken place for a dozen years. The last games in 1936 had been the debut of basketball in the Olympics, with James Naismith himself showing up and the U.S. claiming gold. The enduring cultural image from Munich took place on the track, with Jesse Owens blazing to victory in front of Adolf Hitler.

The Games in 1940 and again in '44 were canceled amid the ravages of World War II. Now, finally, the world's sporting community was about to gather in London in a few weeks, Hitler's vision of a master race having been defeated.

[+] Enlarge Don Barksdale
AP PhotoCeltics president and co-owner Walter Brown (left) welcomes Don Barksdale at the Fargo Building in Boston in November 1953 after Barksdale was acquired from the Baltimore Bullets.

Barksdale, a lanky 6-foot-6 Californian who had played at UCLA, was the lone African-American on a team that included five players from just-crowned NCAA champion Kentucky. One of the coaches of the Olympic squad was Kentucky's own Adolph Rupp, still more than 20 years away from recruiting a black player for the Wildcats.

While in Lexington, Barksdale was not permitted to live with his Olympic teammates. He had to tell the owners of the home where he was staying that he had received a death threat. And now, even the sanctity of the basketball court itself had become a stage of racial tension. There was a timeout on the court -- without any of the modern distractions of T-shirt flinging mascots and pumped-in music. There were some coaching instructions. There was sweat streaming down. And there was a bottle of water.

It passed from white player to white player to white player to Don Barksdale. He took a drink, then passed it to the next player, a hulking 6-7 forward who had grown up in rural Arkansas: Gordon "Shorty" Carpenter.

"When he handed it off," Don Barksdale's son, Derek, said this week, some 64 years later, "everyone gasped."

Carpenter never hesitated. He took a few gulps of water and then ran back onto the court with his teammates.

"If that guy next to him turned his back, it would have been a rough situation," Derek Barksdale said. "But when [my father] saw his teammate just grab it and take a drink right after him, it really made him feel good inside … He used to tell that story quite often."

Derek Barksdale might choose to tell it himself this weekend when he gives the acceptance speech for his father at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame enshrinement dinner. Don Barksdale, who passed away in 1993, is being inducted posthumously, thanks to the advocacy of the Early African-American Pioneers committee. He will go into the Hall as part of a class that is headlined by Reggie Miller, who, along with some of the marquee presenters for this class (e.g. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson), had the door to their fame and fortune opened in part by people like Barksdale.

Barksdale's presenter would not be in that category, the palest of point guards, the 84-year-old "Houdini of the Hardwood" -- Bob Cousy. The two men played together for two seasons on the Celtics (1953-54 and 1954-55) and forged a friendship that lasted four decades.

"I never saw someone who enjoyed life as much as he did," Cousy remembered this week. "He was always upbeat, always smiling."

***

Don Barksdale was the first African-American player to:
-- Earn All-American status (1947 at UCLA)
-- Play for the U.S. Olympic team (that '48 squad)
-- Make the NBA All-Star team (1953)

His pioneering role has, until recently, been mostly overlooked for a number of reasons. For one, he played at a time when professional basketball was a peripheral part of the sporting landscape. Pro ball had started in 1946, and the NBA formally emerged from a merger of two leagues in 1949. It did not garner much in the way of public attention.

"We were so far down the totem pole," Cousy said. "Nobody paid any attention to basketball at the time. Now it's the second-most-played sport in the world, and even in my lifetime I think we'll see it eclipse soccer."

Basketball also lacked the compelling race narrative of baseball. Jackie Robinson was an unambiguously great player in New York at a time when his game was at the unquestioned center of the sporting world. His breaking of the "color line" remains an iconic cultural moment.

In basketball, the color line is more of a question mark. Who was the first black player? Historians typically credit three separate players from the same season: Chuck Cooper of the Celtics (first black player drafted in 1950 -- the same year as Cousy), Sweetwater Clifton of the Knicks (first black player to sign a contract) and Earl Lloyd of the Washington Capitals (first black player to actually play in a game). Barksdale came along a year later in 1951 with the Baltimore Bullets.

Barksdale's accomplishments were also tamped down by his own constitutional modesty. According to his son, Derek, Barksdale used to keep his Olympic gold medal in a drawer. "I was out of high school, I think, when I found out that he was the first black All-Star," he said. "Amazing. I never knew."

[+] EnlargeDon Barksdale
AP PhotoDon Barksdale of the Celtics comes down with the ball after a scramble with Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton of the Knicks in 1954.

Also, his achievements were obscured by his chance departure from two teams just before they went on unprecedented runs of success. His 1946-47 team at UCLA was 18-7, one of only two winning seasons in the nine-year coaching run of Wilbur Johns. Two years later, John Wooden took over and went on a wild spree of winning throughout the next 27 years, putting together an almost certainly never-to-be-repeated string of 10 NCAA championships in the 12 seasons from 1963-64 to 1974-75. The pattern was the same with Celtics. After Barksdale's last season (a 36-36 record in 1954-55), the Celts ran off 14 straight winning years with 11 NBA titles.

According to Derek Barksdale, his father spoke very favorably of his years in Boston and did not convey a sense of experiencing much in the way of racial strife in the city. "He absolutely loved it," said Derek, who works as a chief of police for a Naval base in San Diego.

He also left town just before some seminal moments in the great American crisis of civil rights, including the slaying of Emmett Till in Mississippi in August 1955 and Rosa Parks' iconic refusal to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., that December.

As the Celtics soared to prominence in the years ahead, the great Bill Russell lived a different reality. His career played out against an anguished backdrop of national racial strife, with images of children being slammed against walls by fire hoses and barking dogs in Birmingham, Ala. Boston would become its own cauldron of racial struggle, and Russell faced some vicious treatment.

"At some point they broke into his house in Reading," Cousy remembered. "They defecated in his bed. They put it on the walls. They did all sorts of terrible things. I can see why he would have been impacted far stronger just five or six years later than Don was."

Within the team itself, Cousy insists, racial tension never entered the equation. He credits coach Red Auerbach for setting the tone.

"I give Arnold the credit for that," Cousy said. "He treated everyone the same -- really badly."

***

Barksdale's place in the game was brought to light largely because of Ron Thomas' book "They Cleared the Lane" (an account of black pioneers in basketball) and because of the release of Doug Harris' 2007 documentary, "Bounce: the Don Barksdale Story."

The documentary makes the case that Barksdale's greatest contributions may have come in other areas. He was a successful entrepreneur in the music industry. He opened a record store when he was still a student at UCLA. He became a renowned DJ (football coaching legend Bill Walsh calls him "the eminent disc jockey in northern California for years" and describes "that smooth voice, that velvet voice of his, he could just talk to you"). He also owned a successful nightclub, The Showcase, and became close with many famous musicians and entertainers: Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughn, Lou Rawls, Flip Wilson, etc.

In his later years, the film points out, Barksdale used his considerable connections in sports and the entertainment industry to oversee an organization called "Save High School Sports" in Oakland, raising well more than $1 million as budget cuts threatened opportunities for inner-city kids. It was a cause close to his heart. After all, Barksdale had been cut every year from the Berkeley High School team, judged by the color of his skin and not by the content of his character (or his basketball skills).

"He just crossed so many lines," said his sister Pam Barksdale-Gore, who is traveling east from California this week with a large contingent of family members for the enshrinement.

Barksdale-Gore, whose given name is "Pamelia" ("Don named me," she said of her brother, who was 20 years her senior), says that Don was a beloved figure in the family, thought by their grandmother to have "fallen out of the Christmas tree." Their father, Argee, was a Pullman porter. Their mother, Desoree, was the one who got Don into sports. "My mother was the one who used to slink him out of the house to play basketball," she said. "My dad wasn't sure what bouncing a ball was going to accomplish."

As a teenager, Don Barksdale went with some friends to see a football game at the nearby University of California campus against UCLA, where one athlete caught his attention.

"My first hero was really Jackie Robinson," he said in a taped interview aired in "Bounce."

Years later, after playing at Marin Junior College and serving in World War II, Don Barksdale would become, briefly, a multisport athlete at UCLA, just like his hero. He ran track and played basketball, his breakthrough 1946-47 season ending just weeks before Robinson's debut with the Dodgers.

As professional basketball began to take shape in fits and starts in the late '40s, Barksdale maintained his amateur status -- like many great players of the day -- by playing what was called AAU ball. The teams were subsidized by businesses, retaining a kind of wink-wink amateurism. Those seasons of playing on teams like the Oakland Bittners (named after Lou Bittner, owner of a tax-preparation business) might well have represented Barksdale's prime. In an era before dunk-contest histrionics, he routinely soared above the rim to drop in points and harvest rebounds in the thin air.

Cousy As a player, he was a glimpse into the future. We drafted the first African-American player, Chuck Cooper, in 1950. Chuck played the game like a white guy. Donald was the first glimpse of what was coming, as far as the athleticism displayed by future great African-American players.

-- Bob Cousy, on Don Barksdale

Barksdale's AAU success led to his selection for the 1948 Olympics, along with, amazingly enough, a white guard from Baylor University named Jackie Robinson. Barksdale represented his country well. He was the third leading scorer, helping the U.S. sweep through all eight games: a two-point scare against Argentina and seven blowouts, including a 65-21 victory over France in the gold-medal game.

Along the way, one of the apparent triumphs was a change of heart from Adolph Rupp.

"When I first joined the team, I would say that Adolph Rupp was a racist," Barksdale said in an interview aired in the documentary. "But when we finished the Olympic Games, I would say that he had overcome a big part of his racism, and he had made up in his mind that it wasn't quite like he had thought it was."

Back home, Barksdale plunged back into a few more seasons of AAU ball, then joined the fledgling NBA in its second year as a 28-year-old rookie with the Baltimore Bullets in the 1951-52 season. Ron Thomas says in "Bounce" that Barksdale actually had his own postgame radio show when he came into the league.

During Barksdale's second season, he averaged 13.8 points and 9.2 rebounds per game and was chosen to play in the 1953 All-Star Game. It didn't come with all the glitz and trappings of modern showcases. No dunk contests, no fan fests, no Hollywood pretty boys hoisting 3-pointers the day before. The game was played in the media mecca of Fort Wayne, Ind. Barksdale didn't see the ball very much in his 11 minutes, and notched a modest one point.

The next year he came to the Celtics, in grand style.

"He rode into Boston in '53 in a big open convertible with a chick on each arm," said Cousy, laughing at the memory. They became instant friends.

"As a person, Don was refreshing," Cousy remembered. "He loved life dearly. He showed no indications of racial conflict. He didn't have a chip on his shoulder. He treated everyone the same."

They would play together for two years. For Cousy, the time was a revelation. "As a player, he was a glimpse into the future," Cousy said. "We drafted the first African-American player, Chuck Cooper, in 1950. Chuck played the game like a white guy. Donald was the first glimpse of what was coming, as far as the athleticism displayed by future great African-American players … Don had great leaping ability. He hung in the air forever. He was fast. He was quick. From the standpoint of a point guard who is constantly looking for targets that will produce positive end results, that's what Donald's speed and quickness gave to me."

Race relations have remained a conundrum to Cousy throughout his life. "I wrote my senior thesis [at Holy Cross] on the prosecution of minority groups," he said, "and 62 years later I still don't understand it."

Cousy talks freely about his days of rooming with Chuck Cooper, about seeing racial segregation during a trip for an exhibition game in North Carolina that "made me ashamed to be white," and about the "Jekyll and Hyde" persona of Russell -- gregarious within the unit of the team, steeled against racism in public. He describes his own personal hero as Arthur Ashe: "He didn't become an Uncle Tom, but he fought the good fight."

In terms of racial relations, he says, "We've made great progress; we still have a long way to go."

For Cousy, Don Barksdale was, in the end, someone he admired as a player, but mostly someone who proved to be a lifelong friend. After Barksdale retired in 1955 -- in part because of ankle injuries and in part to pursue his career as a musical entrepreneur in California -- the two men would get together on either coast from time to time over coffee, or dinner, or a drink or two. Cousy was there at Barksdale's memorial service in San Francisco after he succumbed to throat cancer in 1993.

Now back in Massachusetts, their relationship has come full circle. As the presenter for Barksdale at the Hall of Fame on Friday night, Cousy will pass the ball to his good friend one more time, and allow him -- finally on the grand stage -- to slam it home.

Marty Dobrow

ESPNBoston.com

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