A forgotten HBCU championship team comes off the sidelines

In 1957, the men’s basketball program at Tennessee Agricultural & Industrial State University in Nashville had all the makings of a great team: a coach dedicated to the fundamentals of the game and a fast-paced offense that applied relentless full-court pressure.

“We felt that if we stayed focused, nobody else could beat us,” said Dick Barnett, the team’s running back.

That was true, three times. The Tennessee A&I Tigers would become the first team from a historically black college or university to win any national championship, and the first college team to win three consecutive championships.

But the team, caught in the headwinds of the Jim Crow South, has been struggling for recognition ever since.

Barnett, now 87, who went on to play for two New York Knicks championship teams in the 1970s, has spent the last decade working to rectify that. He spent years campaigning for the Tigers to be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and teaching a new generation of basketball players at Tennessee State University, as the school is now known, about a team that breaks barriers.

His journey is now the subject of a new PBS documentary, “Dream Whisperer.”

And if Barnett has his way, the trip will include one final stop: the White House. More than 50 members of Congress have signed the letter on behalf of the team asking for an invitation “for long overdue recognition and a fitting celebration”.

Time is of the essence. Only seven players from the championship teams are still alive, and only three and the surviving assistant coach are healthy enough to travel, said Danielle Naassana, the film’s producer.

“I still feel like it’s a big deal — not just for me, but for my race — to be accepted and go to the White House after being left out all these years,” George Finley, 85, a former center on the team, said in interview.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

If the team gets there, it will be because of Barnett.

Barnett grew up in segregated Gary, Ind., shooting ping-pong balls into a tin cup. But when he was about 9 or 10 years old, he traded them in for a basketball and would shoot around the local court late into the night.

One of those nights, he practiced his signature jump shot — a shot in the shape of a question mark with lots of air — when Tigers coach John McLendon showed up and asked if he’d like to join him at Tennessee A&I.

Barnett arrived in Nashville in 1955, the year Emmett Till was killed in Mississippi and Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery, Ala., for refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a city bus. The team was very aware of the social forces working against them, Barnett said. Their biggest obstacle could be summed up in two words: “Skin color, skin color, skin color,” he said.

“The implication was that you weren’t good enough as white people to do what we wanted, that this was America, this was white American society,” he said. “We were part of American history, even though we were a different color, a different style.”

Barnett said McLendon made a “tremendous effort” to keep his players focused and realize “we were just as good as anybody who played the game,” even if that meant staying in private homes while playing on the road because hotels will not host them.

“I always knew I was great,” Barnett said. “I was a great shooter. I was a great player.”

McLendon, a student of the inventor of basketball, James Naismith, fought his own battle. He tried to move Tennessee A&I to the NCAA, but was denied entry, so the team played in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics instead.

The Tigers, driven by speed and accuracy, shook up the league by winning championships in 1957, 1958 and 1959. Nine players from Tennessee A&I’s championship teams would go on to play professional basketball.

The championship wins are recorded on pendants hanging from the rafters of the Gentry Center in Tennessee, but the team’s legacy was all but lost to history until Barnett “decided to do something about it,” as he says in the documentary.

In the film, former NBA players Julius Erving, Walt Frazier, Bill Bradley and Phil Jackson all make the case for the team’s induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame. But it took Barnett nearly a decade to prove to Hall of Fame voters that his team was worthy of recognition.

In 2019, he finally donned the orange jacket at the induction ceremony as the team’s representative.

“His leadership on the floor as a basketball player was really show me don’t tell me,” said Eric Drath, who directed the documentary. “It was the same with the shooting of the film.”

Ron Thomas, author of “They Cleared the Street: The NBA’s Black Pioneers,” said that during the Jim Crow era, it was common for white media to ignore black teams.

“America missed out by not being able to hear and read about the teams of some of these great coaches and players from that era,” said Thomas, director of the sports, culture and social justice journalism program at Morehouse College. “They weren’t exposed to any.”

But for teams like the Tennessee A&I Tigers, there was an added layer of responsibility, Thomas said: “They represent more than themselves.”

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