NBA Marks Significant All-Star Anniversary
Fifty years ago, Don Barksdale became the NBA’s first black All-Star, a significant step in the history of the league’s integration.
Other black players reached the league before him: Chuck Cooper was the first to be drafted. Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton was the first to sign and Earl Lloyd was the first to play.
But Barksdale was the first to be picked for the All-Stars, included in a game that featured 13 future Hall of Famers, surrounded by players such as Bob Cousy and George Mikan.
“I was extremely happy I was chosen because the coaches chose you,” not the fans, Barksdale said. “I was very proud of it.”
It was not, however, the first time Barksdale was first.
Five years earlier, after starring at UCLA, he played in the Olympics at London, the first black on the U.S. basketball team, one of four players added to the roster that was composed primarily of players from the AAU Phillips Oilers and the University of Kentucky.
Barksdale felt isolated even if his teammates ignored his role as the first black Olympian.
“We were color blind,” said Ray Lumpp, like Barksdale one of the players added to the Olympic team and his roommate on the seven-day voyage from New York to London. “His race was never an issue.
“Don was a good player. He could jump. He was a very versatile player and rebounder.”
Before the Olympics, the team went on a barnstorming tour to raise funds. One of the games was played in segregated Lexington, Ky., and Barksdale was welcomed with a death threat.
In Ron Thomas’ book about the NBA’s black pioneers, “They Cleared The Lane,” Barksdale recalled what he called the bottle incident.
During a timeout, a water bottle was passed from player to player. At the time, blacks and whites never drank from the same glass in the South. When the bottle reached Barksdale, the lone black on the team, a hush fell over the crowd.
He considered turning away but instead took his drink, then passed the bottle to teammate Shorty Carpenter. Without missing a beat, Carpenter gulped some water and the bottle continued its journey around the huddle. “Then,” Barksdale said, “we went back and played the rest of the game.”
It was a singular moment, much like the time Pee Wee Reese put his arm on Jackie Robinson’s shoulder in a show of solidarity for baseball’s first black player.
Barksdale never forgot the gesture. “Thanks for not throwing that bottle away,” he told Carpenter, who came from Arkansas.
“Never a doubt, Barks,” his teammate replied.
Barksdale averaged nine points per game, third highest on the Olympic team, and after winning a gold medal, he had overtures from the NBA. But he preferred to remain in Oakland, playing AAU ball and operating a beer distributorship.
By 1951, the league had become integrated with Cooper, Clifton, Lloyd and Dave Minor, a teammate of Barksdale’s at UCLA. Soon, he joined them, signing with the Baltimore Bullets.
He was averaging 13.8 points per game in his second season when he was picked for the All-Star Game at Fort Wayne. He played 11 minutes, had three rebounds, two assists and one point. He missed his only shot from the floor.
After two years with the Bullets, Barksdale was traded to Boston. He spent two more years with the Celtics before retiring from the NBA at the age of 32 and returning to California to become a successful businessman and radio personality.
Barksdale also became involved in charity work. In 1982, he founded the Save High School Sports Foundation, which has raised more than $1 million toward funding high school sports. It became his legacy when he died from cancer in 1993 at the age of 69.
Now, award-winning Bay Area documentary maker Doug Harris has written and produced 75-minute video of Barksdale’s life. “Bounce: The Don Barksdale Story,” has its premiere this month.