Moments in Black History: The quiet legacy of Don Barksdale and his historic basketball career
As part of JD | Finish Line’s commitment to act against racism, bigotry, hate and violence, we choose to honor Black History Month in an educational way.
Each week in February, we will feature a piece from a Black writer examining significant moments in Black history. We hope you find this series informative and enlightening.
Every year around this time, current and former NBA players make their annual pilgrimage to NBA All-Star weekend, where these stars and superstars are celebrated by fans and their peers.
Household names like LeBron, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant are ever-present at the event, but ironically the name Don Barksdale is rarely, if ever, mentioned.
In 1953 Barksdale made history by being the first African-American to be selected to play in the NBA All-Star game. The nod is one of several firsts that Barksdale accomplished in his career. He was also the first African-American NCAA All-American basketball player (1947), the first to make the U.S. Olympic team (1948) and first to win an Olympic gold medal for basketball.
Why is it that, despite all of these historic firsts, not only is Barksdale not a household name, but he’s also barely mentioned, even among hardcore basketball fans? That answer is two-fold.
Barksdale came up in an era of racism and segregation, an era that even prevented him from playing basketball for his high school team. Also, those close to him say that the 6’6” forward was extremely humble in spite of all he had accomplished.
Barksdale began his collegiate career in 1941 at the College of Marin Junior College shortly after college basketball began to desegregate. Although he wasn’t allowed to play organized prep ball, Barksdale was a force for Marin, leading them to two California Junior College championships in 1942 and 1943. Last year, the school’s board of trustees unanimously voted to name the team’s court after Barksdale.
UCLA later offered Barksdale a scholarship. His stint with the Bruins would be interrupted by service in the U.S. Army, where he was one of their best players, leading the team in scoring three times. When Barksdale returned to UCLA after World War II, he immediately helped improve the Bruins team, leading them to a record of 18–7 and a regular season Pacific Coast Conference Southern Division title.
Fresh off of his final season at UCLA, Barksdale was selected to compete in the 1948 London games under the notorious Adolph Rupp. Many have credited Barksdale’s success in the games to being a precursor for Rupp integrating his previously lily-white Kentucky teams.
“When I first joined the team, I would say that Adolph Rupp was a racist,” Barksdale said in an audio interview from the documentary Bounce.
“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.”
In current times, Barksdale’s basketball resume would likely lead to an automatic spot on an NBA team but in the 1940s, players’ contracts were not very lucrative and racism in sports was blatant. Like many talented players during this time, Barksdale chose to compete in the AAU instead (before it was a hotbed for prep talent) for his hometown team, the Oakland Bittners.
On the court success was only half of the picture for Barksdale. He was a baller on and off of the hardwood.
“What most people don’t know about Don Barksdale is that he actually turned the NBA down three times, because the teams seeking his playing services simply couldn’t afford him,” says Doug Harris, who produced and directed the award-winning 2007 Barksdale documentary Bounce.
“When he signed his first NBA contract in 1951, he was one of the five highest paid players in the league, and hosted the Baltimore Bullets’ postgame radio show as a player.”
Doing radio and getting money was nothing new for Barksdale, it was an extension of who he was before he ever donned an NBA jersey. Before 1951, he owned and managed a record store as a student-athlete at UCLA. He was also a top on-air personality in the Bay Area (KROW) while playing AAU basketball, plus he hosted a television variety show on local station KRON4.
Barksdale’s portfolio extended beyond media/entertainment as well. He also owned a Bay Area beer distribution company (Blue & Gold) all before he signed his first NBA contract.
Barksdale’s career was cut short by injuries after playing just four years in the NBA. Upon retirement, he continued to excel in entertainment by owning a record label, two prominent Oakland nightclubs and resuming his career as a radio broadcaster.
Although many still don’t know his name, Don Barksdale’s legacy was finally solidified in 2012 when he was posthumously inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame and one year later his number was retired by the UCLA Bruins, making him one of only 10 basketball players to receive the honor.
Veteran creative Branden J. Peters has been a champion of Black culture for over two decades. His work has appeared in multiple outlets including XXL, Playboy, SLAM Magazine, Hoop, Vibe and Complex.