Question of the Month
Q: Have you heard of Don Barksdale, the first black basketball player to win a gold medal?
A: No, I had not heard of Don Barksdale. After receiving your question, I researched his career -- a career which is not unlike many of the "Black Firsts" that occurred during the Jim Crow period.
Born in Oakland, California, on March 31, 1923, he was not allowed to play on the Berkeley High School basketball team because the coach had an unofficial policy of only allowing one African American on the team each season -- and the team already had a black player. So, Barksdale honed his skills in park leagues. After graduating from High School, he played at Marin College, across San Francisco Bay. He served in World War II before earning a scholarship to UCLA in 1946 as a multi-sport star. In 1947, while at UCLA, the 6'6" center became the first African American to be named to the consensus All-American team.
After graduating from UCLA, Barksdale became the first black player to be named to the USA Olympic basketball team. Adolph Rupp, the University of Kentucky basketball coach and a staunch segregationist, was one of the USA coaches. This is the same Rupp, who according to Terry Pluto's book, Loose Balls, once said "the trouble with the ABA is there are too many nigger boys in it now." Years later Barksdale reflected on Rupp with these words: "When I first joined the team, I would say that Adolph Rupp was a racist, 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."
Rupp's initial reluctance/opposition to Barksdale being allowed to play with the white Olympians was shared by others. In town for an exhibition game against Rupp's University of Kentucky team, Barksdale was not allowed to stay at the hotel with the rest of the team. Worse, he received threats saying that he would be killed if he played in the game. He did play in that exhibition game, and all 12 games leading to the USA team winning the gold medal at the 1948 London Games. As a not-unimportant aside, the University of Kentucky basketball team remains a preeminent power, but its roster is today filled with African Americans. After the Olympics, Barksdale returned to Oakland.
The NBA is today often viewed as a "Black League," but in the late 1940s it was an all-white league. Barksdale continue his playing in the American Basketball League (ABL) with the Oakland Bittners. In his first season, he set the ABL scoring record. In 1950-51, several black players broke the NBA color line. At the time, Barksdale was beginning a career as the first black radio disc jockey in the San Francisco Bay area.
In 1951, Barksdale received a lucrative offer from the NBA's Baltimore Bullets (now the Washington Wizards). It was a two-year contract worth $60,000, which, at the time, made him one of the highest paid players in the NBA. The 28-year-old rookie averaged 12.7 points and 9.2 rebounds per game, even though some of his white teammates refused to pass him the basketball. Racism is stubborn. Barksdale not only excelled on the basketball court, he hosted the Bullets post-game radio show.
Barksdale was named to the NBA All-Star game in 1953, becoming the first African American to play in that game. He was traded to the Boston Celtics, making him the first black person to play for that team. His career was cut short due to injuries, and he played his last game in 1955.
After he retired from professional basketball, Barksdale started a record label, opened successful nightclubs in Oakland, and resumed his career as a radio broadcaster. In 1983, he launched the Save High School Sports Foundation, which is credited with helping to save Oakland public school athletic programs from collapsing. The program raised over a million dollars by the time Barksdale died of cancer in 1993, at the age of 69.
Thank you for your question. It afforded me an opportunity to learn about a remarkable man. I don't like the emphasis on "Black Firsts" because it implies that the African American in question is the first one who could achieve; in reality, they were almost always the first one given the opportunity to achieve. Nevertheless, the Firsts achieved by Barksdale are laudable. I found myself thinking about him last night as I watched the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs compete for the NBA championship. Barksdale made a difference in the NBA, but more importantly, he made a difference in the larger society.
Dr. David Pilgrim
Curator / Jim Crow Museum