As an African-American growing up in the civil rights movement, Dick Barnett lived through racial segregation. Nearly 50 years later, he is still pushing for equality.
At 75, Barnett is leading the effort to get Tennessee State’s three greatest basketball teams inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
“The Naismith Hall of Fame has a problem,” Barnett said. “It is marinated in race, and that is why we have not taken our achievements into the Naismith Hall of Fame.”
Barnett was the leading scorer for Tennessee State, then known as Tennessee A&I, as it became the first school to capture consecutive national championships.
Denied entry into the NIT and NCAA Tournaments, the historically black university won three straight NAIA national championships from 1957 to ‘59 — several years before UCLA went on its record tear in the 1960s and 1970s.
“We thought we had the best team in America,” said Barnett, who was named the tournament MVP in 1958 and 1959. “Nobody wanted to play Tennessee State. … Everybody knows about UCLA, but nobody knows about Tennessee A&I. Even black kids don’t know about Tennessee A&I.”
And he’s hoping to change that.
Barnett, who now lives in San Francisco, was back on campus two weeks ago. Joined by a film crew from New York to shoot a documentary about his teams, he was on hand for TSU’s game against Fisk, another historically black university located in Nashville, speaking to the crowd and students about his mission.
“They became inspired,” producer Fred Cambria said. “Right now, they are starting a movement on campus to help get this team inducted into the Hall of Fame. You have the current student body working with Dr. Barnett to really do the right thing here, which is taking a while to come about. But we think it is a tremendous story.”
Up next for Barnett and the crew are trips to Kansas City, where the NAIA championships were and are still held, and to Gary, Ind., which is Barnett’s hometown. Barnett, a co-producer, will narrate several segments of the documentary, which he hopes will be completed in a year.
He sees this as an opportunity to educate a younger generation who never knew that Tennessee A&I hoisted those championships.
“Once we won the championships, once we got off the plane, we were in downtown Nashville sitting at lunch counters, trying to desegregate what was happening in the South,” Barnett said. “That was another reality, that every young black male was in jeopardy at some particular point. Winning those championships under those social, political and economic times was a monumental achievement.”
Only eight teams have been inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. Those include the 1960 and 1992 U.S. Olympic teams and Texas Western’s 1966 national championship team, which made NCAA history by starting five African-American players in the title game.
Barnett believes Tennessee A&I belongs in the same company.
“We have all the documentation and a historical foundation,” said Barnett, who noted that the Tennessee Senate and House of Representatives have commended and congratulated the national championship teams.
Last year, Tennessee A&I was on the hall of fame ballot for the first time but did not receive enough votes. Barnett’s pursuit, however, extends beyond just the national championship teams.
John McLendon coached at Tennessee A&I from 1955 to '59, becoming the first coach in history to win three straight national titles. McLendon, who studied at the University of Kansas and learned basketball from James Naismith, again made history in 1961. He took over the Cleveland Pipers of the American Basketball League, becoming the first African-American professional basketball coach.
In 1979, for more than 30 years of service at the college and pro levels, he was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame — as a contributor, not as a coach.
Credited with helping bring about integrated basketball, McLendon, who died in 1999, failed to get into the hall of fame as a coach for five straight years.
“Just talking to Coach McLendon’s wife [last week] she indicated she wanted to see coach unambiguously placed in the Naismith Hall of Fame as a coach,” Barnett said. “Give me a rationale of why he didn’t go in as a coach?”
McLendon was inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame in Kansas City in 2006. One year later, Barnett joined him.
After his playing career at Tennessee A&I, Barnett was drafted in the first round by the Syracuse Nationals. He played professionally for 15 years, winning NBA championships with the New York Knicks in 1970 and 1973.
He is in numerous halls of fame, including the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame, but not the Naismith Hall of Fame. Barnett insists that this isn’t about him.
“I’ve had my 15 minutes of fame,” he said. “This is more for my teammates, to acknowledge John McLendon as a coach. It is a desecration that he hasn’t taken his rightful place. Who was coaching us in Kansas City if he wasn’t the coach? These are things that need to be talked about.”
Though Barnett did not graduate from TSU, after he retired, he went back to school and received his bachelor’s degree from Cal Poly Pomona, a master’s degree in public administration from New York University and a doctorate in education at Fordham University. He has taught at St. John’s University and written several books, including poetry.
Currently, his biggest challenge is to overturn a “gross injustice” and make sure those Tennessee A&I teams finally settle into their “rightful place.”
“In some ways, the Civil War has not been over with,” Barnett said. “The whole underpinning of the Civil Rights movement was stirring. I think that really has impacted and affected that attitude of the people that are running this particular institution of the Naismith Hall of Fame. The issue of race raises its head. Any other college team and the first team in college basketball history to win those championships and not get inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame … I think it is not an oversight. It is a contrived behavior.”