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Don Barksdale: An Influential Piece Of Black Basketball History

  • Author:
    Steve Drumwright, Red Line Editorial
  • Date:
    Feb 28, 2023

Don Barksdale’s impact on the game of basketball can’t be overstated as a pioneer we honor during Black History Month.

As a player, the Oakland, California, native was a groundbreaker in several ways.

While at the University of California, Los Angeles, he became the first Black player to be named an All-American, garnering that status in 1947.

At the 1948 Olympic Games in London, the 6-foot-6-inch center became the first Black player on a U.S. basketball roster and the first Black gold medalist in the sport.

Three years later, with pro sports starting to integrate, Barksdale became one of the first Black players in the NBA, breaking in as a 28-year-old during the 1951-52 season with the Baltimore Bullets. It had been only a year earlier that Earl Lloyd debuted as the league’s first Black player.

Barksdale became the first Black NBA All-Star in 1953, and he may have added more to that resume had his career not been cut short after four seasons due to injury.

Nonetheless, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame’s Early African American Pioneers Committee selected Barksdale for the Hall’s 2012 class as a contributor.

This for a man who never played high school hoops, as his team allowed only one Black player on the roster.

“He may have not been the first in everything as a Black player in the NBA, but he certainly was the first in a lot of things,” said Jeff Zillgitt, an NBA reporter for USA Today who wrote about Barksdale in 2021. “And those things matter when you’re trying to understand the history of the game and the historical significance of certain players.”

Barksdale, whose UCLA career was interrupted by his service in the Army during World War II, endured racism throughout his career, including during the 1948 Olympics. Adolph Rupp, the University of Kentucky coach who was an assistant for the U.S. team, was reportedly one of many who did not want Barksdale on the team.

In a later interview with the LA84 Foundation, Barksdale shared a more optimistic view of his Olympic experience, noting that he was still in contact with many of his Olympic teammates and his once “stormy” relationship with Rupp had evolved into one of mutual respect.

(He) told me that it was a pleasure coaching me in his first experience working with a Black player,” Barksdale said in the 1991 oral history.

As important as his basketball accomplishments were, Barksdale, who died in 1993 at age 69, made a similarly large impact by something he did later in life. With Oakland facing the elimination of high school sports in the early 1980s, Barksdale created a foundation that raised money to support those activities.

With his connections to the music and sports world, Barksdale held a series of Celebrity Waiters luncheons where luminaries including Willie Mays, Rickey Henderson and Ronnie Lott, as well as those from the entertainment and political worlds, would serve those who donated to the Save High School Sports Foundation. The luncheons raised more than $1 million and continued past Barksdale’s death to benefit schools in Oakland and elsewhere.

Notably, in his interview with the LA84 Foundation, Barksdale said any money raised was distributed evenly between girls and boys.

Monte Poole, a veteran Bay Area sports journalist who writes for NBC Sports Bay Area on the Golden State Warriors and other subjects, was a young writer at the Oakland Tribune covering prep sports at the time the luncheons were at their peak.

“Don Barksdale was just someone who I thought was good people who was doing good deeds for people who needed good deeds done,” Poole said. “What amazed me was how he was able to get so many people to participate in these luncheons. At least once a year, maybe more than once a year, to see him get 15-20 pro athletes come and give their time for a cause that would benefit teenagers.

“That was always special to me because, obviously, you have connections, but I think a lot of people who were in the executive offices at the Bay Area pro sports teams also knew of Don Barksdale and his history and what his intentions were behind the luncheons.”

Oakland has a rich history of sending athletes to the pros throughout the years. At the time Barksdale started this program, future NBA stars Gary Payton (Skyline High) and Antonio Davis (McClymonds High) were the big stars on the basketball scene.

And yet Barksdale was more than a hooper. He was very into music and being on the radio. Barksdale might have been one of the first players to have his own postgame radio show, something he did with the Bullets. And after his playing days ended, he went back to Oakland and resumed his beer distribution business and became a local radio DJ known as “Big Don.”

He became so popular on the music scene that he started his own record label and opened a club that drew the biggest of names of the music scene –– including Lou Rawls and Ike and Tina Turner.

Barksdale went about his business without seeking the fanfare that generally comes with such a movement or with his many interests.

“I don’t remember him talking too much about (his club), other than saying that he was doing what he thought was good for people,” Poole said. “He never came across as a big shot or somebody who was special or a celebrity. I think he thought of himself as a servant, just someone who was put here to do good things. I think he had a hard time understanding why more people weren’t like that.”

It is evident that Barksdale made an impact on many, even if they don’t know it directly. He has been honored by a number of halls of fame to recognize his legacy, including at UCLA, which retired his No. 11.

“I just remember thinking, ‘You know, if more people were like Don Barksdale, I think we’d all be a little bit better off,’” Poole said.

Steve Drumwright is a journalist based in Murrieta, California. He is a freelance contributor to on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.


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