How Nolan Richardson blazed a trail to the Hall of Fame, one kicked-in door at a time

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports
Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall Of Fame 2014 Class Announcement
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DALLAS, TX - APRIL 07: John L. Doleva introduces Nolan Richardson during the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame 2014 Class Announcement at the Omni Hotel on April 7, 2014 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)

DALLAS – Back in the 1940s, out in the West Texas town of El Paso, lived a black woman named Rose Richardson, although everyone called her "Ole Mama."

Ole Mama had a husband, Miles, who couldn't work because of an accident that covered him in burns. She had a job at a small chicken restaurant. She had a three-room house – kitchen, living room, bedroom – in South El Paso, which is a nice way to describe an area that was essentially a barrio, so close to the Rio Grande you could chuck a rock into Mexico.

And she had nine children and grandchildren living with her. Nine.

Now, this was something. Poor? Oh man, they were poor. Hopeless? Well, close. This was the segregated south, Jim Crow, and the only relief from heavy racism was to cross into Mexico where no one would deny them access to lunch or a movie.

Ole Mama had a grandson named Nolan, a gifted athlete, particularly in baseball and basketball. He was also someone everyone knew early on was headstrong and whip smart.

The kid was something, but even then, Rose Richardson knew the odds were stacked tall against him. She knew the struggle was impossible to fathom and opportunities would be scant and fleeting. So she'd preach the same message to Nolan over and over, tell him to do the same thing if the world dared to unbolt a door to a better life.

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"Crack it," Nolan Richardson recalled. "She said, 'Crack it. If they give you a crack, kick that son of a bitch down. If they give you this much [of a] crack, Junior? Kick the son of a bitch down, because they shouldn't have given you that much.

"Then once you get in there, then you go to work."

On Monday morning here, it was announced Nolan Richardson would be inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. There isn't anyone in there who kicked the door of opportunity down with more force and less apology than Ole Mama's grandson. There also aren't many who came further out of the hole of improbability – from an America so different it's unrecognizable – to crash the gates of Springfield, Mass.

If anything, Richardson's uncompromising style as a coach, speaker – as a man – probably delayed his entry longer than it ever should have.

Nolan Richardson has never backed down from anything, which was the only way you go from the banks of the Rio Grande, through a star turn at Texas Western (now UTEP) and into a trailblazing coaching career when black men generally didn't get hired. He started first at El Paso Bowie High and kept winning so much he moved onto Western Texas Junior College, then the University of Tulsa and finally the University of Arkansas, where he was often the only major black head coach in the South as he reached three Final Fours and won the 1994 NCAA title.

All along he did it his way, by speaking his mind on any and all topics and carrying himself with a direct manner befitting Ole Mama, one that often left whites uncomfortable – "very uncomfortable, I guess," Nolan said – and causing some to believe he was either a racist, just plain angry or both.

"If I had it to do all over again," Richardson said, before pausing for effect. "…I'd do it the same."

Of course he would.

Richardson's coaching career took place far from the major media centers, particularly those along the East Coast. His impact on the sport and on society, however, can't be underplayed. John Thompson or John Chaney received more attention, and they deserved every bit of it. But it was Richardson who was operating in the Deep South during a transitional time for the country that still included plenty of resistance. He was the beacon of pride to millions, whether they wanted to be players or coaches or anything else.

His teams played an entertaining, up-tempo and vicious "40 Minutes of Hell" style. Off the court, he was no different. If you asked his opinion on a subject, he came right at you. He spoke from his life perspective. He stood up for people he felt lacked a voice. He called out double standards in society and the media. He railed against institutional racism and ingrained thinking.

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No, he wasn't perfect. No, the words didn't always come out right. Yes, he lacked patience at times. But he never once shut up so not to risk his high-paying gig.

He was, if nothing else, an American Original.

Even long after he was on the other side of the door, Nolan Richardson kept kicking, partially so others might follow and partially because it was the right thing to do. That was the only way he knew.

"Because it didn't stop me from being who I was," Richardson said.

It made him hated in some circles, and incredibly popular in others, most notably black families across the small town South.

"When I went in and talked to those parents [in recruiting], they kind of knew my plight in life," Richardson said. "I didn't have to trick them and fool them and buy this. What you see is what you get. 'You send me your son and I'll send you back a man.'

"That's how my grandmother would have raised us. What I tell you, you can take that to the bank. I've always just been straight up and honest.

"There are times when I shouldn't have been, because I could still be at Arkansas if I was, what I call an 'Uncle Tom.' But I'm not. If it's wrong, it's wrong. I don't care how you put it, it's wrong."

Richardson is 72 and he looks almost like he could still play, let alone coach. His firing at Arkansas in 2002 remains a bitter ending to his NCAA career – Richardson at odds with school administrators in a fight that broke down over race, language, misunderstandings and wound up in legal proceedings.

He loves Arkansas – he still lives in Fayetteville and his longtime assistant, Mike Anderson, is the Razorbacks coach. The school still hasn't named its court after him, though.

Maybe more remarkable was that Richardson, no matter how many wins he had racked up as he became the only coach to ever win NJCAA, NIT and NCAA titles, never got another shot at a high major coaching job. That was his rep preceding him.

Difficult. Racist. Angry.

Or just true to his truth.

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"I laugh at that, too," Richardson said of the angry label. "I think it's my demeanor. When you're big, black and you have a voice that booms it out, that's fear. Oh [expletive], he's mad. My wife would say, 'Sometimes you have to watch how you talk. I know you and [how] you express yourself, but people think you are angry.' [I'd say], 'But I'm not.' "

Whatever happened, happened, of course. It's over now. In the years since leaving Arkansas, Richardson coached internationally and in the WNBA, enjoyed his time on his farm and says he's had a ball. It's a hell of a life from South El Paso.

All the while, though, the Hall of Fame just sat there, the ultimate stamp of legitimacy. In the past, the system has been decried as an Old Boys Club, often slanted to the NBA and the East Coast. And popularity with the media and the establishment seemingly never hurt. None of that was Nolan. So the deck, again, was stacked against him. Year after year, he didn't get in.

Then finally last Wednesday he received the call. "The next thing is heaven," Richardson joked.

So he sat in a ballroom downtown here, smiling and thinking back to Ole Mama, to that small house that had no air conditioning so the kids in the brutal summers would fight to sleep closest to the door in hopes a breeze might come through. The house is gone now but Richardson bought the property, fenced it in and created "Rose's Garden."

"Oh my God," he said, "she would be so proud."

He told a story from his junior year of high school, when his baseball team was supposed to travel to Abilene, Texas, for a game. It would require staying overnight and the hotel in town didn't allow blacks, so he'd have to be away form his teammates at the home of a black family in the colored part of town.

Nolan wouldn't have it. He said he wouldn't go and be humiliated like that. He'd tasted the pain of being booted out of restaurants. "Do you know how small I felt?" Screw it, he thought. Screw society.

Then he came home to that little house and found his coach talking to Ole Mama.

"She said, 'Junior, come here. What is this, why did you tell coach you aren't going to Abilene,' " Richardson recalled.

"I said, 'Ole Mama, I'm not going over there. Why do I have to stay across the tracks?'

"Now, she loved Jackie Robinson. So she said, "Did you know what Jackie Robinson did? He used his bat. Which is what you can do. So you're angry? Just knock the hell out of the ball.' "

That was that, decision made. He was headed to Abilene for the game, to kick down another cracked door.

So, Nolan was asked, did you hit a home run?

"I hit three of them," he laughed. "I knocked the [expletive] out of it."

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