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Dick Barnett campaigned for Tennessee A&I to be in Hall of Fame, and Tigers finally made it. Las Cruces native lent a helping hand

Feb. 12—On the basketball court, Dick Barnett was relentless.

Yes, he had talent, skills and a unique, next-to-unstoppable jumpshot. But you don't play 14 years in the NBA, play 971 games, score 15,358 points, play on two New York Knicks championship teams, without toughness and single-mindedness.

After his NBA retirement in 1974, Barnett, now 87, focused those traits on other pursuits. He earned a Ph.D from Fordham University in 1991 and taught classes in sports management at St. John's University.

Yet, through all the decades, there was something else of which he could not, would not, let go: the cold shoulder his three-time NAIA champion Tennessee A&I Tigers had continued to get from the basketball world.

With segregation in the United States still widely practiced, whether by law or by tradition, the Tigers (now Tennessee State) became the first team from an HBCU (historically black colleges and universities) school to win a college basketball national postseason tournament. Having won the NAIA tournament in 1957, they did it again in '58 and '59.

Barnett's tenacious and unswerving quest on his teams' behalf had its culmination in 2019, when he and his teammates were inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

It was an overnight success many years in the making, as chronicled by the 2023 documentary film, "The Dream Whisperer."

In 2011, Barnett had reached out to New York Post sports columnist (and Las Cruces native) George Willis. Would Willis be willing to lend his pen to Barnett's campaign?

"He talked about the three-peat in '57, '58 and '59," Willis said in a recent phone interview from his home in Florida, "and the period in which they accomplished that, with the civil rights movement going on and things of that nature.

"I guess it really resonated with me because I grew up in Las Cruces and knew the story about Texas Western, Texas-El Paso."

In 1966, coach Don Haskins' Texas Western Miners — fielding an all-black starting lineup — defeated legendary coach Adolph Rupp's Kentucky Wildcats in the NCAA Tournament championship game.

More than a half-century later, that game remains a widely recognized milestone in the advancement of the black athlete. That Texas Western team was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2007.

As it should be. But what, Barnett wanted to know, of his Tennessee A&I Tigers, college national champions not once but three times, years before the Miners won theirs?

Willis wrote his column.

"Those Tennessee A&I teams," Wills wrote at the time, "were indeed special: Coached by the legendary John B. McLendon, the Tigers became a basketball powerhouse in the era of Jim Crow and desegregation.

"Despite records of 31-4, 31-5 and 31-1 over those three seasons, the historically black college was denied entry into the NCAA tournament and NIT. Instead, the Tigers competed in the NAIA tournament in Kansas City, surprising the nation in '57 then validating their dominance in '58 and '59."

Willis' column came to the attention of film documentarian Ed Peskowitz.

"Ed thought (Barnett's quest) would be perhaps a good documentary," Willis said. "So he reached out to Eric Drath, the director."

So began the compilation of film that spanned the next eight years, depicting Barnett's tireless advocacy and interviewing the likes of Walt Frazier, John Thompson, Phil Jackson, Bill Bradley, Julius Erving and former NBA Commissioner David Stern.

Two of Barnett's surviving Tennessee A&I teammates, Jim Satterwhite and Harry Carlton, lent their voices, as did longtime civil rights activist Harry Edwards.

Over the course of the project, two interviewees, Thompson and Joanna McClendon, widow of Tigers coach (and Hall of Famer) McClendon, died before the film's completion.

Willis, who is interviewed in the documentary and wrote two more columns on the issue, eventually signed on as an executive producer. His primary responsibility was "the final cut — editing, what to leave in, what to leave out, who should do the narration."

The narrator? None other than Barnett.

At one point, Barnett seeks to enlist the help of filmmaker and Knicks super fan Spike Lee. No dice.

He visits civil rights activist Al Sharpton and asks him to originate one of his broadcasts from the Tennessee State campus in Nashville. Sharpton does so to no avail, at least immediately.

Year after year, the story was the same. Not enough votes.

Was race involved? Barnett and several of the documentary's interviewees believed so. No, Hall of Fame officials replied. Simply not enough votes. What can we do?

Finally, thanks largely to Barnett's unflagging efforts, the votes were there. The Tennessee A&I Tigers assumed their rightful place in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

For Willis, it was a satisfying conclusion.

Of the documentary, he said, "I thought it tells a lot of different stories. It's really not just about the team. ... It's about (Barnett's) family back in the day, the civil rights movement. It talks about how he used basketball to be somebody."

Should Barnett's quest have taken so long? Better late than never.

"It's been quite a journey for Dick," Willis sad, "and I'm just so happy that his team finally got the recognition he was so relentlessly seeking.

"Things get done when they want to get done."