Retro Baltimore: In 1953, Bullets’ Don Barksdale became first African American to play in NBA All-Star Game

The box score fails to tell the tale. Seventy-one years ago, Don Barksdale scored one point in the NBA All-Star Game. But that free throw belied his contribution to that contest Jan. 13, 1953. Because, when he set foot on the court, Barksdale — then a member of the Baltimore Bullets — became the first African American to play in the league’s midseason classic.

Barksdale was one of the first Black players to suit up in the NBA, which integrated in 1950. Three years later, he made history, though he played just 11 minutes in the ’53 All-Star Game and was largely ignored by teammates during that time. A 6-foot-6 power forward, he managed three rebounds and two assists in the East team’s 79-75 loss to the West in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

“I didn’t touch the ball much in the game, but at least I was on the team. I was very proud of it,” Barksdale said years later. “I was extremely happy I was chosen because the coaches [and not the fans] chose you.”

Times change. In 2023, 70% of NBA players were Black, including 20 of the 24 who played in the All-Star Game. But Barksdale blazed the trail, a role familiar to the onetime UCLA standout who, in 1947, became the first Black All-America college basketball player. A year later, he was the first of his race to earn a berth on the U.S. Olympic basketball team, where he averaged 7.7 points a game, third best for the gold-medal winners.

Breaking the color barrier in the Olympics was “something I’d have gone to hell and back for,” Barksdale said. He then played Amateur Athletic Union basketball and dabbled in business until age 28, when the NBA integrated and Baltimore beckoned.

Those Bullets were a sorry lot. An original franchise in the league, which began in 1949, the Bullets lasted five-plus years, going 104-252 and burning through five head coaches before disbanding, bankrupt, early in the 1954-55 season. (A more-recent Baltimore team would rejoin the NBA in 1963 until moving to Washington a decade later.)

Barksdale joined the Bullets in October 1951. Known for a sweet jump shot and driving layups, he galvanized fans starved for victories.

“If Don Barksdale plays for the Bullets, they will win the NBA championship,” former team owner Robert “Jake” Embry said.

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Bad ankles slowed Barksdale’s start, but he soon caught fire. In mid-January, Barksdale scored 20 points, most of them down the stretch, in a narrow loss to the Syracuse Nationals. Four days later, he scored 24 before fouling out in the third quarter. Three days after that, Barksdale totaled 14 points and 21 rebounds — the latter a record for the Baltimore Coliseum — as the Bullets edged the Indianapolis Olympians, 81-78, to end an eight-game losing streak.

Fifteen times in his two years here, he scored 20 or more points. But his off-court demeanor wooed crowds as well. An unpretentious man with a soft, mellow voice, Barksdale also earned kudos for his keen business acumen. By the time he turned pro, he owned a beer distributorship, a creamery and a record store in his native Oakland, California, where he deejayed a rhythm-and-blues radio program. In 1949, he hosted a TV show called “Sepia Revue,” where he interviewed stars such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Louis Armstrong.

Clearly, Barksdale was comfortable in the limelight. His $17,000 Bullets contract, tops on the team, called for him to host the club’s postgame show on WCBM radio — a nightly challenge, given the Bullets’ last-place showing.

Finally, in 1953, strapped for funds, the team dealt Barksdale to the Boston Celtics for cash and four cheap rookies. In two seasons, he’d averaged 13 points and 9 1/2 rebounds; still, the club had floundered. Before he left, however, Bullets fans held an appreciation night at the Coliseum, presenting him with a TV, record player and cuff links. Moreover, the Sports Boosters Club of Baltimore made Barksdale the first Black recipient of its Sportsmanship Award.

He played two more years in Boston, helping the team reach the playoffs twice and impressing the heck out of Bob Cousy, the Celtics’ Hall of Famer.

“I never met anyone who enjoyed life quite as much as [Barksdale] did,” Cousy said. “And none of us had ever seen anyone who did the things, athletically, that he did on the basketball floor.”

Barksdale retired to Oakland, where he ran his own advertising agency and two popular nightclubs, which showcased such Black artists as Nat King Cole, Marvin Gaye, Lou Rawls, and Ike and Tina Turner.

In 1993, at age 69, Barksdale succumbed to throat cancer. In 2012, he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.