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Pioneer Barksdale spent his life opening doors for others

POSTED: Feb 14, 2013 11:56 AM ET

By Scott Howard-Cooper

BY Scott Howard-Cooper


Begin at the end, with maybe the greatest impact Don Barksdale felt he made.

Barrier Breakers: Don Barksdale

In 1983, decades after a brief-but-meaningful NBA career, he started a foundation that raised money to help save high school sports in financially strapped Oakland, the city where he was born. That was the year Barksdale turned 60. That was for teenagers who could not have appreciated the role he played in basketball history, if they knew it at all.

But, said close friend Al Attles, the former NBA player and Warriors coach, "I think he was most proud of the fact that he had that program for the kids."

More than anything he did as one of the pioneers of the game.

"Because he didn't want it to be an all-me situation," Attles said. "It's nice to feel proud of your accomplishments. But something like saving the high school sports, I know it's something he would have been very, very proud of."

Don Barksdale, who died of cancer in 1993 at age 69, spent his adult life opening doors for others and keeping them open.

He was the first African-American to be named NCAA All-America.

He was the first African-American to play on a U.S. Olympic basketball team.

He was the first African-American to play in the NBA All-Star Game.

Derek Barksdale, son of Hall of Famer Don Barksdale, speaks at the 2012 Hall of Fame ceremony.

So great was Barksdale's contribution that he went from averaging 11 points and eight rebounds in just four seasons as a lanky 6-foot-6, 200-pound forward with the Celtics and Baltimore Bullets to being elected to the Hall of Fame in 2012 via the Early African-American Pioneers of the Game Committee. This man who pushed to save high school sports in Oakland? He never played high school basketball in neighboring Berkeley because of a rule that limited teams to one African-American on the roster.

An unlikely career path started on the playgrounds, before he made the team at Marin Junior College for two seasons. In 1943, Barksdale earned a scholarship to UCLA, where the Bruins had a progressive program that would help lead the way in race relations in college sports for decades. Following military duty in World War II, he returned to school and in 1947 was named All-America.

A year later, he was a member of the Olympic team that won gold in London. When the team gathered in Lexington, Ky., for a training camp, Barksdale, according to the story passed down through the years, Barksdale was not allowed to live with his teammates.

Barksdale played AAU ball -- he also won an AAU national triple-jump title -- before signing with the Bullets in 1951. He spent two seasons in Baltimore, including 1952-53 as an All-Star as part of a campaign of 13.8 points and 9.2 rebounds, before being traded to the Celtics and playing two more seasons.

"I was extremely happy I was chosen because the coaches chose you," Barksdale was quoted in the New York Times in 1993. "It wasn't like today when the fans choose. I didn't touch the ball much in the game, but at least I was on the team. I was very proud of it."

He returned to the Bay Area after his career ended in 1955 and became a businessman who bought a record label and two nightclubs, later to be inducted in the UCLA Hall of Fame, the Pacific-12 Conference Hall of Fame and, in 2012, the basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. One of his sons, Derek, gave the warm acceptance speech that touched on Barksdale's personal side more than the basketball.

"In closing," Derek said, "I want to thank big Don Barksdale. Dad. We love you and we'll be forever proud of you. Not only for being a Hall of Famer, but for being a significant and great person who made a change on society."

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him and follow him on Twitter.

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