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Don Barksdale: Basketball Pioneer & Community Leader

(March 31, 1923March 8, 1993)

Don was born in Oakland, California and attended nearby Berkeley High School. Berkeley High’s basketball coach, bowing to the racism of the era, cut Don from the team for three-straight years because he wanted no more than one black player on the team at a time. Barksdale honed his playing skills in park basketball and then played for two years for College of Marin, across San Francisco Bay, before earning a scholarship to UCLA.

As a 6'6" center at UCLA, he became the first African-American to be named a consensus All-American in 1947. After college, Don was unable to break the color barrier of the NBA because of an unwritten rule that prohibited minorities from playing. Instead, he played for an Oakland AAU team, The "Bittners", who were selected, along with the University of Kentucky's national championship team to represent the United States at the 1948 Olympics. Though a rising star in the amateur basketball world, Don was not allowed to stay with the team during its national basketball tour by the Olympic and University of Kentucky coach, Adolph Rupp, whose racist views relegated Don to second-class citizen status. Eventually, Don won over the Hall of Fame coach and was named Co-Captain of the Olympic team. He helped the U.S. team bring home the Gold Medal from the London Olympics as the third leading scorer, averaging 9 points a game.

In 1951, Don signed a two-year, $60,000 contract with the Baltimore Bullets making him one of the earliest African-Americans to join the NBA after Earl Lloyd, Chuck Cooper, Nathaniel Clifton ahd Hank DeZonie broke the color barrier in 1950. At the time he was one of the highest paid players in the league. Don was also the first black selected to play in an NBA All Star game in 1953. After two years with the Bullets he was traded from Baltimore to the Boston Celtics. He played two more seasons with the Celtics when ankle problems ended his career.

Through Barksdale's basketball-playing years, he was also starting a career in radio broadcasting. In 1948, he became the first black radio disc jockey in the San Francisco Bay Area, started his own record label called Rhythm Records, and opened two nightclubs in Oakland. He also worked in television and owned a beer distributorship. In 1983, he launched the ‘Save High School Sports Foundation’, which in 10 years raised one million dollars and is credited with helping to save Oakland school athletic programs from collapse. He succumbed to throat cancer when he was 69.

In February, Bounce: The Don Barksdale Story is scheduled to be broadcast on FSN Bay Area. The documentary was produced by Doug Harris for Athletes United for Peace, a Berkeley-based youth sports and media organization.

Edited from websites at the University of West Virginia, Wikipedia and USA Basketball Inc.