ANNAPOLIS – In 1953, Don Barksdale became the first black All-Star in NBA history, starting that season with the Baltimore Bullets and ending it with the Boston Celtics.
In February, Barksdale was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame by the Early African-American Pioneers Committee.
Barksdale, a Berkeley, Calif., native, was influenced greatly by baseball great Jackie Robinson, who played college football at UCLA, a school Barksdale would later attend.
“I was about 14 years old when I first saw Jackie, and I’d have to say he was my first big hero,” said Barksdale, in a documentary film on his life titled, BOUNCE: The Don Barksdale Story.
Barksdale, who played at UCLA, became the first black NCAA All-American in 1947, and the first to make the U.S. Olympic team in 1948.
When Barksdale entered the NBA in 1951 with the Baltimore Bullets, he already had a career as the Bay Area’s first black disc jockey. In fact, according to the film, Barksdale’s contract with the Bullets included a post-game radio show.
Arnie Heft, 92, was part owner of the Baltimore Bullets in those days and still remembers Barksdale.
“I remember he was very quick, a heck of a basketball player…I can almost picture him in front of me,” Heft said. “I remember he was quick as hell.”
Heft said Barksdale was well-liked on and off the court, a sentiment shared by Boston Celtic great Bob Cousy.
After Baltimore, Barksdale played for the Celtics, the same franchise that drafted Chuck Cooper, the NBA’s first black player chosen in the draft.
“Chuck didn’t have the offense that Barks had,” said Cousy, NBA Hall of Famer, Celtics legend and former teammate of both.
“Barks was a forerunner of the exceptional black players that came after him,” Cousy said.
Barksdale’s contract with the Bullets made him one of the top 10 highest paid athletes in the league, according to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Boston has had a reputation as a tough place for black athletes over the years. For example, Celtic great and Cousy teammate Bill Russell had an infamously frosty relationship with some in Boston, once calling the city a, “flea market of racism.”
But Cousy said Barksdale’s personality helped him acclimate well to Boston.
“He neutralized any negative reaction because he was the nicest man you could imagine,” Cousy said. “He was very outgoing, very giving, as he proved later on in his life.”
Cousy said Barksdale wasn’t just athletically gifted, he was California cool.
“He was neither a shy retiring minority, nor did he have a chip on his shoulder,” Cousy said.
When Barksdale left basketball, his personality helped him continue a successful business and disc jockey career in Oakland. He also founded the Save High School Sports Foundation, which helped numerous Bay Area sports programs.
Barksdale died in 1993 at age 69 from throat cancer.