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Dick Barnett’s efforts have helped preserve Tennessee A&I’s rich basketball history

‘The Dream Whisperer’ documentary is a product of the 85-year-old’s push to recognize the first HBCU to win a national college basketball tournament

For decades, Dick Barnett expressed his frustration to anyone who would listen about the lack of recognition for his historic college basketball team. Tennessee State, named Tennessee A&I until 1968, was the first historically Black college and university (HBCU) to win a national college basketball tournament.

It wasn’t until 2011, shortly after a story about Barnett’s frustration appeared in print, that the two-time NBA champion finally felt heard.

“I spoke to [Ed Peskowitz, former owner of the Atlanta Hawks] and he asked me, ‘Whatever happened to those Tennessee A&I teams?’ ” Barnett recalled. “That conversation is when I decided that I didn’t want what we accomplished lost to history.”

The Dream Whisperer, a documentary sparked by that column and the conversation with Peskowitz, will premiere this weekend at Danny Glover’s Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles.

In an era where college sports remained largely segregated, Tennessee A&I won the NAIA basketball championship in 1957, defended its title in 1958 and notched a then unprecedented three-peat in 1959 — a momentous example of what Black athletes were able to accomplish if given the opportunity to play against predominantly white competition. Coached by the legendary John McLendon, those Tennessee A&I teams had seven players drafted into the NBA.

Barnett, now 85, was the clear star, winning back-to-back NAIA MVP honors in 1958 and 1959, which led to him being selected by the Syracuse Nationals with the No. 4 pick of the 1959 NBA draft. While he played on four NBA teams, it was his nine seasons playing with the New York Knicks where the 6-foot-4 shooting guard made his biggest impact, winning two NBA titles utilizing a left-handed jumper that had kids throughout the five boroughs of New York City emulating his unique leg kick.

“I’d shout, ‘Fall back, baby,’ ” Barnett said when asked about his shot. “When you played against me, it was put up or shut up.”

Dick Barnett says the documentary The Dream Whisperer should be shown to all incoming freshmen at now-Tennessee State. “Now it’s time to get this story to our young people, so this history isn’t forgotten,” he said.

The Dream Whisperer

“I played against all the great guards — Sam Jones, Oscar Robertson, Dave Bing. I didn’t have any doubts about how good we [Tennessee A&I] were. I was ready and willing to kick everybody’s ass.”

Barnett has received numerous accolades for his career. He was inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007 and his No. 12 jersey was retired by the Knicks in 1990.

But the fact that his historical college team was never properly celebrated put him on a journey to get that group included in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

“We felt we had the best basketball team in the nation but, as a Black school, we weren’t allowed to compete in the NCAA or NIT tournaments,” Barnett said. “I played against all the great guards — Sam Jones, Oscar Robertson, Dave Bing. I didn’t have any doubts about how good we were. I was ready and willing to kick everybody’s ass.”

Longtime sportswriter George Willis wrote the article that served as the impetus for the documentary and Barnett’s quest to get Tennessee A&I recognition. Tennessee A&I won its last title seven years before Texas Western won the 1966 NCAA title with an all-Black starting five.

“I had long known of it as a football power,” Willis said of Tennessee A&I, which has sent more than 100 players into the NFL, including Joe Gilliam, Richard Dent and Ed “Too Tall” Jones. “I really wasn’t familiar with the school having any kind of accomplished basketball team until we talked about it.”

That article created a domino effect: After Peskowitz read it, he reached out to director Eric Drath, a two-time Emmy winner, to see if he would be interested in a documentary on the subject.

“We put cameras on Dick not long after the story ran about him trying to get his team recognized by the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame and we had no idea what the ending was going to be,” Drath said. “We took a chance because they were denied by the Hall of Fame so many times, and it was no sure thing they were going to be inducted.”

As the film documents failed efforts to get the team recognized on a national level by the Hall of Fame, it also demonstrates the team’s lack of recognition within the walls of the Nashville, Tennessee, school.

“There are several moments where people on campus have no knowledge about what we did,” Barnett said. “If they didn’t know about what we did at Tennessee State [A&I], what about the students at the other historical Black colleges?”

Dick Barnett (third from right) next to Rev. Al Sharpton (third from left) at a Tennessee State event in October 2014 to show support for the cause to get the Tennessee A&I championship basketball teams of 1957, 1958 and 1959 inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

The Dream Whisperer

Other HBCUs don’t recognize what the team accomplished in winning those three straight titles at a time when they were looked at as being less than. Tennessee A&I’s first title came just four years after the NAIA allowed HBCU teams to participate in the national tournament for the first time in 1953.

“When we got to the national tournament in Kansas City, it was segregated like most of the United States,” Barnett said. “But one of the things that made John McLendon so great is that he made sure the tournament knew that if we were going to participate, we had to eat at the same restaurant and sleep in the same hotels as every other team.”

As years passed from the time crews started taping Barnett’s efforts after that 2011 article, the rejections mounted from the Basketball Hall of Fame, some of the people interviewed died (John Thompson, David Stern, Anthony Mason and Earl Lloyd), and the project took on a sense of urgency.

“The team kept getting overlooked, and it started to feel like a race against time because Dick’s not getting any younger,” said Willis, who serves as an executive producer. “And you get to a point where you’re thinking, ‘Why is it taking so long to get them inducted?’ ”

“This really is a story of never giving up. What we capture in this project is Dick’s unbelievable persistence and tenacity.”

— Eric Drath, director of The Dream Whisperer, on Dick Barnett and the documentary

The documentary has a happy ending with the 2019 induction of the Tennessee A&I team into the Basketball Hall of Fame, showing the power of the efforts of one man on a mission.

“This really is a story of never giving up,” Drath said. “What we capture in this project is Dick’s unbelievable persistence and tenacity. The idea of, with all the denials, Dick coming to a point where he wasn’t banging on the next door — that never crossed my mind.”

While Barnett is happy that his efforts for recognition were rewarded, he feels his journey to get respect for his team continues.

“A lot of people didn’t live to see this to its end, so I’m happy for the four or five of us still who’ll be able to see this documentary on our history,” Barnett said. “Now it’s time to get this story to our young people, so this history isn’t forgotten. Every incoming freshman at Tennessee State should be required to see this about our history, about their history.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at Andscape. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright and watching the Knicks play a MEANINGFUL NBA game in June.