When you call his cell, or he calls you, the gravelly voice responds both as a statement and fact.


Dick Barnett – Dr. Dick Barnett – an owner of two championship rings with the Knicks and a Doctor of Education from Fordham University, is nothing but relentless when he wants to accomplish something worthwhile.

Now 85 years of age, Barnett is the focus of a decades long obsession to tell the story of the first college basketball team to win three consecutive national championships. And no, it’s not John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins.

It’s Barnett’s team.

His squad, the Tennessee A&I State College Tigers (now Tennessee State University), is one of the many Historical Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) across this nation whose sports exploits have been forgotten.

During the 1957-59 three-peat, the Tigers went 99-10 with team captain Barnett winning back-to-back NAIA tournament MVP awards.

“They wouldn’t put us in the NCAA tournament,” recalls Barnett, a native of segregated Gary, Indiana. “We wanted to play Bill Russell (of San Francisco University). They wouldn’t even put us in the Garden for the NIT.”

TSU has had it’s share of name athletes like the NFL’s Ed “Too Tall” Jones and Richard Dent and track’s Olympic star Wilma Rudolph, but not so much in basketball though Truck Robinson and current Clipper Robert Covington made the NBA. Oprah Winfrey attended TSU but didn’t finish her degree until 1987.

For eleven years, Barnett has been a one track mind in trying to get his beloved team inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

In the past, the Hall has celebrated teams with induction like the Original Celtics, the Dream Team, the Harlem Globetrotters, the Harlem Renaissance and Texas Western.

Barnett’s journey is featured in the completed documentary entitled “The Dream Whisperer” narrative by who else – Dick Barnett.

It premiered Saturday, April 30 at the 30th Annual Pan African Film & Arts Festival in Los Angeles.

His quest became a reality in 2019 when Barnett’s Tigers were inducted into the Hall along with Vlade Divac, Jack Sikma, Sidney Moncrief, Al Attles, and Teresa Witherspoon, among others.

Some years since 2011, the team was on the finalist ballot for the Hall and other years they were left off.

“With Dick, it is never the Basketball Hall of Fame,” says long-time sports columnist George Willis, adding a chuckle. “It’s always the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.”

Willis’ 2011 column started the ball rolling.

“Dick called me and said he’s on this quest to get his college team inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame,” remembers Willis. “He told me about the team winning three consecutive NAIA tournaments.

“They win the first tournament and return to the lunch counter [sit ins] in Nashville to face the ugly face of racism and they did that in the midst of Jim Crow.”

So, there was a parade for the team?

“No,” says Barnett, matter-of-factly. “The parade was from the airport back to campus.”

Emmy-award winning producer Eric Drath was sent a link to Willis’ column by a man he didn’t know and was told this would make a great documentary.

That man, Ed Peskowitz, bankrolled the project with an educational 501c3. Peskowitz, Drath, also producer and director of the documentary, and Willis, along with two others, are executive producers of this long-time labor of love.

There are many big names in the film talking about the Tigers, Barnett and what they accomplished.

There’s a plethora of Hall of Famers like Phil Jackson, Walt Frazier, Bill Bradley, Julius Erving, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Witherspoon and Civil Rights Activists Rev. Al Sharpton and Dr. Harry Edwards.

Sharpton even went to TSU to help push Barnett’s dream.

This project has been so long in the making that many of the documentary’s stars are no longer with us like NBA Commissioner David Stern, Georgetown coach and Hall of Famer John Thompson, former Knick and TSU student/athlete Anthony Mason and John McClendon’s widow Joanna.

Teammate John “The Rabbit” Barnhill, who played 10 years in the NBA/ABA, died in 2013. The funeral memorial was captured during the filming.

The documentary also has great archival footage of that era complete with sit in demonstrations, the Ku Klux Klan, Governor George Wallace and multiple film and audio clips of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

There is no downside to the documentary as Coach Thompson speaks his mind, but Hall of Fame president John Doleva and director Spike Lee don’t come across as warm and fuzzy during Barnett’s quest.

One hilarious moment came when Doleva is chatting with a sitting Barnett, touches his lapel and opines, “I like your jacket.”

Barnett looks up at him with those sleepy eyelids and declares, “It’s a suit!”

Coach McClendon died in 1999 and he is a documentary in waiting.

He was inducted into the Hall as a contributor in 1979 because he was a close associate of basketball guru James Naismith. McClendon also won 523 games as a coach in 28 years and eventually was inducted for that accomplishment in 2016 thus joining his College Basketball Hall of Fame selection from 2006.

McClendon was also the first coach fired by one George M. Steinbrenner III as he was the coach of the Cleveland Pipers of the ABL.

“There was the time Coach McClendon, who liked to swim, went for a swim in the Duke University pool after an unsanctioned game versus Duke. TSU beat Duke and,” recalls Barnett, years after he left school, “they drained the pool after that.”

Barnett, a southpaw, has come a long way from the odd-looking-jump-shot-shooting-non-going-to-class athlete.

“The joke was a teacher asked Dick what was his grade point average and he replied, ‘Twenty-five points per game,’” says Frazier in the documentary. “He never went to class.”

Besides the two championships with the Knicks and the three in college, Barnett also captured a title with the Pipers and his high school team lost in the Indiana state finals to a team led by one Oscar Robertson. It was the first time in Indiana schoolboy basketball history that two all-Black teams competed for the state championship.

Tennessee A&I’s legacy has been cherished and protected by Barnett for good reason. The Tigers are probably the best team you never heard of.

Seven members of that team were drafted by the NBA with two – Barnett (1959) and Ben Warley (1961) – selected in the first round.

But basketball could only take him so far.

“I was one of those young Black kids that didn’t understand the implications of education and what it would mean for your future,” says Barnett especially after tearing his Achilles tendon in 1967 at MSG.

Nicknamed “The Skull” in college and “Fall Back Baby” in the pros, Barnett carved a 14-year career on the hardwood as a savvy ball player and off the court as an author, educator and professor at St. John’s University and Monroe College in the Bronx.

Over the course of making the documentary you see Barnett age. Walking upright at the beginning of the film to stooped over and using a cane-like device years later, but his mind is as accurate as his hard to duplicate jumper.

But the documentary was Barnett’s baby plain and simple. He kept up the pressure to get it done.

“I never thought about quitting,” he admits, though he did hear, “a lot of nos.”

“It’s that same work ethic [for the documentary] he put in, that made him a great basketball player,” says Drath.

“It was his ultimate, maybe, final mission in life,” says Willis.

Not really.

“I’ve been working on the Dr. Dick Barnett Foundation,” says the Manhattan resident who lives about eight blocks from his old stomping grounds at the Garden. “The foundation is to develop internships and scholarships for young people.”

“He’s a maverick,” says Frazier about his backcourt mate for the first Knick championship. “He was the last guy [of our team] to get his number retired. We had to put pressure on the Garden.”

If Barnett uses his pressure, then “The Maverick Whisperer of Education” could be his next pride and joy. Hopefully, this quest won’t take upwards of 60 years to complete.


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