An Overlooked Championship Team’s Final Stop: The White House

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When Vice President Kamala Harris greeted Dick Barnett on Friday, he was concise in his response.

“Finally.”

At long last, six surviving members of the all-Black Tennessee Agricultural & Industrial State University in Nashville visited the White House, the culmination of a decades-long effort, led by Mr. Barnett, for recognition.

The Tennessee A&I Tigers were the first team from a historically Black college or university to win any national championship, and the first college team to win three back-to-back championships, in 1957, 1958 and 1959. The former teammates — Mr. Barnett, George Finley, Ernest Jones, Henry Carlton, Robert Clark and Ron Hamilton — took part in a private ceremony in the Roosevelt Room of the White House with Ms. Harris, who paid tribute to the team during a round-table discussion.

“There’s so much that we have accomplished as a nation because of the heroes like those that I’m looking at right now,” Ms. Harris said, adding, “I, like so many of us, stand on your broad shoulders, each one of you.”

Even though nine players from the Tennessee A&I championship teams went on to play professional basketball, their accomplishments quickly receded in the Jim Crow South.

Mr. Barnett, a former shooting guard, has spent the last decade trying to correct that. He campaigned for years for the team to be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, while teaching the next generation of basketball players at Tennessee State University, as the school is now known, about the barrier-breaking team.

When Ms. Harris asked Mr. Barnett, 87, to describe their playing days, he said, “It was a constant struggle.”

“But you didn’t give up,” Ms. Harris said, according to a video of the ceremony released by the White House.

“No question about it,” he responded.

His work was rewarded in 2019, when the Tennessee A&I teams of 1957-59 were inducted into the Hall of Fame, a journey that was the subject of a recent PBS documentary, “The Dream Whisperer.”

But the final piece of the puzzle was a celebration at the White House — a longtime American tradition and one that Mr. Barnett felt was long overdue. And time was of the essence: Only eight players and one assistant coach from the championship teams are still alive.

More than 50 members of Congress signed a letter in January on the team’s behalf asking for a White House invitation “for long overdue acknowledgment and proper celebration.”

After the ceremony, the team gave Ms. Harris a customized jersey and took a tour of the White House.

In an interview afterward, Mr. Barnett said of the visit, “It felt good that that time finally came.”

George Finley, 85, a former center for the team who traveled to Washington from Los Angeles with his grandson, said he never thought a White House visit would happen. He told Ms. Harris that Friday was “one of the greatest days of our lives.” He also showed her a picture of Ms. Harris and President Biden that he carries in his wallet.

“I look at this as a promotion for H.B.C.U. schools and the recognition that this school brought to all of those colleges; it’s really something big,” he said in an interview before Friday’s ceremony. “Even though so many years have passed, it’s still good.”

Their coach, John McLendon, an exacting technician, “would be lit up over this,” Mr. Finley added. “He was to me one of the greatest coaches that ever existed.”

Mr. McLendon, who died in 1999, had tried to move Tennessee A&I to the N.C.A.A. but was denied. Instead, the team played in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics.

Ernest Johnson, 85, and his wife took a train to Washington from Chicago. He was sidelined with injuries during the 1959 championship run, but went on to play for the Harlem Globetrotters and for semiprofessional teams. After discrimination kept his college team out of the national spotlight for so long, Mr. Johnson said, the visit to the White House was well earned.

“No one saw this as being that great an accomplishment until somebody really, really worked and made them aware of it,” he said in an interview before the ceremony.

Mr. Johnson, who grew up playing on dirt courts in Mississippi, does not remember much from his Tennessee A&I days, but he does remember Mr. McLendon’s infamous conditioning routine: Running three miles every day before the season and three miles every day 21 days before the tournament. Mr. McLendon called them “the championship miles.”

If Mr. McLendon had lived to see his team visit the White House, he would say, “Hallelujah,” Mr. Johnson said. “I would say to him, ‘A job well done, coach.’”

Friday may not be the last celebration for Mr. Barnett, who went on to play for the only two New York Knicks championship teams in the 1970s, dazzling fans with his signature, question mark-shaped jump shot. He is a finalist for this year’s Basketball Hall of Fame class, which is expected to be announced on Saturday during the Men’s Final Four tournament in Phoenix.

Mr. Barnett’s former Knicks teammate Walt Frazier appeared to pre-empt the official announcement during a Knicks game broadcast this week, saying he had heard from another Knicks legend, Earl Monroe, that Mr. Barnett’s induction was official.

“I’m glad you finally heard that,” Mr. Barnett said in the interview on Friday, adding, “They had indicated they were trying to keep it secret for a while.”

Michael A. McCoy and Erica L. Green contributed reporting.

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