In 1957, the men’s basketball program at Tennessee Agricultural & Industrial State University in Nashville had all of the makings of a great team: a coach dedicated to the fundamentals of the game and a fast-breaking offense that applied relentless full-court pressure.
“We felt that if we stayed focused, there was nobody else who could beat us,” said Dick Barnett, a shooting guard for the team.
That was true, three times over. The Tennessee A&I Tigers would become 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.
But the team, caught in the headwinds of the Jim Crow South, has struggled for recognition ever since.
Barnett, now 87, who went on to play for the two New York Knicks championship teams in the 1970s, has spent the last decade working to correct that. He has spent years campaigning for the Tigers to be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and is teaching a new generation of basketball players at Tennessee State University, as the school is now known, about the barrier-breaking team.
His journey is now the subject of a new PBS documentary, “The Dream Whisperer.”
And if Barnett has his way, the journey will include one final stop: the White House. More than 50 members of Congress have signed a letter on the team’s behalf asking for an invitation “for long overdue acknowledgment and proper celebration.”
Time is of the essence. Only seven players from the championship teams are still alive, and only three of them and a surviving assistant coach are healthy enough to travel, said Danielle Naassana, a producer of the film.
“I still feel like it’s a big issue — not just for me, but for my race — to be accepted and to go to the White House after being omitted all of these years,” George Finley, 85, a former center for the team, said in an interview.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
If the team gets there, it will be because of Barnett.
Barnett grew up in segregated Gary, Ind., shooting Ping-Pong balls into a tin cup. But when he was around 9 or 10 years old, he traded them for a basketball and would shoot at a local court late into the night.
On one of those nights, he was practicing his signature jump shot — a question mark-shaped shot with plenty of air — when the Tigers’ coach, John McLendon, showed up asking if he’d like to join him at Tennessee A&I.
Barnett arrived in Nashville in 1955, the year Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi and Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery, Ala., for refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a city bus. The team was keenly aware of the societal forces working against them, Barnett said. Their biggest hurdle could be summed up in two words: “Skin color, skin color, skin color,” he said.
“The implication was that you were not good enough as white folks to do what we wanted to do, that this is America, this is a white American society,” he said. “We were a part of American history, even though we were a different color, a different style.”
Barnett said McLendon put in “tremendous effort” to keep his players focused and understand that “we were just as good as anybody else playing this game,” even if it meant staying in private homes when playing on the road because hotels would not host them.
“I always knew I was great,” Barnett said. “I was a great shooter. I was a great player.”
McLendon, a disciple of basketball’s inventor, James Naismith, was fighting his own battle. He had tried to move Tennessee A&I to the N.C.A.A. but was denied entry, so instead, the team played in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics.
The Tigers, conditioned for speed and accuracy, jolted the league by winning championships in 1957, 1958 and 1959. Nine players from the Tennessee A&I championship teams would go on to play professional basketball.
The championship wins are noted on pendants that hang from the rafters at the Gentry Center at Tennessee State, but the team’s legacy was all but lost to history, until Barnett “decided to do something about it,” as he says in the documentary.
In the film, the former N.B.A. players Julius Erving, Walt Frazier, Bill Bradley and Phil Jackson all make the case for the team’s induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame. But it took Barnett nearly a decade to make the case to Hall of Fame voters that his team was worthy of recognition.
In 2019, he finally slipped on the orange jacket at the induction ceremony as a representative of the team.
“His leadership on the floor as a basketball player was really the type of, show me don’t tell me,” said Eric Drath, who directed the documentary. “That was the same way it was with making the film.”
Ron Thomas, the author of “They Cleared the Lane: The NBA’s Black Pioneers,” said it was common in the Jim Crow era for Black teams to be ignored by the white media.
“America has missed out by not being able to hear about and read about and see the teams of some of these great coaches and players, of that era,” said Thomas, the director of the journalism in sports, culture and social justice program at Morehouse College. “They got no exposure whatsoever.”
But for teams like the Tennessee A&I Tigers, there was an extra layer of responsibility, Thomas said: “They represent more than just themselves.”