Dick Barnett, Knicks Legend, Finally Gets His Due

The hardwood hero will visit the White House this week and will soon be able to call himself a Hall of Famer.

Via Live Star Entertainment
Basketball player Dick Barnett, a 2024 inductee into the NBA Hall of Fame. Via Live Star Entertainment

New York Knicks legend Richard “Dick” Barnett, 87, is enjoying what he calls “a major” week in his life. On Friday, he will visit the White House for a ceremony recognizing his college basketball team for its historic three-peat in the NAIA national tournament more than 60 years ago. Come Saturday, he’ll officially be announced as a member of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, Class of 2024.

“Better late than never,” Mr. Barnett told the Sun in a phone interview from Clearwater after confirming his upcoming appointments at the District of Columbia and the Hall of Fame at Springfield, Massachusetts. “It’s almost like a dream. I’ve thought about it for years.”

Mr. Barnett, who perfected the left-handed “Fall Back Baby” jump shot, is the seventh member of the Knicks’ 1970 and 1973 championship teams to be inducted. He joins Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Bill Bradley, Jerry Lucas, Dave DeBusschere, and Earl “the Pearl” Monroe.

A native of Gary, Indiana, Mr. Barnett averaged 23.1 points a game during his first season at New York in 1965, but he relinquished his own pursuit of points as the team improved with the arrival of players like Messrs. Frazier and Monroe. Over nine seasons with the Knicks, Mr. Barnett averaged 15.6 points a game and provided leadership and a veteran presence that proved instrumental in the franchise’s only two championship seasons.

“When people look at his numbers, they realize he was a great player,” Mr. Frazier told the Sun. “He was the veteran who showed me how to be a pro. He’s the one who showed me how to dress like I do now.”

Letters from former teammates like Mr. Bradley, Mr. Frazier, and Steve Baumley of the Dr. Richard Barnett Foundation snagged the attention of the men’s veteran committee, which named Mr. Barnett its 2024 finalist. “He knew one day he would get in,” Mr. Baumley told the Sun. “He just hoped to see that day.”

A top NBA play-by-play broadcaster, Mike Breen, told the Sun that Mr. Barnett was underappreciated. “Before the championship years if you go back and look at his numbers, his numbers were off the charts,” Mr. Breen said. “Knicks fans talk about the sacrifice between Monroe and Frazier, but the sacrifice Dick made for the championships was enormous. He could have scored more, but because he was part of a fantastic team it was all about winning.”

With 15,358 career points, two championships in the NBA, and another title in the American Basketball League, Mr. Barnett had the credentials to campaign for Hall of Fame consideration. Yet his primary focus for more than a decade was getting his college team enshrined.

Coached by the legendary Hall of Famer John McClendon, Tennessee A&I — now Tennessee State — won three consecutive NAIA national tournaments between 1957 and 1959, when Mr. Barnett was the Most Valuable Player. The Tigers were also the first HBCU to win a national predominantly white tournament, nine years before Texas Western, which started five African Americans in the 1966 NCAA Championship Game. The Miners were enshrined in 2007.

Mr. Barnett spent nearly 11 years traveling throughout the country convincing Hall of Fame voters that his college team deserved the ultimate recognition. His relentless quest to gain support for his cause is chronicled in a documentary, “The Dream Whisperer,” which recently aired on PBS. His lobbying of politicians, activists, school administrators, and former players finally paid off in 2019, when the ’57-’59 Tennessee A&I Tigers were inducted.

That team’s captain, known as “Skull” Barnett, didn’t stop there. He also wanted the team to be invited to the White House, the custom for national championship teams. That ceremony, endorsed in a letter signed by several politicians, takes place on Friday, 65 years after college basketball’s first three-peat.

“We’re preparing to get to the White House and get this thing done,” Mr. Barnett told the Sun. “This is something I envisioned long ago. No lie can live forever.”

The director of “The Dream Whisperer,” Eric Drath, has been filming Mr. Barnett since 2011. “His stats alone are worthy of the Hall of Fame,” Mr. Drath told the Sun. “But when you put the body of work and his contribution to the sport, it’s unquestionable he should be there.” 

Mr. Drath adds that Mr. Barnett “should have been there a while ago because of what he did in high school playing against Oscar Robertson; what he did in college with a three-peat national championship; what he did in the NBA; and what he did getting his Ph.D. and giving back. Think about all the guys that get inducted and you don’t hear from them again. Dick never left the sport and he stayed in a meaningful way.”

Mr. Barnett received news of his impending induction Monday via a phone call from the chairman of the Hall of Fame, Jerry Colangelo. “I knew when I hit the court in Gary, Indiana, as a high school player that I belonged,” Mr. Barnett said. “Now I have to get in a little bit of shape so I can move around decently with this White House visit and the Hall of Fame coming about.”

The New York Sun

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