When Don Barksdale broke into the NBA in the early 1950s, there weren't many other players like him. He played center with the Baltimore Bullets, although he stood only 6 feet 6 inches, but that's not what made him different.
Some people, thinking back, remember Barksdale as one of pro basketball's first trend-setters. He was one of the first to shoot a turnaround jump shot, and one of the first whose talent package included quickness, athletic ability and grace.
Yet, when Barksdale's package arrived, few accepted it and even fewer understood it.
He was different.
He was black.
Sweetwater Clifton. Earl Lloyd. Chuck Cooper. Don Barksdale. Those were the players who changed the NBA forever and opened the front door for all of the talented black players who today are household names.
Someone had to do it, said Barksdale, now 63. Still, he does not regard himself as a pioneer.
"There's absolutely no way the players today can even think about it," Barksdale said. "I don't think the black baseball players today have any idea what Jackie Robinson did. It's very hard to relate to. It's just something that happened a long time ago."
Barksdale was the first black All-American basketball player at UCLA in 1947, the first black Olympic basketball player in 1948 and the first black NBA All-Star in 1953. For those accomplishments, he will be inducted today into the UCLA Athletic Hall of Fame, along with seven other former Bruin athletes.
UCLA's third basketball All-American, Barksdale led the Pacific Coast Conference Southern Division in scoring under Coach Wilbur Johns, who preceded John Wooden at Westwood.
But it was the arrival of Barksdale, the son of a Pullman porter from Berkeley, that signaled the end of one era and the beginning of another.
Barksdale said it was a rocky trip. Being black was one thing, but being the first black was something entirely different.
"It's kind of hard to call yourself a pioneer," he said. "As you were going through those things, you never thought of it that way. Let's just say that the U.S., at that time, was going through a kind of funny situation as far as blacks were concerned."
As an Olympian, he could not stay in the same hotel as his white teammates. He could not eat in the same restaurants. His own teammates treated him roughly during practice. "I caught hell," Barksdale said.
The U.S. team, which went on to win the gold medal in the 1948 games in London, was coached by Adolph Rupp of the NCAA champion University of Kentucky. The U.S. team played itself in a series of games and one of them was in Lexington, hardly a bastion of racial tolerance in the late '40s.
Still, it was there that Barksdale finally made a breakthrough, and it happened because of a water bottle.
During a timeout, a white teammate took a drink and passed the water bottle to Barksdale, who drank and passed it to a white teammate named Shorty Carpenter. The way Barksdale remembers it, more than 13,000 fans in an outdoor stadium fell silent.
"You could have thought that they all lost their voice," Barksdale said. "It got dead quiet. No white person had ever drank from the same bottle as a black person."
Carpenter, a 6-7, 230-pounder, took a drink.
"The rumble that was going through the stands was unbelievable," Barksdale said. "It was the scariest thing I ever got into, but it was all over once he took that drink.
"Thank God Shorty Carpenter drank from that bottle."
For black basketball players, there were few opportunities to play professionally except for the Harlem Globetrotters and although Barksdale was offered a job with them, he was already making more money working for an Oakland beer distributor. He turned them down.
Besides, he didn't want to be known as either a clown or a dribbler. Barksdale wanted something else. "It was always my dream to play in the NBA," he said.
Barksdale, whose UCLA career had been interrupted by Army duty, chose to play with the Oakland Bittners, an AAU team, until he finally joined the Bullets in 1951. By then he was 28.
It didn't get any easier for Barksdale in the pros. Throughout his career in Baltimore, Barksdale was never allowed to stay with the white players in their hotel. If the Bullets were playing a team with another black player, Barksdale was always assigned to guard him. On offense, his role was limited to rebounding.
Even so, Barksdale made his presence felt. In 1953, besides playing in the All-Star game, he won the Bullets' sportsmanship award.
Traded to the Celtics after the 1953 season, Barksdale retired from the NBA in 1955 and went back to Oakland, where he resumed his beer distributor business and also worked as a disc jockey at a jazz radio station. Later, he owned a nightclub, helping out black performers, and then retired and became active in fund-raising for high school sports.
Barksdale had his own inspirations for his athletic career: Jackie Robinson and Kenny Washington, both in the UCLA Hall of Fame. Now, Barksdale is joining them.