LOS ANGELES – Don’t let the appearance of the octogenarian in the wheelchair fool you: Dick Barnett still talks a good game.
He signed his first NBA contract in 1959 for a modest salary of $7,200, he recalled Saturday, with a somewhat rueful tone. His nickname during his run with the Lakers – but more famously during his nine-season tenure with the Knicks – was “Fall Back Baby,” a reference to his trusty jump shot with a characteristic backward kick of his heels.
In a different era, he knows he would have been a millionaire many times over as many players are today: “And none of these guys could carry my jockey strap,” he said bluntly.
But unlike many of his generation, Barnett’s driving passion for creating a lasting memory of his playing days isn’t driven by individual glory. A new documentary about Barnett, The Dream Whisperer, debuted this weekend at the Pan-African Film and Arts Festival in Baldwin Hills. It details Barnett’s nearly decade-long quest to get his ground-breaking Tennessee State basketball team into the Naismith Hall of Fame.
Barnett, who played three seasons with the Lakers alongside the likes of Elgin Baylor and Jerry West (who attended the premiere) is known for his lengthy NBA career, but he sprung into the league from the humble background of Nashville where his TSU Tigers won three straight NAIA championships. Years before Texas Western captured the nation’s attention by topping Kentucky with an all-Black starting lineup, Barnett was the star player of a Southern hoops dynasty at an HBCU that was very nearly forgotten.
TSU was coached by John McClendon, a Hall-of-Famer in his own right who pioneered the fast-paced game that would later be built upon by teams like the Showtime Lakers. Excluded from the NCAA tournament by racist attitudes, the Tigers competed in the forums they could, staying in private homes on the road instead of hotels in Southern cities where they weren’t welcome.
The hourlong film chronicles the exploits of Tennessee State’s success, winning NAIA titles in 1957, 1958 and 1959 with commentary from such luminaries as Walt Frazier, Phil Jackson and David Stern. But its primary concern is Barnett’s personal mission to get the team enshrined into the Hall of Fame – for their groundbreaking achievement, but also for their prowess on the biggest stage Black athletes had access to at the time.
“I have a story that must be told,” Barnett says from the outset of the film, and as teammates and others die during his nearly decade-long quest, the stakes of his cause become more clear as he lobbies the Hall, at Madison Square Garden and even enlists Al Sharpton to bring visibility to the TSU Tigers.
Spoiler alert: Barnett’s cause is denied eight straight years. In 2019, Hall voters finally acceded. But one gets the sense that those involved in the film (and perhaps Barnett himself) believe that he deserves more recognition. Director Eric Drach, after an 11-year journey to bring the film to screen, said he believes Barnett deserves to be enshrined as an individual (the Knicks retired his jersey number) – and witnessing his diligence about recognition for TSU, a strong case is made.
The film, which is scheduled to be screened in several upcoming film festivals, has not yet announced a wider distribution.