End Basketball’s Blacklist: Let Players And Coaches From Black Colleges Into The Hall Of Fame

By Dan Flores
Updated: September 30, 2007

NEW YORK — Woody Sauldsberry died this month. He was the NBA’s Rookie of the Year in 1958. Two years earlier, he led his Texas Southern squad to the finals of the NAIA, the first time that a team from a historically black college had ventured so far in an integrated tournament.

When he played, Sauldsberry was a 6-foot-8 muscular forward who could shoot from the outside, run and rebound. When he died in a low-income Baltimore residence, he was broke, alone and on the verge of losing his left leg to diabetes, which took his right.

Woody had a wonderful smile, which covered his pain. But he was a forgotten man by all but a few of his peers – and tragically, just one of many basketball players from historically black colleges that the game’s Hall of Fame has never even thought twice about.

It is time for that to change.

Earlier this month, the 1966 all-black starting five from the predominantly white Texas Western College, who won the NCAA championship and were recently lionized in a Hollywood movie, were inducted into that same Hall. Woody’s plight, however, mirrors countless others who never even got nominated.

In 1957, Newark-born Cleo Hill, shooting with both hands and sinking hook shots from the deep corners, preceded Earl (The Pearl) Monroe at Winston-Salem State University. One of the first individuals to play above the rim, the 6-foot-1 Hill was labeled “the greatest basketball player, white or black, of his time” by Howie Evans of the Amsterdam News.

John McLendon, a compact, light-skinned disciple of the game’s inventor, Dr. James Naismith, revolutionized the sport by inventing the four corners offense and implementing the fast break.

Never heard of these men? Not surprising.

The achievements of black players and coaches are even more remarkable considering teams from historically black colleges were banned from participating in integrated postseason tournaments, hardly mentioned by the “majority” press, forced to recruit on minuscule budgets — and even, as in the case of McLendon in March 1944, played “white teams” in secret locations out of fear of being arrested by local authorities.

Making matters worse was the post collegiate plight of black players. Few basketball opportunities existed; semipro teams such as the New York Renaissance, traveling but talented minstrel squads like the Harlem Globetrotters and later, some smaller outlets such as the Eastern Pro League were the only places an alum of a historically black college had to show off his skills.

Even McLendon’s legendary Tennessee A&I squads, which won 94 of 102 games from 1957 to 1959, never had the opportunity to play against the likes of UCLA, Ohio State, etc. However, they played the single greatest team of its day — the 1960 U.S. Olympic squad led by Oscar Robertson and Jerry West — and beat them.

McLendon, who passed away in 1999, the winner of 523 games and also the first African-American to coach in an integrated professional league (the Cleveland Pipers of the old ABL in 1960-61), was actually inducted into the Hall in 1979, as “a contributor,” never as a coach.

Excluded, even now.

The likes of Dr. Ed Henderson, coaches Fred Hobdy, Vann Pettaway, Jerry Johnson, Ben Jobe, Lucius Mitchell, Cal Irvin, Ed Adams, Dave Whitney, Bobby Vaughn, Dave Robbins, Talmadge Hill and Nelson Brownlee deserve immediate recognition. Players such as Hill, Dick Barnett, Doc Turman, Bob Love, Jack Defares, Travis Grant, Bob Dandridge, Zelmo Beatty and Al Attles need the doors to the Hall pushed open.