When an 87-year-old man who played briefly in the NBA back in the 1950s dies, it generally draws but a passing mention in anything more than his hometown paper. Not so with Jim Tucker. That’s because he was a trailblazer when it came to pro basketball. He was from Kentucky and if not for Jim Crow laws at the time, he might have been the first black player at the University of Kentucky – and the Southeastern Conference.
Tucker, who passed away on Thursday, was a two-time college All-American who went on to become just the second African-American in the history of the NBA. Drafted by the Syracuse Nationals, he played alongside the first black player, Earl Lloyd. Together they helped the Nats win the 1955 NBA championship, becoming the first blacks to play for an NBA title team. Not bad, for a kid from a small town in the Bluegrass State.
Tucker was a star player for Paris Western High, the school for African-Americans in Bourbon County. He had led his team to the 1950 black Sweet 16, where then-UK coach Adolph Rupp saw him play. Rupp was so impressed that he went to the Western locker room and asked to speak to Tucker.
“I knew who he was,” Tucker said in 2005. He had agreed to an interview for a documentary I was producing called, “Adolph Rupp: Myth, Legend and Fact.” We had found Tucker, living in a retirement community in Jacksonville.
“He said to me, ‘I’d like you to come to Kentucky, but you know our situation here. But what I’d like to do is contact some of my friends in the coaching community and see if they might have an interest in you because I think you have the ability to become an All-American and a good basketball player.”
Always with a keen eye for talent, Rupp was right. He contacted a friend who was the head coach at Duquesne, in Pittsburgh. The Dukes at the time were a national power. So Tucker traveled north and when he got off the plane, the Duquesne coach was there to greet him.
“He said that if Adolph Rupp recommends you, that’s the only reason we showed the interest, because if he couldn’t have you, then we’d like to,” Tucker told us.
He was grateful for the help he received from Rupp, a victim of the circumstance of the times in which both were living. UK had desegregated its campus in 1948, but Jim Crow laws in the deep south prohibited whites from playing sports against blacks. So the SEC remained off-limits to African-Americans.
“I had a lot of respect for him, I had a lot of respect for his basketball team,” Tucker said. “I respect his position, not fully realizing, you know, what was going on behind the scenes and I believe that had he had the opportunity and support of the school at that time, he would have had black players.”
At the end of the interview, Tucker asked if he could add a statement of his own. He spoke out on behalf of Rupp’s son, Herky, and the Rupp family, who had suffered silently through the years as people who didn’t know better criticized the UK coach for what they perceived as his efforts to keep his team all-white – when in fact, the opposite was true.
“I know his son has carried that stigma along with him,” Tucker said.
“I had an opportunity to call (Herky), to tell him the same story that I just told you. About what his father did for me and he said that has done him a world of good, because no one had ever said anything of a positive nature about his father. And he was so happy that I would come forward and say something about Mr. Rupp.”
Tucker said he believed Rupp’s kindness toward him showed a side not many were able to witness.
“I believe his hands were tied,” he said. “He wanted to win, and I believe if he could have put a monkey in a suit to win a ballgame, he would have done that. But he wanted to win, and still there are people who believe that he was a bigot. I don’t think so.”