By Anthony McClean, Editor In Chief Emeritus
When BASN Newsroom (aka the Black Athlete Sports Network) began years ago, our basic premise was to celebrate the past, present, and future history of sport’s most innovative and imitated being — the black athlete.
As another year begins, we take a look back at some of the notable black athletes and contributors to sports who passed away over the last 12 months. By no way is this a comprehensive list, however, we still want to pay homage to them and their life on and off the field.
Whether they be Hall of Famers or not, this is our way of giving these pioneers and innovators their final days in the spotlight. Here’s our brief list of folks who won’t soon be forgotten.
Jo Jo White
What Bucky “Bleeping” Dent is to Red Sox Nation, the Hall of Famer from Kansas was to New York Knick fans throughout his career. His epic battles with his HOF counterpart Walt Frazier were yearly playoff rituals for NBA fans during the seventies. A seven-time All-Star and two-time NBA champion, White led the team in points and assists in back-to-back seasons, and he played in 488 consecutive games, a Celtics record.
Inspired by the historic career of Jackie Robinson — which was featured in the movie “42” — the Florida native played eight seasons in the big leagues with the Kansas City Athletics (1962-67) and New York Mets (’67-69), batting .263 with 86 homers, 421 RBIs and 917 hits for his career. A member of the “Miracle Mets” 1969 World Series squad, the “Glider” served as a scout and coach for the organization.
A co-captain of Indiana University’s 1987 national championship team, Thomas assisted on Keith Smart’s game-winning jumper against Syracuse in the title game. The Chicago native played for legendary coach Gene Pingatore at area powerhouse St. Joseph. The two-year starter in Bloomington passed away of a heart attack at the age of 52.
A four-time All-Star with the New York Knicks and three-time champion with the Boston Celtics, Naulls became the first black professional athlete ever voted as a team captain. The Texas native and UCLA standout was given the honor while with New York. The 6-foot-6 forward averaged 19.3 points and 11.7 rebounds in seasons with the Knicks and later played with the San Francisco Warriors before his tenure in Beantown.
A product of Southern University, the bruising fullback was drafted in 1968 by the Kansas City Chiefs. After rushing for 866 yards and seven TD’s as a rookie, Holmes was a member of K.C.’s Super Bowl IV championship squad in 1970. He ended up playing another season and a half for the Chiefs. Holmes also played for the Houston Oilers in 1972, then the San Diego Chargers in 1973 and with the Oilers again in 1975.
Nelson scored the Washington Senators’ final run at RFK Stadium and moved with the franchise to Texas in 1972, stealing 51 bases that season. He made the All-Star team in 1973 when he stole 43 more bags and batted .286. He played parts of 10 MLB seasons with the Cleveland Indians, Senators/Rangers, and Kansas City Royals before embarking on a second career in coaching and broadcasting that spanned nearly four decades with the Chicago White Sox, Montreal Expos, Oakland A’s, Indians and Milwaukee Brewers.
An All-American tailback that helped lead Indiana to its only undisputed Big Ten championship in 1945, he was the first black player drafted by an NFL team in 1949. Seeing the rival All-American Football Conference as more promising,, he signed with the Los Angeles Dons, for a $4,000 bonus, a week before the draft. After the AAFC merged with the NFL, he would play for the New York Yanks, Dallas Texans, Baltimore Colts, and Philadelphia Eagles. The versatile three-time All-Pro was a quarterback, halfback, wide receiver, defensive back, punter, and punt and kick returner.
A two-time Super Bowl winner with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Clemson standout played 10 seasons and caught more than 200 passes with the Black and Gold. He was named to their all-time team in 2007 in conjunction with the franchise’s 75th anniversary. He was an All-American for the Tigers in the mid-1970s. His seven scoring catches in 1974 set a school record for a tight end that stood for 37 years.
A key member of the Seattle SuperSonics 1979 NBA Championship squad, the Oregon State product began his career as a first-round pick of the New York Knicks. After New York signed center Marvin Webster as a free agent in 1978, the NBA awarded Shelton and the Knicks’ 1979 first-round pick to Seattle as compensation. The 6-8, 240-pounder played five seasons in Seattle from 1978-83, averaging 13.6 points and 6.5 rebounds in 329 regular season games.
One of the most underrated goalies in the NHL, the native of Ontario drowned while swimming in his hometown of Hamilton at the age of 35. “Razor” helped lead the Ottawa Senators to the Stanley Cup Final in 2007 and won a Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2013 as a backup to Corey Crawford. He last played in the NHL in 2014-15 for the Philadelphia Flyers, though he played one more professional season in the AHL and in Germany’s DEL. He had a career record of 145-86-28 with 16 shutouts and a 2.70 goals-against average.
One of the original Dallas Cowboys, Clarke was the first 1,000-yard receiver in club history, recording 1,043 yards in 1963. He still ranks seventh in Cowboys history in receiving yards with 5,214 yards and he’s one of seven players in franchise history with 50 touchdown catches. He had 281 catches and 51 touchdowns during his eight-year Cowboys career. Following his football career, the University of Colorado standout became the first black sports TV anchor in Dallas and the first black NFL analyst at CBS.
A starting guard for the Baylor Lady Bears’ 2005 NCAA championship team, the Texas native passed away to cancer at the age of 33. She played at Baylor from 2002 to 2006, the era in which the Lady Bears first emerged as a national power in women’s basketball under coach Kim Mulkey. Scott averaged 7.8 points and 4.3 rebounds per game during Baylor’s 2004-05 championship season and averaged 8.8 and 6.4 the next year as a senior.
In the Eagles’ tradition of Roynell Young, Eric Allen, and Hall of Famer Brian Dawkins, this SMU product spent his entire 10-year NFL career in Philly, starting 125 games. Hopkins ranks fifth on the franchise’s career interceptions list with 30 and is tied for third in games played among defensive backs with 137. Playing along with his running buddy Andre Waters, Hopkins was selected to the All-Pro team in 1985, when he had six interceptions. A second-round draft pick in 1983, Hopkins was a member of the Mustangs’ 2018 Hall of Fame induction class.
Playing alongside Hall of Famers Willie Mays and Orlando Cepeda, “Stretch” more than held his own while assembling his unique Cooperstown credentials. McCovey made his major league debut in 1959, going 4-for-4 in his first game. He hit .354, with 13 home runs and 38 RBIs in 52 games that season and was named Rookie of the Year. The NL’s 1969 MVP, the Alabama native finished his career with 521 career homers and led the league in home runs three times and RBIs twice.
The Penn State running back was the third black player selected in the 1949 NFL Draft, but he was the first of those draftees to play in a regular-season game. He played in 24 games for the Detroit Lions and Chicago Cardinals. In his rookie year, he set a team record for the longest run from scrimmage with an 80-yard touchdown at Green Bay. Triplett was also the first black player to start for the Nittany Lions, and in 1948, he and teammate Dennie Hoggard became the first blacks to play in the Cotton Bowl.
A Hall of Fame guard and the Philadelphia 76ers’ career leading scorer, Greer was the first player to have his number retired (# 15) by the 76ers in 1976. He spent 15 seasons with the Syracuse Nationals and Philly finishing his career with a record 21,586 points. He’s also the 76ers’ career leader in field goals, field goals attempted, games and minutes played. A product of Marshall University, Greer was also named a member of the NBA’s 50th Anniversary All-Time Team in 1996
If all you remember about him is just his large ‘fro, you’d be missing the point. Scouted by the legendary Buck O’Neil, Gamble was drafted in 1968 by the Cubs, for whom he debuted in 1969. Gamble played seven of his 17 MLB seasons with the New York Yankees, who employed him as a pull hitter who could platoon or come off the bench and take aim at the short right-field porch at Yankee Stadium, in 1976 and again from 1979-84. An outfielder and designated hitter, Gamble hit a career-high 31 home runs for the “South Side Hitmen” White Sox in 1977.
The first black football captain at the University of Michigan, Johnson was the first 1,000-yard rusher in New York Giant history. Drafted in the first round by the Cleveland Browns in 1969, he along with defensive tackle Jim Kanicki and linebacker Wayne Meylan were traded to New York a year later for wide receiver Homer Jones. He was a Pro Bowler in both 1970 and 1972 when he rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each season, including a career-high 1,182 yards in ’72.
One of the most explosive receivers in NFL history, the Texas native was a standout for Texas Southern. He was drafted in the 12th round of the 1964 NFL Draft by the Detroit Lions. In 1967, he joined the AFL’s Oakland Raiders where displayed his prowess as a deep threat receiver. He led the AFL in receiving yards (1,260), yards per catch (26.8) and touchdowns (14) in 1969. He held the NFL record in yards per catch (23.1) until the NFL guidelines changed and required players to have a minimum of 200 career receptions. Wells played in Oakland through 1970 where he caught 156 passes for 3,634 yards and 42 touchdowns in 42 starts.
Another former HBCU standout — Southern University — who showed his prowess in the NFL. Robinson was the Rams No. 1 pick in 1971 and remained with the Rams through 1978 alongside Hall of Famer Jack Youngblood. He then played from 1979 to 1982 for the Buffalo Bills. Robertson was named first-team All-Pro in 1973 and 1976 and was chosen for the Pro Bowl in his rookie season, as well as 1973 to 1977. He played 12 NFL seasons and had 25 interceptions, 15 fumble recoveries, and 4 touchdowns.
Anthony McClean can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.