Black History Month

Jim Tucker: An oft-overlooked history-maker in the NBA game

jim-tucker-02072021-nbae-gettyimages
Jim Tucker (NBAE/Getty Images)

As we celebrate Black History in the month of February and beyond, we often use words like "trailblazer" and "pioneer" which, by definition, are essentially synonyms.

Whichever word you choose, Jim Tucker exemplifies what they mean.

Turn on any NBA game during the month and you'll notice that players are sporting warm-up shirts that appropriately read "Built By Black History." Tucker is without a doubt one of the architects of this history that has been built over the last several decades.

Tucker wasn't the first Black player to play in an NBA game - that distinction belongs to Earl Lloyd - but nearly four years after Lloyd made his debut, he was joined by a new teammate in Tucker, paving the way for the two to make history side-by-side.

MORE: The importance of Earl Lloyd's trailblazing path

The Syracuse Nationals elected to take Tucker, a wiry 6-foot-7 forward out of Duquesne University with the 24th overall pick in the 1954 NBA Draft on April 24, 1954 - 23 days before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, implying that segregation in other public facilities was unconstitutional as well.

The racial climate of the time meant that Tucker, a native of Paris, Kentucky, was not recruited by the University of Kentucky, although the school's legendary coach Adolph Rupp was a fan of his game and had a hand in his landing at Duquesne. While UK currently dominates the NBA landscape, the school didn't begin recruiting Black players until the 1960s and a Black player didn't take the floor for the Wildcats until 1970.

Be that as it may, Tucker's path to Duquesne resulted in him making it to the highest level of basketball, and he would make his NBA debut with the Nationals on Jan. 30, 1955.

Three weeks into his rookie season, Tucker came off the bench against the New York Knicks in a game where he finished with 12 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds. In 17 minutes.

Seventeen.

For nearly 63 years, Tucker's triple-double stood as the fastest in NBA history until the record was broken by Denver Nuggets centre Nikola Jokic in February of 2018.

Would you believe it if I said that wasn't even the highlight of his rookie season?

Syracuse earned the No. 1 seed in the NBA's East Division as it finished with a 43-29 record in the 1954-55 regular season. The Nationals then defeated the Boston Celtics in the East Finals and went on to defeat the Fort Wayne Pistons in a seven-game series in the NBA Finals, where Lloyd and Tucker would become the first-ever Black players to win an NBA title, again blazing a trail by making history.

That Tucker and Lloyd made history side-by-side made the accomplishment that much sweeter.

In 2018, Tucker was the subject of a documentary titled "Let 'Em Know You're There: The Story of Big Jim and the Triple Double." In it, Tucker outlined the ways in which Lloyd was a mentor and a calming force during the time:

"In my era, pro ball was just coming along," Tucker recalled. "And you'd see all these white guys and very few Blacks. Somebody would utter a bad remark about you being coloured or what have you, and I'd get hit. I'd look around at the referee, and he'd say, 'Play ball.'"

Tucker continued with the story, adding that "I'm saying, 'Man, that guy just about broke my jaw.' I was bound and determined to get them off my back, and Earl said, 'Remember, there's only two of us, and there are people who are hoping that we both will fail, and I'm not going to let you fail. Your turn will come, your time will come.'"

While Tucker's NBA career lasted just three seasons, he made an indelible mark on the game both with his performance and his historic championship win. After his playing career, Tucker would go on to attend business school at Harvard University before becoming an executive with Pillsbury.

On May 14, 2020, Tucker died from complications from Alzheimer's disease at age 87. While he may no longer be with us, his legacy is one that will live forever.

The other day I watched the Philadelphia 76ers host the Brooklyn Nets and noticed that without fans, Philly has placed graphics of its retired numbers on the tarps, with the franchise's three championship banners, commemorating the 1954-55, 1966-67 and 1982-83 World Champions taking a spotlight a few rows up from mid-court.

Of course, that 1955 banner commemorates the historic Nationals team that featured the league's first Black champions in Lloyd and Tucker and the first championship for the franchise that would eventually move to Philadelphia.

That is, quite literally, the meaning of being "Built By Black History."

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