GARY | Dick Barnett skipped the prom during his senior year at Roosevelt. As classmates in tuxedos passed on their way to the dance, he was outside playing basketball alone, practicing his fade-away jump shot.
“I was playing against the ghosts of tomorrow,” he said.
His jersey number, 12, hangs in the rafters at Madison Square Garden, where he helped the Knicks win two NBA titles.
Oscar Robertson threw rocks at a friend’s window to get him to sneak out to play ball in their Indianapolis neighborhood every night.
He is a consensus top 10 player of all-time and the only player to average a triple-double for an entire season.
History will note that Barnett and Robertson were teammates precisely one time in their lives. Both players logged 22 minutes apiece for the East All-Stars in the 1968 NBA All-Star Game, teaming with Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and John Havlicek among others for a 144-124 win over the West.
However, they’ve become teammates as historians in the 50-plus years since they made national history on the same court as adversaries in 1955.
While they met numerous times on NBA courts in their combined 25 seasons in the league, their first meeting, in the 1955 Indiana state championship, was the first time in Unites States history that two all-black high schools met for a state championship. Robertson’s Crispus Attucks Tigers beat Barnett’s Gary Roosevelt Panthers 97-74 to become the first all-black state champion in American prep basketball history.
That game is being honored this weekend at the sixth annual CN Lakeshore Classic at the Genesis Center in Gary. The event’s headline game is a rematch of that 1955 championship game, which took place at Butler’s Hinkle Fieldhouse.
“It’s good to see guys alive and doing well, the camaraderie of athletics,” Barnett said Friday night between a meet-and-greet and town hall meeting at the Majestic Star Casino.
“My admiration for Oscar’s ability hasn’t dimmed. I think he is the greatest player that has ever lived, and we had a long-established relationship in the NBA, and the relationship has been fruitful over the years.”
The two talk sporadically, but they share a fervor for educating today’s youth, especially when it comes to the climate of the time and hardships and bigotry the teams faced during 1955.
Robertson, who agreed to attend this weekend’s festivities with the stipulation that his Attucks teammates were invited as well, recalled biases he and Barnett overcame.
“Dick Barnett was not considered smart by the press, but he’s one of the smartest basketball players I’ve ever played against,” Robertson said. “These are the things that happened to you.
“It’s really great to reflect on it now because a lot of the things that went on that were not so nice, I didn’t even realize they were happening at the time. But as you get older you see things that happened.”
Robertson takes pride in the fact that Indianapolis became a much more integrated city for schools after his team’s historical feat.
“I lived in what I call the dream paradigm,” said Barnett, who went back to finish his bachelor’s degree midway through his NBA career and has a doctorate from Fordham. “I talk to young people about education and dreams. That’s my whole mantra: Athletics and academics can peacefully co-exist.”
Friday saw a corporate luncheon with inspirational speeches by Barnett and Robertson, and the Friday event allowed all present players from the two 1955 state championship combatants to speak and answer questions.
Although Robertson was the big draw for passersby at the casino Friday evening, Stanford Patton was the mouthpiece for Crispus Attucks. And while Barnett and 1955 Indiana Mr. Basketball (Robertson won in 1956) Wilson Eison were present, Jerome Morgan spoke most often from the Roosevelt perspective.
Current Roosevelt sophomore Chardinae L. Adams, accompanied by principal Donna Henry, asked the group questions after she was recognized for her contest-winning essay about the significance of the 1955 IHSAA title game.
Emcee and event coordinator Chuck Hughes, while introducing Adams, reminded the dozens in attendance that the celebration of the 1955 game is a “teachable moment.”
Robertson ended the night by echoing something he said upon his induction to the Basketball Hall of Fame.
“I wish all the guys I played against could be up here,” Robertson said. “They helped me get here.”