If the team gets there, it will be because of Barnett.
Barnett grew up in segregated Gary, Ind., shooting Ping-Pong balls into a tin cup. But when he was around 9 or 10 years old, he traded them for a basketball and would shoot at a local court late into the night.
On one of those nights, he was practicing his signature jump shot — a question mark-shaped shot with plenty of air — when the Tigers’ coach, John McClendon, showed up asking if he’d like to join him at Tennessee A&I.
Barnett arrived in Nashville in 1955, the year Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi and Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery, Ala., for refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a city bus. The team was keenly aware of the societal forces working against them, Barnett said. Their biggest hurdle could be summed up in two words: “Skin color, skin color, skin color,” he said.
“The implication was that you were not good enough as white folks to do what we wanted to do, that this is America, this is a white American society,” he said. “We were a part of American history, even though we were a different color, a different style.”