He was an All-American at Duquesne and helped the Dukes reach the NCAA Elite Eight, became one of the first two African-Americans in the NBA to play on a championship team and even played with and against the Harlem Globetrotters.
It was quite a successful basketball career for James D. Tucker of Paris — who is known as Jim or J.D. to his friends — and even today he says he owes it all to legendary University of Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp, the man often accused of being a racist .
Tucker, 79, made it clear during a trip back to Kentucky for his induction into the Kentucky High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame — he led Paris Western to four straight Kentucky High School League state tourney berths from 1947-50.
“I still feel the same about Adolph Rupp as I did back in 1950 when he helped change my life,” said Tucker. “Had it not been for coach Rupp, I would have still been in Paris, Ky., and that’s not what I wanted to do.”
Instead, he helped Duquesne routinely stay ranked in the top 10, including a two-week stint at No. 1 in 1954 during a 26-win season, and averaged 4.1 points per game during a three-year NBA career with the Syracuse Nationals that included the 1955 championship. After spending time with the Globetrotters, he worked 20 years for the Pillsbury Corporation and 15 years for Northwest Airlines, both in Minneapolis.
Tucker did not have a scholarship offer when Rupp saw him play and was impressed. At that time, Kentucky had no African-American athletes and the South certainly was not ready to add black athletes to its major sports programs. However, Rupp told Tucker he wanted to help him find a big-time college that could use his talent.
“I knew with his power and relationships with other college coaches and how much they admired him in spite of what they were saying about him that he might make that happen,” Tucker said. “Believe it or not, I had a scholarship offered to me by one school I won’t name and they said, ‘If Adolph Rupp recommends you, then you have a scholarship.’ That same day I received a telegram from Duquesne saying they had reviewed all my credential and were prepared to offer me a full scholarship.
“That is the power he had. He did not have to do that. He did not have to make one phone call for me. He did not have to come down and say I had a lot of talent and since I had not heard from any black colleges that he was going to help me.”
But Rupp did even though critics have always accused him of being a racist and resisting integration, among other things. About seven years ago WKYT-TV in Lexington did a documentary on Rupp and the role not only Rupp but UK played in integration — Rupp’s first black player was Tom Payne in 1970. That documentary gave Rupp’s players a chance to tell their side of the story about the coach they insisted was not a racist.
The documentary also included Tucker praising Rupp for helping him and noted that Rupp twice petitioned the SEC to integrate — both were denied — and that Rupp added Don Barksdale, an African-American, to the 1948 Olympic team.
“I would have enjoyed playing for him,” Tucker said. “I played with Cliff Hagan, Frank Ramsey and some other University of Kentucky players on the Globetrotters and they were gentlemen. They were just very nice people. I would not have had any problems playing with them because they were just delightful, regular people. Same with coach Rupp.
“I think coach Rupp saw me play and just thought I¿had the talent to play at a big-time school. He didn’t want me to waste me talents. The rest is history. When you get two scholarship offers just based on Adolph Rupp’s recommendation, that says it all. We never really crossed paths again. We did not stay in touch, but I always watched Kentucky play whenever I¿could. Somehow it just did not seem to matter to him or me that we take it any further as long as I¿was doing what he thought I should be doing.”
Tucker did everything well. He retired to Florida before moving back to Minnesota recently because of his wife’s work — she is sales and marketing manager in charge of the Midwest for her company — but made so many friends in Florida that 15 of them surprised him Saturday by coming to Lexington for his KHSAA induction. The ceremony just happened to fall on the same weekend they normally get together at Daytona Beach, Fla., for a weekend golf outing.
“They are a great bunch of guys and I am so glad they came,” Tucker said. “The whole event was magnificent. I told Earl Lloyd (the other African-American on the 1955 NBA championship team) that it was the greatest show I have ever been to. Everything went absolutely perfect. You would have thought it was a MGM production. People at my table were tearing up. My wife was tearing up. There was not a dry eye, including mine, at our table.”
Tucker said numerous people at the induction ceremony thanked him for “setting the record straight” about Rupp during his remarks.
“What he did, he did. He did something special for me. I got an education, played ball and got good jobs because of what he did,” Tucker said. “People still ask me about him and I will never say anything bad. He did not do anything for me but give me a life I never would have had without him.”
Doesn’t exactly make Rupp sound like the racist bigot some portray.
“The way I felt was that the situation he was in, he did not have a choice (about integration). The administration did that,” Tucker said. “He did manage to get Tom Payne, and then he had problems. But I am sure the good ole Kentucky boys didn’t really want to integrate that school. Kentucky was No. 1 for so many years and did not need to add that distraction. But that was not Adolph Rupp’s decision to make.
“Coach Rupp and his players were not like that. When I was traveling with the Globetrotters and playing with and against Hagan, Ramsey and those guys, it was fine. We flew together, played cards together, played basketball together. They all knew what kind of man Adolph Rupp was and so did I and no matter what anyone else has ever said, I’ve never had a reason to doubt that what I¿know is right.”