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Barrier Breakers: Black Athletes Who Paved the Way

African American sports figures talk about the stars who inspired them

spinner image a collage of black athletes from top left wilma rudolph michael jordan jack johnson pele althea gibson debi thomas
AP Photo; Getty Images

High-achieving Black athletes throughout the decades have been inspired and motivated by those who came before them. Many of these originals were the first professional black athletes in their sports and set examples for fans and future superstars alike.

For AARP, famed athletes shared recollections of these heroes who set records, won championships and made their marks, showing later generations what was possible.

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A Tribute to Black Athletes: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Continues His Fight for Racial Equality

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Jackie Robinson (center) signing autographs in 1947.
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Jackie Robinson

(1919–72) The first Black man to play in Major League Baseball in the modern era, starting at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947

Blacks had been told for so long that we couldn't play Major League Baseball with white players. For Black athletes and Black fans, it was a sign of hope and opportunity when Jackie made it there. Most Blacks who were baseball fans then were fans just because of him. We didn't want anyone giving us anything. Just give us a chance.

So, I grew up idolizing Jackie, even though I didn't understand his passiveness. But as I got older, I came to realize that my father had internally absorbed certain negative things in order to succeed, and he taught me that. And that's what Jackie did — he channeled whatever inequalities and anger he felt into excellence on the field.

Dusty Baker, 71, manager of the Houston Astros, played 19 seasons in Major League Baseball and was a three-time manager of the year in the National League.

Video: Dusty Baker on How Jackie Robinson Led by Example
spinner image a photo of soccer player pele playing for the new york cosmos
Eric Schweikardt/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images


(1940–) Soccer's first Black global superstar, helping Brazil win the ‘58 World Cup

I was influenced by Pelé through the movie Victory. I couldn't have been more than 12. He was playing himself and was so amazing. I didn't understand that I was watching one of the greatest footballers ever. We didn't have a lot of high-profile soccer players in the U.S., but he inspired so many African American kids to play: He looked just like us! I think people underestimate the power of that.

Briana Scurry, 49, was the starting goalkeeper for the U.S. women's World Cup championship soccer team in 1999 and is a two-time Olympic gold medalist.

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AP Photo

Wilma Rudolph

(1940–94) The first American woman to win three Olympic gold medals, in 1960 in track and field

Wilma inspired a nation and inspired me to do something I didn't know was possible or achievable. Not only was she Black, but she had had polio. She went from not being able to walk to performing in front of the world. She also became my mentor and a friend. When we would discuss her battles against racism, she would always tell me, “Never be bitter — rise above.” That's what I saw in her, even though she was denied eating at a counter because of the color of her skin.

Jackie Joyner-Kersee, 59, won six Olympic medals in track and field, including three gold.

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Jack Johnson

(1878–1946) The first Black world heavyweight boxing champion, in 1908

When I think of Jack Johnson, I think of a Black athlete who saw the world from a far different perspective from even Muhammad Ali in the 1960s. Jack came along only 30-some years after bondage. Reconstruction was slavery by another name. A man like Jack Johnson, living the way he did. … Listen, you were hung for looking at a white woman. It was called reckless eyeballing. Jack married three white women. He died in a car accident when he sped out of a diner in North Carolina that had refused to serve him. No one had ever seen a Black man like him in America. And afterward, they tried to make sure there would never be a Black champion like that again. Then came Joe Louis and Ali. But when I fought, I channeled Jack 100 percent, no doubt about it.

Mike Tyson, 54, became the youngest heavyweight champion in history, in 1986, at age 20.

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Arthur Ashe

(1943–93) The only Black tennis player to win men's singles championships at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open

Arthur endured in a predominantly white sport. There were events he wasn't allowed to play; he fought his way through it. While doing that, he fought against apartheid in South Africa. When he was at his best, he was fighting for what was right.

He's the reason my father got into tennis and why I got into tennis. My father gave me Arthur's book Days of Grace when I was younger. The more I learned about him, the more impressed I was. He practiced what he preached. So when I would face a racially charged incident — like with Lleyton Hewitt at the U.S. Open in 2001, or my encounter with police in 2015 — I vividly remember thinking, What would make my dad proud? I knew how much he had been inspired by Arthur Ashe.

James Blake, 41, a former professional tennis player, was named Arthur Ashe Humanitarian of the Year in 2008. He works as an ESPN tennis analyst.

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Willie O'Ree

(1935–) The first Black player in the National Hockey League and the subject of the 2019 documentary Willie, now streaming on Peacock

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Growing up in Winnipeg, Manitoba, there weren't a lot of players of color. My dad played, and we watched video of Willie. I learned what players of color had to go through. And he was also blind in one eye! So I idolized him — he's helped push me every day to be the best player, both on and off the ice. When I joined the Washington Capitals, I asked for number 22 [one of O'Ree's numbers]. Whenever I wore that jersey, it showed respect and reminded me to give it my all.

Madison Bowey, 26, is currently a defenseman with the NHL's Vancouver Canucks.

Willie broke the barrier, and that made my road a lot easier. He went through a lot of tough times. For him to smash through that ceiling — well, he went through a lot of tough times. It was a little different for me growing up in Canada. I was pretty lucky to play in Toronto, my hometown, for my first 10 years. It hid me from the racism a little — and I also wore a mask. Plus, playing with Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier, you are kind of an afterthought. I was well insulated. Willie’s had a lot of reasons to be mad about things but doesn’t have a bitter bone in his body. That was one of the greatest takeaways I got from him. He does not harbor bitterness for the racial injustices he suffered.

Grant Fuhr, 58, won five Stanley Cups as a goaltender for the Edmonton Oilers. He is the first Black member of the Hockey Hall of Fame and was voted one of the 100 Greatest NHL Players in history.

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Pro Football Hall of Fame via AP Images

Fritz Pollard

(1894–1986) The first African American head coach in the National Football League, playing and coaching for several teams before 1926, when all Black players and coaches were removed

Fritz was looking at the whole system and wanted to open up opportunity, both in the league and in the country. He was way ahead of his time — the NFL wasn't ready for it. But he gave us a sense of pride, a feeling that we could accomplish anything, no matter the odds. Even though I never saw him play or coach, I understood from him that Black men can be leaders, can be exceptional. You can't let anyone else define you. He made us feel that excellence, in the long run, would win out.

Tony Dungy, 65, was the first Black head coach to win the Super Bowl, with the Indianapolis Colts in 2007.

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Michael Jordan

(1963–) The first Black NBA star to negotiate a mega-endorsement deal

Michael Jordan is the most important person in history for Black athletes, regarding off-court and off-the-field economic empowerment. It's very simple: No Black NBA players had significant endorsements before Michael. The biggest thing that came along was Michael's deal with Nike. Nike later gave LeBron James a billion-dollar deal. And Magic Johnson began doing lucrative commercials. Why? Because of Michael. He is the guy who made it explode for us.

Video: Charles Barkley on Michael Jordan’s Groundbreaking Endorsements

Charles Barkley, 58, is a former NBA star and network basketball analyst.

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Althea Gibson

(1927–2003) The first Black American to win a Grand Slam tennis title — the French Open, in 1956

I was 10 when I got to meet Althea. Our paths in life later crossed, but I'm not really sure her story resonated with me while I was playing. The older you get, the more you understand the challenges Black athletes have overcome or endured, as you start having those experiences. As I ascended to being the leader of the United States Tennis Association — and at one time, Althea couldn't even play in a USTA event — I started to understand the magnitude of what she had accomplished. Now I put her on a pedestal every opportunity I can, because of the sacrifices she made in her life. Her career ultimately opened doors for me and others, including Venus and Serena Williams, who have really transformed the sport, both on and off the court.

Katrina Adams, 52, is a former tennis professional and the first Black president and CEO of the United States Tennis Association.

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Jesse Owens

(1913–80) The winner of four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics in 1936, which put the lie to Hitler's assertions of white supremacy

Jesse was a huge idol of mine. Dad, who had met him years earlier, talked about Jesse with such admiration, so I wanted to live up to him. Fortunately, I met Jesse when I was 12, in Philadelphia. I still have a picture taken with him from that day. When I heard him speak, he spoke the truth, but he never spoke with malice, even when he had to use a service elevator after he had just been in a ticker-tape parade. In the ‘80s, I had to deal with a different type of racism — covert racism, stereotyping. But I don't have to go up in the service elevator.

Carl Lewis, 59, a former sprinter and long jumper, won nine gold medals in four Olympic Games.

I had no idea about Jesse Owens until I got involved in track. Jesse came to the Mexico City Games and spoke to us, for the International Olympic Committee, about our protest. He was concerned about our well-being. The house was on fire with the statements we had made, and he wanted to protect us. He later became like a surrogate father, and I learned what he went through in 1936 and what happened there to people of color. Here was a Black man going to another country that was even more racist than America then. He was the star of those Olympics and knocked down the Nazis’ Aryan-superiority theory.

He later told me that everything we did at Mexico City was right and necessary. For Jesse, Jackie Robinson, Gale Sayers, Jim Brown and now even today, Black athletes have to go through a tremendous amount of agony to make America great.

I told Colin Kaepernick that he is my hero — and I meant it. But I can also look at [athlete/actor/activist] Paul Robeson. He’s my hero. Curt Flood — he’s my hero. Look at Joe Louis — my hero. Althea Gibson, too. Why are they my heroes? Because those individuals had to go through hell to accomplish what they did.

John Carlos, 75, won the bronze medal in the 200 meters at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. On the medals stand, he and teammate Tommie Smith raised their fists to protest racial inequality in America.

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Ken Hawkins/Alamy

Wendell Scott

(1921–90) The first Black driver to win a race in the NASCAR Grand National series, in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1963

What Wendell Scott did, in that era, showed Blacks in this country that there is opportunity — if you are willing to endure and pay the price. While his accomplishments were muzzled by NASCAR, he cracked an opening in a door that had been nailed shut. I totally honor him. What I dealt with in the ‘80s and ‘90s was hard. Imagine what he dealt with in the ‘50s and ‘60s. It was just about impossible. I talked with his wife and daughter several times. They had tears in their eyes when they were describing what he went through. No one would have faulted him if he had given up, but he never quit.

Willy T. Ribbs, 66, was the first Black driver to race in the Indianapolis 500, in 1991. The documentary Uppity: The Willy T. Ribbs Story debuted on Netflix in 2020.

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Debi Thomas

(1967–) The first African American to win a medal at the Winter Olympics, in 1988

Debi is a very strong woman — she had drive, grit and perseverance. And she was a beautiful skater. I've seen a couple of her videos — she flows across the ice and always looks so joyful. What she did, making it to the Winter Olympics and winning a medal, paved the way for more people of color to come into the sport, like me.

Starr Andrews, 19, the lone Black member of the U.S. national figure skating team, is pursuing her dream to compete in the 2022 Winter Olympics.

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Charlie Sifford

(1922–2015) The first Black golfer to play on the PGA Tour, in 1961

Charlie set a great example. He took the hard knocks for us, then stayed and fought for every inch. When I became the first Black player to compete at the Masters, it was not a very pleasant week. We had so many catcalls: “N-----, you have no business being here.” Death threats, too. I was boiling inside, but I wouldn't let them see it. Charlie never took the noise people gave him. If someone said something negative, he would always say something back to them.

Lee Elder, 86, was the first African American golfer to play in the Masters, in 1975.

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John Thompson

(1941–2020) The first Black head basketball coach to win the NCAA Division I championship, with Georgetown University in 1984

The main reason I went to Georgetown was Coach Thompson. He played my position, and he was Black — he looked like me. Look at all the things he accomplished. Look at how he carried himself. He pulled our team off the floor when fans had all those racist banners in the stands. Look at how he walked off the floor before a game in 1989, in opposition to Proposition 42 [which would deny athletic scholarships to freshmen who failed to meet the minimum academic requirements of Proposition 48]. All of those things, and many more, gave me a glimpse of what kind of man he was.

Patrick Ewing, 58, former New York Knicks center, was the Naismith Men’s College Player of the Year in 1985, after Georgetown University won the NCAA Division I championship.

John Thompson was the guy who guided a lot of us who wanted to become major college basketball coaches. We could identify with John because he took a job that wasn’t a very good job and turned it into a monster of a job. We always felt John’s color wasn’t important compared with who he was. He was a strong Black man who demanded respect, as he gave respect. There were many times I would tell him, “You’re the Beast of the East, and I want to be the Beast of the West.” That happened because of how hard his players participated. His players were able to see through his eyes what was needed — on and off the court. John walked off the court in protest [against Boston College in 1989] because of Proposition 42 and what was being done to Black kids. He stood for something.

I remember being at a Final Four with Thompson, George Raveling and a few other Black coaches. We were in a group [at a media event], and the writers were just circling us. I remember John saying, “When Blacks get together, it’s about a fight. When white coaches get together, it’s a meeting.”

He was one of the smartest men, not only in basketball but life. A lot of folks have smarts, but John had a plan. He truly is one of the greatest Black coaches to have ever lived.

Nolan Richardson, 79, was the first college basketball coach to win championships in Division I, the National Invitation Tournament and Junior College.

spinner image Boston Celtics basketball player Bill Russell dribbling a basketball
CSU Archives/Everett Collection Inc/Alamy Stock Photo

Bill Russell

(1934–) An NBA Hall of Fame center and a former head coach who won a league-record 11 championships for the Boston Celtics

Bill Russell dominated as a player, even though Boston fans hated that he was Black. He faced racism in Boston and so many cities where he traveled. He couldn’t stay in hotels with teammates and couldn’t even go into certain establishments. Despite it all, he rose up, dominated, became MVP of the league and won 11 NBA championships. He even pioneered changes in NBA salaries and free agency. His experience made it easier for me as a player and inspired me in other ways, because his work off the court also changed the lives of so many. So he motivated me to use my platform as a Black man and NBA player to bring about positive change in my community. I appreciate that he still always supports me and makes the point of telling me, “Earvin, young man, I’m extremely proud of you.”

Earvin “Magic” Johnson, 61, was selected by the NBA as one of its 50 greatest players. The 12-time All-Star won five championships with the Los Angeles Lakers, three league MVP awards and three NBA Finals MVP awards.

Jon Saraceno is an award-winning multimedia journalist who has worked for USA Today, ESPN, Sky Sports and other outlets.

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