“The Dream Whisperer” is a new documentary about Dick Barnett’s long, eventually successful quest to get the Basketball Hall of Fame to recognize his famed Tennessee A&I college teams of the late 1950s.
But the best illustration of how long that mission lasted is evident in the film itself.
When it begins, in 2011, Barnett is seen walking with a limp, but comfortably and without assistance. Today, he is 85, uses a walking stick and is unsteady on his feet.
And several people who have since died are interviewed, including Anthony Mason, David Stern, John Thompson and Joanna McLendon, the widow of Barnett’s college coach, Hall of Famer John McLendon.
In a brief scene from 2019, Paul Westphal is seen congratulating Barnett as both Westphal and Barnett’s team are inducted. Westphal died last year.
“That’s one of the reasons I wanted to do this, before this thing was completely lost to history,” Barnett told Newsday before a screening in Manhattan on Thursday.
Director Eric Drath said, “There are a lot of people that are in it that are no longer with us, and we felt that much more compelled to finish it and tell the story for their legacy.
“There’s an urgency, and when he goes to one of the funerals of one of his teammates, he’s like, ‘How many of us are left to tell the story? I’ve got to do it.’”
(The film does not yet have a distribution deal.)
Tennessee A&I, now Tennessee State, was a historically Black college not welcome in the NCAA or NIT. But it landed an invite to the NAIA Tournament and promptly won it three times in a row, from 1957 through 1959.
Barnett was a guard on both Knicks championship teams in 1970 and ’73 and had his number 12 retired by the team. He later fashioned a career in education and writing, with a doctorate in education from Fordham.
But he never let go of championing the cause of his college team, whose three titles largely had been forgotten. Its place in the racial integration of college basketball often is overshadowed by teams such as Texas Western, which in 1966 became the first team with an all-Black starting five to win the NCAAs.
All Tennessee A&I wanted was a shot. How would Barnett’s team have done in the NCAA Tournaments of that era? “We would have done fine,” he said.
Asked what took so long for his team to be recognized, Barnett said, “Race.”
“The heart of this film is about never giving up your dream,” Drath said. “You can just tell the way he played is the way he is now; what made him a great player is the same reason that he was able to achieve what he did [with the Hall of Fame].”
Barnett was famous as a player for his unorthodox jump shot, on which he would kick up his feet behind him as he released the ball.
Most of those jumpers were from mid-range. Asked about the current NBA, he said, “Obviously, [Steph] Curry has changed the whole game with the three-pointer, and now everybody and his mother is shooting the three-pointer.”
Would Barnett have been able to adapt to that style? “I can shoot a three-pointer,” he said.
Barnett was regarded as the least-celebrated Knicks starter of his era, but he lives in Manhattan and said he gets plenty of attention and appreciation from fans.
“But I don’t worry about that; I know how great I was,” he said. “I’ve often said I was driven by a dream unknown, a destiny unseen and a voice unheard.”
Barnett usually steers basketball conversations back to real-life ones. His mission to get his college team into the Hall of Fame was an intersection of both.
“Particularly in those days,” he said, “going through the South without going into restaurants, hotels, all of the accommodations, and winning three championships in a row, that surely must be acknowledged.”
Thanks largely to Barnett, it now has been.