It’s no coincidence that three of the top 50 players in the history of the NBA have roots at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). That’s because historically black colleges, dating to the 1940s, gave the best of the best the opportunity to shine — to play the game with a flair and flamboyance that hadn’t been seen before.
When the names Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, Willis Reed or Sam Jones are mentioned, “HBCU” is hardly the first thought that comes to mind. Although the HBCU landscape has since changed, basketball — much like football in the 1960s and ’70s — was a hotbed for the game’s best players. Today, HBCUs are still capable of developing NBA-caliber talent.
Tennessee State University’s Robert Covington and Norfolk State University’s Kyle O’Quinn, who play for the Philadelphia 76ers and the New York Knicks, respectively, are just two examples. Looking back over the years, there’s no question that black college basketball has been very prolific. Donald Hunt, a longtime ESPN contributor who has written about sports at HBCUs for decades, put together this top 20 list of the best HBCU basketball players of all time.
A great all-around player, Al Attles led North Carolina A&T State University to two Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) championships, scoring 955 points for his career. Known for his ball-handling and defense, Attles was a fifth-round draft pick of the Philadelphia Warriors. His greatest moment came on March 2, 1962, against the New York Knicks in Hershey, Pennsylvania. That was the game Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points. Attles had 17 points, shooting 8-for-8 from the field and 1-for-1 from the free throw line.
D*** Barnett, who played for legendary coach John McLendon at Tennessee A&I State College (now Tennessee State University), had a classic left-handed jump shot. Tennessee State’s all-time leading scorer with 3,209 points, Barnett, a three-time Little All-American, won three straight National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) titles. He also had a great NBA career, playing on the New York Knicks’ 1970 NBA championship team.
Zelmo Beaty had a knack for getting excellent position down low. His efforts produced 2,285 points and 1,916 rebounds in his college career. Beaty received MVP honors while leading Prairie View A&M University to the 1962 NAIA championship. In 1962 NBA draft, he was selected No. 3 overall by the St. Louis Hawks. He also played for the ABA’s Utah Stars and his final season with the Los Angeles Lakers. Beaty was posthumously inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2016.
Bobby Dandridge was a sensational outside shooter. He averaged 32.2 points a game his senior year. As an NBA star, he won championships with the Milwaukee Bucks (in 1971) and Washington Bullets (in 1978).
A flat-out scoring machine at Kentucky State University, Travis Grant set an NCAA career scoring mark for all divisions with 4,045 points. He has a career scoring average of 34.5 points a game.
Before he was a marvelous player with the world-famous Harlem Globetrotters, dazzling everybody with his ball-handling skills, Marques Haynes was a standout college basketball player at Langston University, leading the team to an amazing 112-3 record, which included a 59-game winning streak.
Cleo Hill was a tremendous shooting guard, playing before Earl Monroe arrived at Winston-Salem State University, where Hill scored 2,488 career points. In 1961, he was a first-round pick of the St. Louis Hawks.
Sam Jones was clutch, particularly at the end of games. He scored 1,770 points and grabbed 578 rebounds in his college career at North Carolina College at Durham (now North Carolina Central University). The former CIAA star, who played for Hall of Fame coach John McLendon, had an outstanding career with the Boston Celtics, playing on 10 – yes, 10! – championship teams.
Earl Lloyd, a three-time All-CIAA standout, led the 1947-48 West Virginia State University team to a 23-0 record to win the league title. He averaged 14 points and eight rebounds a game his senior year. His biggest acclaim is becoming the first African-American to play in the NBA on Oct. 30, 1950.
On offense, Rick Mahorn did his damage in the post, averaging 20.3 points and 12.3 rebounds during his college career, which made him a three-time NAIA All-American at Hampton. Mahorn played 18 years in the NBA, earning an NBA title with the Isiah Thomas-led “Bad Boys” Detroit Pistons.
Earl Monroe, in 1967, led the Rams to the NCAA College Division championship, averaging 41.5 points a game that season. An NBA Hall of Famer, Monroe played for the Baltimore Bullets and New York Knicks during his 13-year NBA career, earning the nickname “The Pearl” for his free-flowing, silky-smooth style of play. Monroe, who won an NBA championship in 1973 with the Knicks, played college basketball for Hall of Fame coach Clarence “Big House” Gaines.
Ronald Murray led Shaw University to the 2002 NCAA Division II Final Four. As a senior, he was named the Division II Player of the Year, averaging 23.5 points and 6.2 assists a game during his final season. In 2002, he was a second-round pick of the Milwaukee Bucks. Murray played 12 seasons in the NBA.
Charles Oakley’s ability to score inside and rebound made him a standout at Virginia Union University, where he is the school’s all-time leading rebounder with 1,664. Oakley is third on Virginia Union’s all-time scoring list with 2,379 points, and in the 1984-85 season, he led the Panthers to a CIAA crown with a 31-1 record. Oakley played 10 of his 19 NBA seasons with the New York Knicks, with stints in Chicago and Toronto.
If you see a big man with a deft touch from 15 to 18 feet, thank Willis Reed. A dominant inside player, Reed had the perimeter game and was a beast on the glass. Reed guided Grambling State to three Southwestern Athletic Conference titles along with an NAIA championship in 1960, finishing a stellar collegiate career with 2,280 points and 1,851 rebounds. He played 10 NBA seasons with the New York Knicks. In 1970, he led the Knicks to an NBA crown.
Leonard “Truck” Robinson was one of the early power forwards in black college basketball. He scored 2,249 points and grabbed 1,501 rebounds in his career. During his playing days with the Tigers, they were one of the top HBCU teams in the nation. Robinson played for five teams in 11 NBA seasons.
The man with the name Short had long range on his jump shot, scoring 2,434 points in his career. Purvis Short averaged 29.5 points a game as a senior and was a first-round pick of the Golden State Warriors. He played 12 years in the NBA.
Elmore Smith was a magnificent rebounder. With his size and power, he took up a lot of space in the middle. He completed his college career with 1,917 rebounds, and, with Travis Grant, he led Kentucky State to two NAIA championships in 1970 and 1971. He played eight seasons in the NBA.
Quick and shifty, Donald “Slick” Watts was a great penetrator who could get to the lane and hit the open man. He also had quick hands on defense and averaged 18 points and 3.4 assists during his career. As a senior, he tallied eight assists a game, earning NAIA All-American honors. Watts played most of his NBA career with the Seattle SuperSonics.
Known for his rebounding and defending, Ben Wallace helped Virginia Union University get to the Division II NCAA Final Four with a 28-3 record. He averaged 13.4 points and 10 rebounds a game, and took his game to the NBA, where he was a four-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year. In 2004, he led the Detroit Pistons to an NBA title.
The “Human Eraser” could do just that — block shots. As one of the best players in all of college basketball, Marvin Webster, led Morgan State to the NCAA Division II national title in 1974, earning player of the year honors. He finished his career with 1,990 points and 2,267 rebounds. He played for the Seattle SuperSonics, New York Knicks and Milwaukee Bucks during his NBA career.