Remembering Jim Tucker, the trailblazing NBA champion who died at age 87

Ben Rohrbach
·5-min read
Jim Tucker was a pioneering player for the NBA's Syracuse Nationals. (Courtesy of the Tucker family)
Jim Tucker was a pioneering player for the NBA's Syracuse Nationals. (Courtesy of the Tucker family)

The more you learn about Jim Tucker, the more you may wonder why it took so long to learn it.

The trailblazing former NBA player died at age 87 on Thursday from complications brought on by Alzheimer’s disease, leaving behind a remarkable legacy that was captured in last year’s Emmy Award-winning documentary, “Let ’Em Know You’re There: The Story of Big Jim and the Triple Double.”

“His impact on the game and culture of basketball is impossible to overstate,” the Philadelphia 76ers, who relocated from Syracuse in 1963, said in a statement confirming Tucker’s death. “A true trailblazer, Jim will be missed, though forever remembered as an ambassador to the league and its players.”

Tucker won an NBA championship as a rookie for the Syracuse Nationals in 1955, joining Hall of Fame pioneer Earl Lloyd as the first African Americans to play for an NBA title team. Lloyd became the first African American to play in an NBA game just four years before Syracuse drafted Tucker in 1954.

“It was more than just a game. It was something else for Earl and me, because we for the first time had done something that had never been done — black players winning an NBA championship,” Tucker said in the 2019 documentary, describing Lloyd as a close friend and mentor from the moment of his arrival.

“I can’t remember what it felt like, except that you had arrived at a station in life that you never thought you would ever be a part of,” Tucker continued in the Emmy-winning production. “In my era, pro ball was just coming along, and you’d see all these white guys and very few blacks. Somebody would utter a bad remark about you being colored or what have you, and I’d get hit. I’d look around at the referee, and he’d say, ‘Play ball.’ I’m saying, ‘Man, that guy just about broke my jaw.’ I was bound and determined to get them off my back, and Earl said, ‘Remember, there’s only two of us, and there are people who are hoping that we both will fail, and I’m not going to let you fail. Your turn will come, your time will come.’”

Tucker played only 99 career games, averaging 4.1 points, 3.5 rebounds and 0.5 assists in 13.1 minutes for the Nationals. Yet, his triple-double in 17 minutes against the New York Knicks at the Onondoga War Memorial on Feb. 20, 1955, stood as the fastest in history until Denver Nuggets star Nikola Jokic broke one of the NBA’s longest-standing records against the Milwaukee Bucks in 14:33 of a Feb. 15, 2018 win. The 6-foot-7 Tucker finished with 12 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds off the bench against the Knicks.

“To be honest, I didn’t know who Jim was before I did this,” Jokic told the documentary filmmakers once he broke the record. “After that, I know that his team brought the shot clock in, he made the fastest triple-double ever, and then he’s one of the first African Americans who played in the league. So, he brought something to this game too, you know, so that’s kind of cool to remember those kind of people.”

On the night the Nationals received their championship trophy in November 1955, Tucker’s apartment building caught fire. He returned to the burning building to save his paycheck ($5,000 for his rookie season, according to Tucker) and discovered a 20-month-old girl on the second floor. He saved both.

"I just happened to be in the right place at the right time,” Tucker told the Syracuse Post-Standard nearly 60 years after he saved a girl who now refers to him as her angel, “and that could happen to anybody.”

In the documentary, Tucker tells the story of his college recruitment. Legendary Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp reportedly lauded the in-state Paris Western High star well before the university integrated its basketball team in 1969. Rupp recommended Tucker to coach Chick Davies at Duquesne, where the wiry forward became a two-time All-American and led the Dukes to three National Invitation Tournament bids.

Following his brief career with the Nationals, Tucker attended Harvard Business School and went on to become a corporate executive at Pillsbury Company. He is survived by his wife Jan and six children.

It seems appropriate, then, to share here the advice Tucker’s mother once offered him, “Never walk into someone’s life and not leave a memory, a good thing that you have done or said to that person. Let them know that you were there.” Jim Tucker made his mark on the NBA, and his is a story worth learning.

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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