(TUSCALOOSA, AL)-- Alabama Men’s Basketball retired the No. 20 jersey during their 88-82 home win against 25th ranked LSU Saturday. It is the first jersey retired in any University of Alabama sport, but hardly the first time for its wearer to break ground in Tuscaloosa.
“This is really unbelievable,” said Wendell Hudson, the school’s first black scholarship athlete, about the ceremony as camera lights first flashed on his jersey in the stadium rafters. “When [Athletic Director Greg Byrne] called me – I’m never lost for words, but I had to pause. I had such a great experience at Alabama.”
Hudson’s basketball story dates back to playing pick-up ball at a Birmingham park before joining the Parker High School team in his sophomore year. As a senior, his team won the championship at Coleman Coliseum in the first year of integrating the state tournament.
From 1969-1973 at Alabama, Hudson averaged 19.0 points and 12.3 rebounds under Coach CM Newton, according to al.com. He was named SEC Player of the Year in his senior season.
His success came amid challenges as not only the first black player on the basketball team, but one of its limited minority students. He began there as a freshman in the same decade that Governor George Wallace stood to block the enrollment office in protest of federal desegregation.
Hudson’s college experience included moments of adversity both locally and on other SEC campuses. Instances that stick out include a tense first visit to the athletic cafeteria and his freshman trip to play Ole Miss, where rebel flags and “verbal abuse” made an impression on him and his team.
Hudson said he believes sports “had a big part in racial integration,” starting with the bonds he formed with his team and on campus that year.
“All my teammates, they didn’t see me as a black young man. I was their buddy, their friend,” he said.
He also credits football head coach Paul “Bear” Bryant for helping to normalize having black athletes at UA.
“People don’t understand what you had to take when you were the first, because not only is it about you – it’s about the people who are going to come after you,” he said.
After his college days, Hudson was drafted by the Chicago Bulls and played for the American Basketball Association’s Memphis Tams. He went on to coach at the University of North Alabama, Rice University, Ole Miss and Baylor before returning to UA to coach the women’s basketball team from 2008-2013, according to the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame.
“I never thought that I should not be here. I wasn’t taught that I was inferior to anybody,” he said. “I didn’t know how it was going to be, but I knew I was going to try to be the best person and player that I knew how to be.”
Among the crowd for Saturday’s ceremony and must-win game were some of Hudson’s Alabama teammates and head football coach Nick Saban.
All University of Alabama sports teams will wear “WH” patches on their jerseys for the remainder of the 2019-20 academic calendar, according to al.com.