During his NBA career, Bob Harrison achieved elite status as an All-Star and three-time champion. However, he holds one distinction that is rarer by far: He is one of, at most, only a few American Indians who have played in the league.
Although various sources say no such individuals have entered the NBA in its 60-plus-year history, Harrison is the son of a Winnebago tribesman from the Wisconsin-Minnesota area.
While never having made “a big deal” of his heritage, Harrison (whose mother was of Scots-English ancestry) said he has inquired regarding the league’s total number of American Indian players. To date, he has received no information.
While with the Lakers, Harrison served as president of the Minnesota-based North American Indian Society in 1951-52. Also during his time in Minneapolis, on a night when Harrison was honored by his team, a number of local tribes presented him with a deerskin jacket. “I thought that was wonderful that they did that,” he said.
In that city and when he was with Syracuse, Harrison said: “A bunch of the Indians from (those areas) would sit in the end zone and cheer for me. I was really pleased.”
On at least a couple of occasions, Harrison experienced bigotry – albeit because of what he surmises were cases of mistaken ethnicity. “I tan,” he said. “I get real dark in the summer.” Whatever the reason, while on two week’s leave from the Marine Corps after completing boot camp in the mid-1940s, Harrison once was ordered to “the back of the train” during a stop in Washington, D.C., he said. Afterward, when some fellow Marines came to find him, “I told them what happened, and they came back and sat with me,” he said. “It made me feel good about my friends, it sure did.”
Then, when Harrison was coaching at Kenyon College in the late 1950s, he took the tennis team, which he also helmed, on a Southern road trip. Before a match in Kentucky, he took his players to a movie. After paying their admission, he said, he was directed to a separate entrance, which, as it turned out, led to the racially segregated balcony. Upon learning of this, Harrison’s team decided to forgo the film, so Harrison received a refund and they returned to their dormitory lodgings.
Meanwhile, Harrison witnessed confusion-free prejudice while in Minneapolis in the early ’50s. One summer day, during the offseason, he was part of an American Indian team that played (and won) a charity softball game versus local media personalities. Afterward, he said, he took his club to bar where the owner told him: “‘Bob, I hate to tell you this. I can serve you, but I can’t serve them.’ I said, ‘Why? I’m part Indian, too; I’m half-Indian.’ He said: ‘I’m sorry. I can’t do it.’ So I told the guys, ‘We’re leaving.’
“That was a real letdown for me. Because I played basketball, why did they say, ‘It’s OK for you, but not them’? That really bothered me.”