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More than 65 years later, a college basketball championship team gets its White House moment

HBCU champions finally get White House moment
First HBCU team to win national championship finally get their White House moment 01:26

College basketball's national champions will be crowned on Sunday and Monday, with a likely celebratory trip to the White House to follow, but after more than 60 years, one team finally has its moment on Pennsylvania Avenue.

"This is the greatest day of my life," said George Finley, a former basketball player for the Tennessee A&I Tigers during their championship run.

Finley, along with five of his former teammates who are now well into their 80s, met with Vice President Kamala Harris on Friday at the White House, an experience the former college athletes have waited decades for. 

The Tennessee A&I Tigers men's basketball team was the first HBCU team to win a national championship in 1957, and made history again by becoming the first college team to win three back-to-back national titles from 1957-1959. 

Members of the Tennessee A&I basketball team. Tennessee State University

"I thought this would never take place," said Finley, who was part of the 1959 championship team and eventually drafted by the NBA's Detroit Pistons but chose to play for the American Basketball League. "[Winning] the championship was big, but it wasn't as big as being here with [Vice President] Harris today."

But during the era of segregation and within the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, Black college athletes were often denied the recognition and opportunities to play on an elite level. Tennessee A & I, now known as Tennessee State University, is a public HBCU. 

Harris hosted six members of the team in a meeting along with their family, friends, and those close to the group of former athletes. Henry Carlton, Robert Clark, Ron Hamilton, Ernie Jones, George Finley, and Dick Barnett joined Finley in the Roosevelt Room at the White House. 

Seated from left to right are Robert Clark, Ernest Jones, George Finley, Ron Hamilton and Dick Barnett. Standing is Henry Carlton. Willie James Inman/CBS News

"I look at each of you and the path and the journey that you've been on and your willingness to tell the story in such an active way is so important," Harris said. "There are forces right now that would try to overlook or deny our history. But I think the only way that we will continue to strengthen ourselves and see progress as a country is when we remember where we've been to help us guide where we want to be."

The road to the White House visit on Friday was paved with significant challenges both on and off the court. The team was subject to a bomb threat on the plane during their return trip home from Kansas City following their victory at the NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics) championship game in 1957. Members of the team would go on to participate in a sit-in at a lunch counter in Nashville to protest segregation policies. 

It would be decades before the Tigers were recognized for their historic wins and be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame

2019 Basketball Hall of Fame Enshrinement Ceremony
Master of Ceremony Ahmad Rashad introduces Dick Barnett and Jerry West during the 2019 Basketball Hall of Fame Enshrinement Ceremony at Symphony Hall on September 6, 2019 in Springfield, Massachusetts. Omar Rawlings / Getty Images

Former Tiger and NBA star Dick Bennett was pivotal in a public awareness campaign for the team over several years leading up to the 2019 event. The campaign is highlighted in a recent documentary "The Dream Whisperer," which aired on PBS and is narrated by Bennett and features interviews with former players and those closely connected to the team. 

"It just takes time and effort and continuation, and that's what I strive to do," Barnett said. "It's been very gratifying," he told CBS News about being recognized with a White House visit. 

The players in attendance presented Harris, an HBCU graduate herself, with a personalized jersey before the end of their visit.

Vice President Kamala Harris holds up a customized jersey presented to her by members of the Tennessee A&I championship teams. Willie James Inman/CBS News
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