National champions. All-Americans. Hall of Famers. The University of Alabama has produced a long list of distinguished student-athletes across multiple sports as a charter member of the Southeastern Conference, but the Crimson Tide had never retired any of their jerseys.
That singular honor has been bestowed upon a singular man, who returns to Tuscaloosa to be honored at halftime of Alabama's home basketball game Saturday against LSU, 50 years after making history by taking one giant leap of faith. Wendell Hudson might be deserving of this unprecedented recognition as one of the best basketball players in school and conference history alone, but his contributions have run so much deeper and echoed so much longer than numbers on a stat sheet.
The Birmingham native was a record-breaker and a groundbreaker, a scorer, a rebounder and a pioneer. He was Alabama's first SEC player of the year in men's basketball as a senior - four years after he became Alabama's first African-American scholarship athlete in any sport in 1969.
Before basketball All-Americans Leon Douglas and T.R. Dunn, before football pioneers Wilbur Jackson and John Mitchell, there was Wendell Hudson.
Jackson was Alabama's first African-American football signee, Mitchell its first African-American football player. In the considered opinion of the late C.M. Newton, the Alabama basketball coach who believed Hudson was the right man at the right time to walk through that infamous schoolhouse door, "Had Wendell not succeeded, I don't think there ever would've been Wilbur Jackson or John Mitchell."
Newton himself made a career of making history in different ways in different roles in the SEC. Years before he passed away, he offered Hudson the kind of compliment that belongs on a plaque.
In Newton's words, "If the Good Lord had looked down and said, 'I'm going to send you the best player and person possible to integrate your program,' he couldn't have sent us anyone better than Wendell Hudson."
It's understandable that Hudson's stature as a trailblazer would overshadow his status as a player, but one trip through the Alabama record book confirms he was nothing short of elite. This is a proud program that stands second in the conference in all-time SEC victories and third in all-time overall wins. The Crimson Tide has produced a long line of great players, yet 47 years after Hudson's senior season, he remains third in Alabama history in career scoring average (19.2 ppg) and second in career rebounding average (12.0 rpg).
The versatile 6-foot-5 forward was more than a memorable individual player. As the team's leading scorer and rebounder as a junior in 1971-72, he led Alabama to a third-place SEC finish. The next year, as the team's leading scorer and rebounder again, he sparked the Tide to a school-record 22 wins and its first postseason berth, where they reached the 1973 NIT semifinals.
As a junior and a senior, he was named to the All-SEC first team. As a senior, he was named an All-American and Alabama's first SEC player of the year. Along the way, there were inevitable challenges on a road never before traveled, but Hudson rose to meet them with an endearing smile and an uncommon strength.
One of his favorite stories long has been about a meal in the Bryant Hall dining room during his first semester on campus. The room got quiet as he reached the front of the line, "but when I turned the corner, the people that were serving were black, and there were big smiles. I had enough food on that tray to be able to eat for a week after I turned that corner."
"I had a good time at Alabama," Hudson told al.com in 2013. "Was it a perfect time? Absolutely not. Were there some things that should not have been done that happened while I was here on campus? Absolutely. From an overall standpoint, the good really, really, really outweighed the bad." Hudson's contributions to Alabama didn't stop after his playing days. He later returned to serve the university as an assistant coach on the men's basketball team, the head coach of the women's team and an athletics department administrator. He comes back this weekend for a fitting tribute.
Wendell Hudson did more than integrate the Alabama athletics department. He introduced the entire university to a better place. It's no wonder, when Alabama decided it was finally time to retire someone's jersey, it chose his.