In the history of the St. John’s University, Jamaica, men’s basketball program, there have been 983 black student-athletes.
And each and every one of these players owes that opportunity to play high-level college basketball to Solly Walker.
Walker, the first black player in St. John’s history, will be honored Oct. 22 at El Caribe Country Club, Mill Basin, by the Brooklyn U.S.A. Athletic Association, a community-based organization established in 1974 to help improve the quality of life for youth in Central Brooklyn.
The group’s Hall of Fame began in 1985 to recognize athletes who have had the greatest impact on the game of basketball and the lives of children.
This year’s inductees include legendary St. John’s basketball coach Lou Carnesecca; former St. Augustine H.S., Park Slope, standout George Bruns; Al Lewis of Franklin K. Lane H.S., Woodhaven; and Rucker Pro Basketball League coach John “Butch” Purcell.
Additionally, Dr. Solly Walker Memorial Scholarships will be awarded to Maridiyat Kalejaiye of High School for Public Service, Wingate Campus, East Flatbush, and Tyrese Gaffney of Bishop Loughlin H.S., Fort Greene.
The event will celebrate the life and legacy of Walker, who died at the age of 85 on April 28 of this year. He was a member of the organization’s first-ever Hall of Fame class. His wife, Minta, and other family members accepted the tribute on his behalf.
Born in 1932 in South Carolina, Walker moved to Brooklyn at a young age. The six-foot, four-inch guard/forward attended Boys H.S., Bedford-Stuyvesant, before earning an athletic scholarship to St. John’s, which at the time was located in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
He played on the freshman team during the 1950-1951 season, averaging 15.1 pts. per game for a team that finished 17-2. Coach Frank McGuire, a Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer, decided to bring Walker up to the varsity team as a sophomore – making him the first black player in the varsity program’s history.
Broke the Color Barrier
Walker achieved another memorable first that season. St. John’s was scheduled to travel to Memorial Coliseum in Lexington, Ky., to take on the mighty University of Kentucky Wildcats on Dec. 17, 1951. However, Kentucky’s coach, Adolph Rupp, refused to allow Walker to play on the court, since the university refused undergraduate admission to blacks.
McGuire simply told Rupp to cancel the game, but Rupp relented and the game took place. By all accounts, Walker became the first black player to play against Kentucky.
Walker started the game on fire, hitting six of his first seven shots. He unfortunately suffered an injury and was sidelined for the rest of the game, which the Wildcats won, 81-40.
The Redmen would have their vengeance against Kentucky that season, beating the Wildcats in the NCAA Tournament’s East Regional game a few months later. St. John’s eventually earned a berth to the National Championship game, losing to the University of Kansas, Lawrence. It was the first of two Final Four appearances in program history.
The Kentucky game was not the only incident of racism Walker faced during his college career. In fact, McGuire and the team stayed with Walker when he was barred from hotels and restaurants in the Jim Crow South.
“Solly Walker broke the barrier; he was the first,” said Mel Davis, also a basketball star at Boys H.S. and St. John’s who played four seasons in the NBA with the New York Knicks and New York Nets. “He shared with me what he went through. It was very, very challenging at the time and very, very difficult for him.
“I thank him every day because St. John’s gave me the opportunity to display my skills so I could chase my dreams.”
During Walker’s junior season of 1952-1953, St. John’s advanced to the National Invitation Tournament Championship game. The following year as a senior, he led the team in scoring with 14.0 pts. and 12.2 rebounds per game.
In 1954, the New York Knicks selected Walker in the NBA draft. However, he had other plans.
After college, he began a long career in the New York City educational system. He began as a teacher for children with special needs and eventually worked his way up to principal of P.S. 58 Manhattan H.S., now P.S. 35. The 1993 St. John’s Hall of Fame inductee retired in 1999.
“He (Walker) was a wonderful person,” Carnesecca said. “Besides being an excellent player, he was a fine person, good student. He became a principal and was highly respected in the community. He was a wonderful role model and a sweet guy.”
So the other 982 black players in St. John’s men’s basketball history all owe a debt of gratitude to Walker, who paved the way for the likes of Davis, Walter Berry, George Johnson, Sonny Dove, Mark Jackson, Ron Artest, Zendon Hamilton, Jayson Williams, Malik Sealy and Felipe Lopez – just to name a few star Johnnies.
Contact Jim Mancari via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.