Honoring the 50th Anniversary of the SMC Basketball Walkout
Many know the stories of athletes like Muhammad Ali, John Carlos, Tommie Smith, and Colin Kaepernick, who put their careers on the line to protest racial injustices. But few know the names of the five Gael basketball players who risked their future professional careers to protest racism in higher education and changed Saint Mary’s College for the better: Herman Brown ’75, his brother Roy Brown ’72, Nate Carroll ’75, Maurice Harper ’75, and Alonzo Strange ’72.
On February 26, 1972, at halftime of a big game against rival Santa Clara University, Herman Brown walked out onto the court and announced that the five basketball players were boycotting the second half of the game in protest of racism at the College.
“What led up to the walkout in 1972 really had some seeds that were planted in 1971, and was already planted there before,” recalled Roy Brown. “But in 1971, a lot of African American students, Chicano students, and women—we really felt isolated at the campus and felt that it was a racist environment. It was all part of what was going on at the moment … [in the] whole entire world with the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement.”
“The Saint Mary’s College [basketball] team had some outstanding record—like 20 wins—and it was mainly because of what these African American guys were contributing to the team,” added Brown, who was one of seven African American students in his class when he entered Saint Mary’s in 1968.
Despite the College’s ongoing effort to recruit more students of color, the real tipping point that motivated the players to walk off the court was the termination of Dean of Students and former Saint Mary’s basketball star Odell Johnson ’58, the first administrator of color at the College, and a champion for SMC students of color.
“When we got to the game, a couple of my friends … said, ‘You know what, we’re not going back out there after halftime,’” described Harper. “And I’m saying, ‘Man, this is the Santa Clara game!’ But, we knew that that was going to be something significant. We didn’t know how significant, but we knew that Odell Johnson and many of the other staff had played a significant role in our lives and in caring for us. And so … we were willing to take a risk.”
Following the protest, many Black and Chicano students fasted and slept in the Chapel pews for several days, and drafted up a list of demands, including that there be proportional minority representation in the College’s administration and faculty. White allies led by Students for Progressive Action Now also set up a tent camp in De La Salle Quad in solidarity with students of color.
Harper recalled his experience fasting in the Saint Mary’s Chapel 50 years ago: “I’m Catholic, so the Chapel is not just a building for me. It’s a sacred place …. I felt God was on my side because I felt that we were doing the right thing. [It was] no comparison to the protests and sacrifice of Jesus, of course, and we weren't looking to be crucified either. But it was a difficult time.”
“Overall, the African American community of Saint Mary’s College thought it was great,” recalled Roy Brown of the student protests. “I’m sure there was a lot of dissension from the rest of the student body at large because it was a big deal. This was 1972. This was really like a Black Lives Matter movement back then.”
“The NBA had a Black Lives Matter Movement a year or two ago where all the Black athletes in the NBA said they were going to boycott playing some NBA game. They collectively said, we're not going to play. I said to my brother, ‘Look, they’re doing what we did 50 years ago!’”
The basketball walkout and ensuing protests came with repercussions for the five basketball players. While Roy Brown and Strange graduated in the spring of 1972, Herman Brown, Carroll, and Harper were suspended from playing for a year as a result of their protest.
“We were labeled disgruntled bad boys, ungrateful … a lot of people saw us differently,” said Harper. “I think that year, when we didn’t play, the basketball team had its worst season in 20 years. Some people lost a year of eligibility. But we came back, and we had our best season in 20 years,” he added.
While all of the five players had prospects of professional basketball careers, Harper was the only one to play for the NBA when he was drafted by the Warriors. “I got the recognition that we all deserved, but I was still punished in the draft,” said Harper, who was the leading scorer and MVP of the Saint Mary’s basketball team at the time. “I didn't get the opportunities that my talent, I would say, should have afforded me at that time. Systemic racism doesn’t look with favor on protest or protesters. I wasn’t upset; I knew that was just part of the cost.”
The years following the protests were also marked by uncertainty at Saint Mary’s. “The impact was that while 1971–1972 was the College’s highest enrollment in history, three years later, the College’s enrollment had dropped almost a third, and the question of whether or not Saint Mary’s College would survive was on the table,” said former Dean Tom Brown.
As a result of the student-led protests, the College established many student success programs and academic services that still exist today, including the High Potential Program; the Tutorial & Academic Skills Center (formerly, the Office of Tutorial Services Program); Center for Writing Across the Curriculum (previously, Better Writing courses); and the Student Success Office (formerly, the Office of Advising Services).
“A lot of things that were initially done for Black and Brown students, and at the impetus of Black and Brown students through the demands that they made, ended up benefiting the entire student body, and a lot of those programs continue to benefit the student body today,” said Tom Brown.
Herman Brown, Roy Brown, Carroll, Harper, and Strange, whose time at the College was interrupted by his service in Vietnam, all went on to have successful careers and live out the Lasallian motto “Enter to Learn, Leave to Serve.” Many of the former basketball players became educators in Bay Area schools, and even returned to Saint Mary’s to work in the High Potential Program.
“I didn’t make it pro, but I did college, and me and my brother graduated, and we made our parents so proud that they could see their son, not only with a high school diploma, but with a college diploma, and both of their sons turning into big time teachers in the Oakland public school system,” said Roy Brown, who was recruited by Odell Johnson from New Orleans.
After earning his master’s degree, teaching credential, and counseling credential at the College, Harper went on to teach and coach for 45 years, and recently retired as a principal in the San Francisco Unified School District. “I’ve had a very, very full and fulfilling life, and even in athletics, I got to play in the summer pro league, so I got to play against some of the pros there. I wouldn’t have changed anything,” he said.
“I met my wife at the College, so I owe everything. I have two wonderful children and three wonderful grandchildren, and it’s all so good. So, hope and gratitude came from that situation.”
On the 50th anniversary of the basketball walkout, the Office of the President; Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; and the Athletics Department recognized the five former basketball players for their bravery and sacrifice during halftime of the men’s basketball game against Gonzaga.
“It was awesome that the College brought us back because they didn’t have to do it,” said Roy Brown. “They brought us back with the help of key people like Evette Castillo Clark, Tom Brown, and the President of the College [Richard Plumb] who said to us, ‘You guys did what you thought was right 50 years ago, and the College is going to do what’s right today.’ And then the Gaels went on to beat the number one Gonzaga Bulldogs. So, it was really a great night for everybody in the Saint Mary's College community.”
Johnson, who went on to serve as president of Laney College, reflected on his SMC termination and the protests that took place 50 years ago: “In the end, it turned out OK. [Former Saint Mary’s College President] Brother Mel and I had a number of conversations about how to handle this. Tom Brown played a major role in it. He was and remained for many years a real scholar at the College.”
“I observed changes taking place the whole time, my whole four years as the dean. I’m proud of every moment of it,” Johnson said.
Harper credited the College’s Lasallian principles and its commitment to social justice for inspiring leaders and change-makers: “I think in some areas, it [the basketball walkout] gave Saint Mary's permission to lead in terms of moving forward. I’m actually proud of what I see at the College. I was proud when I entered—I entered with the first class of women, so Saint Mary’s was already starting to change a little …. There will always be room for progress, there’ll always be room for sacrifice, and I think there’ll always be individuals at Saint Mary's that will stand and sacrifice and be supported by the institution—and be challenged by the institution. But I am always hopeful that Saint Mary’s will continue to be reflective and end up on the right side of history.”
Join us in fall 2022 to remember this movement of courage, and the commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion that transformed our campus culture and advanced our College. Stay tuned during fall opening basketball season for the date, time, and location.