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Solly Walker, Trailblazing St. John's Basketball Player,D.85
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royal1



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College Basketball

Solly Walker, Trailblazing St. Johnís Basketball Player, Dies at 85


By DANIEL E. SLOTNIK

MAY 4, 2017

Solly Walker, who as St. Johnís Universityís first black basketball player broke another racial barrier when in 1951 he played in a game against the University of Kentucky on its home court, died on Friday at his home in Brooklyn. He was 85.

His wife, Minta Walker, said that he had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease but that she was not certain what caused his death.

Walker was a 6-foot-4 standout at Boys High School in Brooklyn before he earned a scholarship to St. Johnís, which was in Brooklyn at the time. (The main campus is now in Queens.) Led by the future Hall of Fame coach Frank McGuire, the St. Johnís basketball program was becoming a national contender when Walker joined it in 1950, the first black player to do so.

He quickly hit his stride, leading the freshman team to a 17-2 record and averaging 15.1 points per game. He was accepted by his teammates, but his on-campus reception could be frosty, he would say later.

It was in his sophomore year, during his first varsity season, that Walker faced overt racism, when St. Johnís was scheduled to play Kentucky on its home court, Memorial Coliseum, in Lexington.

Kentucky, coached by Adolph Rupp, innovator of the fast-break offense and one of college basketballís most dominant figures, had won the previous yearís N.C.A.A. championship.

In 1951, the University of Kentucky remained a primarily white bastion, refusing admission to undergraduate blacks. (It had started admitting blacks to its graduate programs in 1949 but would not admit them as undergraduates until 1954. Its basketball team remained all-white until 1970.)

Rupp flatly refused to let Walker play on his home court.

ďYou canít bring that boy down here to Lexington,Ē Rupp said, as quoted by Dave Anderson of The New York Times in a column in 1994.

ďThen cancel the game,Ē McGuire snapped.

Rupp relented, and the game took place, with Walker in the St. Johnís lineup, making him by all accounts the first black to play against Kentucky in Lexington.

The game itself was a rout ó Kentucky won, 81-40 ó and Walker was injured and taken out after hitting six of his first seven shots.

Ms. Walker said her husband had rarely talked about the game. ďHe didnít want to relive it,Ē she said. But he told her in recent months that Coach McGuire and some of his teammates had stayed with him when he was barred from segregated hotels and dining rooms.

ďI learned a great deal from my experience with Coach McGuire as to how to treat people,Ē Walker was quoted as saying in ď100 Years of St. Johnís Basketball,Ē a 2008 coffee table book written and compiled by Jim OíConnell and Paul Montella of The Associated Press. ďThe situation against Kentucky was uncomfortable. After all, I was only 20 years old. My confidence in my coach made me feel very secure.Ē

St. Johnís faced Kentucky again that March, in the 1952 N.C.A.A. tournamentís round of 8. This time, St. Johnís won, 64-57, largely thanks to 32 points from center Bob Zawoluk.

St. Johnís beat Illinois in the national semifinals, but lost to Kansas, 80-63, in the championship game. Walker, a sophomore, averaged 4.4 points and 3.8 rebounds during the season, in which St. Johnís was 25-6.

In the 1952-53 season, Walker helped St. Johnís to a 17-6 record. St. Johnís said that in his senior year, he led the team in scoring, with 14 points per game, and rebounding, with 12.2 per game. He was drafted by the Knicks but chose not to play at a time when professional basketball players made far less money than they do today. He became a teacher instead.

Solly Walker was born on April 9, 1932, to Zodthous Walker and the former Eva Utsey in South Carolina. (His wife was not certain of the town.) The family moved to Brooklyn when he was young.

He met Minta Gillespie at a church in Brooklyn in 1950. They married three years later.

After college, he began a long career in the New York City educational system, working with special-needs children. He was eventually named principal of P.S. 58 Manhattan High School (now P.S. 35) and retired in 1999.

In addition to his wife, with whom he lived in the Clinton Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, he is survived by a brother, Thomas; two sons, Kevin and Gregory; four daughters, Debra Lesane, Cheryl Davis, Minta R. Walker and Wendy Walker; 15 grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren
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