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President's Blog: From the Heart

We See You, Roger Brown

By Eric F. Spina

Roger Brown, one of the most gifted basketball players ever to put on a Flyer uniform, has been invisible at the University of Dayton.

Until now.

Last week, the administration, faculty, staff, and students of the University took steps to rewrite Roger’s narrative, seek reconciliation with his family and his legacy, and — importantly — create an academically anchored and highly visible writer’s residency in his honor. We think it’s important that all future UD generations know something about Roger Brown’s story and learn important lessons, even if they’re uncomfortable ones, about justice.

Nearly 60 years ago, Roger was dismissed from UD and banned from the NBA after being loosely linked in his high school days to a gambler involved in a point-shaving scandal. Roger was never charged with any wrongdoing, but his name was sullied, his reputation shattered. Later, after working in a local factory and playing AAU ball for Inland Manufacturing and Jones Brothers Funeral Home, he signed with the American Basketball Association’s Indiana Pacers, where he was a four-time All-Star and is their fourth all-time leading scorer, known for his graceful play and clutch shots. Unfortunately, he didn’t live long enough to see his Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Enshrinement — or his university try to make amends.

Fast forward to last week when Roger’s son, other family members, and friends wiped away tears at the close of Wil Haygood’s talk in the Kennedy Union ballroom as our inaugural recipient of the Roger Brown Residency in Social Justice, Writing, and Sport.

“Roger Brown from the grave has posthumously thrown the University of Dayton a blind pass, and the University of Dayton has caught it and taken it to the hoop. From tonight and forevermore, you are a big man on campus,” said Haygood, a celebrated author and journalist named runner-up in nonfiction for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize for Tigerland: 1968-1969: A City Divided, A Nation Torn Apart, and a Magical Season of Healing.

“It’s an important moment in the nation’s history,” he said. “Tonight gives us a wonderful opportunity to wash the tears away, to start anew, and to think of Roger Brown as this triumphant figure. This is a good moment to reignite the entire narrative.”

As president, I recognize there are times in which good people make decisions that negatively impact other good people based upon the information at their disposal that much later — through the prism of time — cannot easily be reconciled with the values of the institution. But as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. reminds us, “The time is always right to do the right thing.”

When artist Willis “Bing” Davis included James Pate’s Blackballed ‘Totem’ Drawing: Roger “the Rajah” Brown in a curated exhibit of work by African American artists at the president’s residence in spring 2018, I first learned the story of this kind, gentle, thoughtful athlete, who’s still highly regarded in the Dayton community. Later that fall, when Bing and Wil attended an informal dinner for Dayton Peace Prize authors at the residence, they were drawn to the same drawing on the wall, engaged in deep conversation. Wil, always mindful of the forgotten narrative and importance of public remembering, said, “You should establish a writer’s residency to make Roger Brown come to life.”

After a lot of work by Professor Andy Slade, Executive Director of Inclusive Excellence Tiffany Taylor-Smith, Athletic Director Neil Sullivan, and many others, Wil returned to campus last week in that role to explore the intersection of sports and social justice in classes from creative writing to race and ethnicity. He joined my wife Karen at the Dayton Early College Academy, where the students talked to the author about his powerful book, Tigerland, that some of them had read.

In Tom Morgan’s African American literature course, Wil recounted the advice novelist James Baldwin gave him when he confessed he wanted to write books: “Hey, baby, I’ll tell you this. Whatever you do in life, you must go the way your blood beats.”

Later at the public lecture, he closed with the same story, adding: “Roger Brown was meant to play basketball. That’s the way his blood beat.”

(Photo left to right:  teammate Ike Thorton, center, son Roger Brown Jr., teammate and artist Willis "Bing" Davis surrounded by Roger's grandsons)

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