Wil Haygood, the keynote address speaker at the special remembrance of Roger Brown and the new Roger Brown Writer-in-Residence in Social Justice on Wednesday night at the University of Dayton. Tom Archdeacon/CONTRIBUTED

Archdeacon: Roger Brown becomes ‘a beacon of light’

On this Catholic campus, it is now the second most famous story of resurrection.

Rather than at a boulder-fronted cave near Calvary, it occurred in the Kennedy Union ballroom at the University of Dayton.

The ascendant was Roger Brown, the famed, but long-slighted former UD basketball player, but instead of needing just three days for his uplifting, he had to wait 58 years.

Arguably the greatest basketball player ever to wear a Flyers uniform, Brown was pushed out of UD in 1961 because his name was thinly linked to a gambling scandal that rocked the college game that year.

When he was a teenager on a New York City playground, Brown had been befriended by couple of hoops-junkie gamblers, Joe Hacken and especially former NBA player Jack Molinas, once the roommate of UD’s Monk Meineke.

His only sins appear to be that he used Molinas’s car and accepted $200 to introduce Hacken to other playground ballplayers.

None of those he introduced – nor Brown himself – was ever found to have fixed games, bet on games or done anything from their associations with Hacken or Molinas. Brown reportedly never was in contact with either man once he got to UD.

When Brown’s name surfaced in traffic court because he once had been in an accident in Molinas’s car, the NCAA got interested and UD – which had paid for Brown’s trips back to court, an NCAA no-no — reacted quickly and dropped Brown from the freshman team and dismissed him from school.

The NCAA then banished him, as did the NBA, which later would pay a huge settlement for its unfair actions.

The rejection was devastating to Brown and angered many people who knew Brown as a decent young man, especially folks in West Dayton where he was a hero. He was taken in by a Shoop Avenue couple – Arlena and the late Azariah Smith – worked for a half dozen years in Dayton factories and played industrial league ball.

Eventually, NBA great Oscar Robertson would reach out to the upstart Indiana Pacers of the American Basketball Association. He convinced them to draft Brown, who became one of the franchise’s great players ever.

Before his death from cancer in 1997, Brown had become civic and political leader in Indianapolis. and a few years ago was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

It was around that time that filmmaker Ted Green made a documentary of Brown, who still was ignored at UD

“There’s a film some of you have seen about Roger Brown…some of you are in it,” Wil Haygood the acclaimed author told the crowd gathered in the KU ballroom Wednesday night to remember Brown. ”I’ve watched the film and it’s very well made, but there’s also a lot of sadness in that film. A lot of tears in that film.

“Tonight gives us a wonderful opportunity to wipe the tears away and start anew and think of Roger Brown as a triumphant figure. That’s not to say that his family members at times won’t wake up and have a little bit of sadness in their heart, but this is a good moment to reignite the entire narrative of Roger Brown.”

And the driving force in that re-ignition has been UD president Eric Spina, who did something quite remarkable Wednesday night.

The key force behind the remembrance of Roger Brown has been University of Dayton President Eric Spina. Tom Archdeacon/CONTRIBUTED
Photo: columnist

In an unprecedented and quite sincere act, he stood in front of the crowd and for the first time ever by a UD administrator, he admitted how the school had failed Brown in is time of need and for years after.

But far more than just a mea culpa, he then detailed to the crowd – which included Brown’s family, a few of his former industrial league teammates and several friends – how the university was “resurrecting Brown’s memory on campus and keeping his memory alive for years to come.”

This week the school launched its inaugural Roger Brown Writer-in-Residence in Social Justice, Writing and Sport program. It will bring in resident writers whose work features issues of social justice and who can stimulate thought and conversation among the students and the community on the roles writing and sport plays in those areas.

Haywood, whose book Tigerland was the non-fiction runner-up for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize last weekend, is the first writer in residence and he praised Spina:

“It’s a very wonderful, brave thing that President Eric Spina has done for the University of Dayton,”

The crowd agreed and gave the UD president a lengthy round of applause.

Bing Davis, the acclaimed artist, educator and a long-treasured community conscience, once was Brown’s basketball teammate on the Jones Brothers Mortuary squad. He too was saluted Wednesday for introducing Spina – who came to UD a few years ago from Syracuse – to the troubling story of Brown and UD.

Spina and UD provost Paul Benson hosted a dinner Wednesday for Brown’s family and friends and later in the ballroom Haywood gave an address entitled: “The American Journey of Roger Brown and the Challenge of the Black Athlete.

“We need to look at Roger Brown as beacon of light,” Haygood said. “He joins those figures like Paul Robeson, Muhammad Ali, Jackie Robinson, Arthur Ashe and Wilma Rudolph.

Haygood has long been drawn to basketball. He was a prep player growing up in Columbus and played on the junior varsity at his alma mater Miami University.

“Tigerland” is the story of all black Columbus East High and the way its basketball and baseball teams beat the odds in racially-roiled 1969 and won the state titles in both sports.

He has been especially drawn by Brown’s story, as well.

“There is something on the basketball court called the blind pass,” he told the crowd. “It’s when the offensive player has the ball and he or she happens to be dribbling down the court.

“People in the stands have no idea what the player with ball is getting ready to do. Players know because they have seen somebody streaking toward the basket and at the last possible minute they throw a blind pass to that teammate.

“And so often people in the stands applaud wildly because nobody saw that pass coming, It’s almost like a trick pass. It sneaks up on you. But it’s beautiful when it works.

“And Roger Brown, from the grave, posthumously has thrown the University of Dayton a blind pass and the University of Dayton caught it and took it to the hoop, And that’s a beautiful thing…

“It’s an important moment in history. Roger Brown genuinely, beautifully has thrown an epic blind pass.”

As the crowd applauded and his Jones Brothers teammates beamed and a couple people in Brown’s family teared up – with at least one nodding a sincere thank you in Spina’s direction – Haygood rolled away the last boulder on this resurrection tale:

“We say to you Roger Brown: Today, tonight and forever more you are the Big Man on Campus.”

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