Solly Walker’s impact at St. John’s went beyond the hardwood
Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.
Email This Story
The month of February marked the 91st year of Black History Month and the final full month of the 2016-2017 St. John’s men’s basketball season. While numerous players, including Chris Mullin, Malik Sealy, D’Angelo Harrison, Mark Jackson and others, have had a significant impact on the court for the Johnnies, Solly Walker’s contributions from 1951-54 is an untold story that current students at the University may have very little background about.
Walker was one of the most influential student-athletes in St. John’s program history as he was the first African-American player to step on the floor for the Johnnies.
Walker committed to the Redmen out of the Boys High School in Brooklyn and was originally not welcome on the team’s road trip to Lexington, Ky. to play Adolph Rupp and the Kentucky Wildcats because of segregation issues in the south. Instead of leaving him in Queens while the team made the trek down to Lexington, St. John’s head coach Frank McGuire brought his best player on the trip.
Due to the Jim Crow laws and racial issues, McGuire had to protect the sophomore forward by eating meals with him in the kitchen of the team hotel and sticking by his side when they entered the arena.
“I learned a great deal from my experience with Coach McGuire as to how to treat people,” Walker said in the St. John’s “100 Years of Basketball” anniversary book. “The situation against Kentucky was uncomfortable. After all, I was only 20-years-old. My confidence in my coach made me feel very secure.”
During the actual game on Dec. 17, 1951, Walker hit six of his first seven shots and gave St. John’s an early advantage on the road. However, just minutes into the game, Walker was injured by an opposing Wildcat and was forced to leave the court for the remainder of the evening due to a significant injury.
The Johnnies were defeated by Rupp and company that day, but Walker and St. John’s broke another barrier as the sophomore was the first African American to ever play a basketball game in Kentucky against the Wildcats.
St. John’s also got their revenge months later as Walker returned from injury to help the Redmen defeat the Wildcats in the NCAA East Regional in Raleigh, N.C. The team continued their hot streak, reaching the first Final Four in school history that year (1951-1952) before losing to the Kansas Jayhawks.
Walker went on to have a terrific senior season in Queens as the forward led St. John’s is scoring (14.0 points per game) and rebounding (12.2 per game) as a senior. The Johnnies didn’t reach the Final Four again until the 1980s, but Walker’s impact clearly goes beyond the hardwood.
After graduating from the University in 1954, Walker was selected by the New York Knicks in the NBA Draft. He declined the offer and instead made a long career with the New York City Board of Education where he became both a teacher and a principal in Manhattan.