New York City basketball vanguard Solly Walker has passed. Walker transitioned last Friday at the age of 85. Services for Walker were held this past Monday at Siloam Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn.
Walker arrived in Brooklyn with his family from South Carolina during the Great Migration, when between 1915 and 1960, an estimated 5 million people of African descent fled Southern states to escape overt and hostile racism and seek better economic opportunities.
Jim Crow was the entrenched social system, and most educational institutions in the south had yet to integrate. Even after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case of 1954 uprooted the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896, governors, mayors, educators and coaches defied federal law and continued to unwaveringly apply segregated policies.
So when Walker—who etched his name in New York City basketball immortality in 1950 by becoming St. John’s University’s first Black player under the iconic coach Frank McGuire—faced the legendary Adolph Rupp and his Kentucky Wildcats Dec. 17, 1951, he forever solidified his place in the Civil Rights Movement.
Taking the court on Kentucky’s home floor against Rupp, who began coaching at Kentucky in 1930, two years before Walker’s birth, Walker sent shockwaves through the community the moment he became the only Black player to ever take on the Wildcats in their building.
The young Walker didn’t allow the moment to hinder his performance. He made good on six of his first seven shots in front of an antagonistic crowd before exiting with an injury and not returning. But the impact of his groundbreaking appearance was indelible.
St. John’s went 25-6 for the season and reached the NCAA finals, losing to Kansas and their celebrated coach Phog Allen 80-63. But it was in Kentucky where Walker foreshadowed what college basketball would one day become—a game dominated by Black players.
Ironically and fittingly, Rupp, a resistor of integrating his program, died in 1977 as a witness to Kentucky being led by African-American player Jack “Goose” Givens. In 1978, Givens and head coach Joe B. Hall guided the Wildcats to the NCAA championship. Current Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey was a member of that title squad.
Walker continued a stellar career at St. John’s as an integral part of the 1952-53 team that made it to the National Invitation Tournament finals, falling to Walker Dukes, a former New York Knicks center, and Seton Hall. In his senior season of 1953-54, the 6-foot-4 Walker led St. John’s in scoring and rebounding with averages of 14 and 12.2, respectively. He went on to forge a career with the New York City Board of Education as a teacher and principal.
Walker is a member of both the St. John’s Athletic Hall of Fame (1993) and the New York City Basketball Hall of Fame, in which he is a member of the class of 2002 that also includes Albert King and Chris Mullin.