Brown’s story of triumph and, ultimately, happiness, is an important one to be brought back to light.
By Nathan Brown | The Indianapolis Star | November 26, 2019
INDIANAPOLIS – It was only fitting that Roger Brown’s reemergence on the University of Dayton campus came not through basketball, but from a piece of art.
Those who knew him best, who commiserated with him during his low points and competed alongside him at his peaks, remember how multi-dimensional he was. Brown was a Brooklyn native who found a short-term home in Dayton and created a legacy in Indianapolis. He was an assistant coroner, a city councilman, a coach, mentor and philanthropist.
But basketball would cause his greatest disappointment at Dayton, while also providing the stage for his inspirational story.
“If you never got a chance to see him play, you truly missed an artist at work,” said Brown’s former Pacers teammate Darnell Hillman. “The things he could do with a basketball all by himself and the way he could impact a ball game were just remarkable.”
Almost no one got a chance to see Brown — the first Indiana Pacer and an eventual Hall of Famer — because of what happened at Dayton. He was banned from the NCAA and NBA because he was introduced to gambler Jack Molinas, though Brown was never accused of point shaving or any other wrongdoing.
His ABA career, however, was the inspiration for an, at the time, innocuous drawing from artist James Pate that has now helped reopen doors at his alma mater that had long ago had been shut.
Artwork brought tragedy to light
One of Brown’s long-time friends, Bing Davis, an artist in Dayton and former AAU teammate of Brown’s, had met University of Dayton president Eric Spina years ago. Spina was doing his best to foster fresh, stronger relationships between the school and the local African American community. Spina was an art connoisseur and wanted to turn a little-used indoor swimming pool in his new home into an art gallery for university dinners and receptions.
Spina asked Davis to create a two-month African American art exhibit in the gallery. But when the artist went through his own collection and reached out to those he admired most, he had a problem. Pate’s piece, titled ‘Blackballed Totem Drawing: Roger “The Rajah” Brown’, was one of the best but it broached a subject that, for more than 50 years, hadn’t been mentioned at the school.
Molinas, like Brown a Brooklyn native, was the central figure of a collegiate point shaving scandal uncovered in 1961. Despite no proven involvement in the scandal that wrapped up more than two-dozen college teams, Brown was expelled from Dayton andprevented from being drafted into the NBA.
“I didn’t want to cause a problem or irritate the president who, at the time, didn’t have hardly any knowledge of the situation, but I decided to include it and take a chance,” Davis said of the drawing. “I hoped it would be appreciated for what it was and, as it turns out, the president wanted to know more about Roger.
“Before long, he started asking around campus, trying to find out what happened.”
The result was the first Roger Brown Residency in social justice, writing and sports, which was held Nov. 5-7 on Dayton’s campus. It was designed to reunify Brown’s name and legacy with the school and teach lessons to the student body and community about pushing through obstacles with racial overtones that persist in American culture.
“Roger Brown – one of the greatest basketball players ever to attend UD and still remembered and highly regarded in the Dayton community 22 years after his death – has been invisible at the University of Dayton. That is neither right nor just,” said Spina in a statement announcing the residency. “By creating an academic experience that will annually explore how the issues of social justice and sports are expressed in and shape our society, Roger Brown’s name will continue to live on and be visible at UD for generations of students and inspire them to take up the work of building a fairer, more just society.”
Author Wil Haygood, the inaugural resident for Brown’s namesake program, was a basketball fan growing up and rarely had a chance to see the ABA, but he still knew about Brown.
“The arc of his life was eventually triumphant, but a large part of his future was snatched from him,” said Haygood, whose recently published book, Tigerland, is the story of the basketball and baseball teams from the then-all-black East High in Columbus, Ohio, which fought the odds to reach state titles in 1968 and 1969. “(Brown) is a quintessential American story that so many people in this country understand, whose spirits get shot down, and then you add the layer of race onto that, and it’s heartbreaking.”
Roger Brown’s legacy now honored
When Haygood learned more about the man behind the three ABA championships and Naismith Hall of Fame plaque, his interest was particularly piqued. Laid out with today’s current storylines, it’s hard to miss the similarities, he said, between Brown’s treatment and that of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who settled with the NFL earlier this year after claiming to have been blackballed from the league after he knelt during the National Anthem to protest racial injustice and police brutality.
Brown’s story of triumph and, ultimately, happiness, Haygood said, is an important one to be brought back to light.
“We live in a sports-mad nation, but it behooves us to pay attention to athletes when they choose to speak up,” he said. “I think it’s important to bring everybody to the table in this country who cares about social justice to try and understand why we still have a country that seems so racially tormented.”
During his three days on campus, Haygood visited classes for discussions with students who had read his book and gave talks focused on the lessons that can be learned from Brown’s life of letdowns and triumphs.
“He never quit,” Haygood said. “He endured, he had a great sense of self and he suffered. But he came back, really in the truest sense of the word. He was a great athlete, but he also seemed to be a wonderful human being.”
After he was dismissed from the university in 1961, Brown was taken in by the West Dayton community and found a job with Inland Manufacturing and a spot on the company’s industrial league AAU squad. In those six years, Dayton transformed from where Brown endured his biggest disappointment into a true home. Maybe most important, it kept his basketball career alive until the ABA was created in 1967. NBA legend and Indianapolis high school basketball star Oscar Robertson suggested Pacers brass look into Brown when they were forming their team.
Brown was the first player the franchise signed and, though he began his professional career at 25 with knees that would fail him before long, Brown wouldn’t be denied in reaching the peak of basketball.
“The bigger the game, the tougher he was,” said Hall of Fame Pacers coach Slick Leonard. “No question about it, he was one of the greatest players ever for this franchise. I’ve seen them all.
“But he was a quiet guy. He spoke through his ability on the basketball floor.”
Leonard and others said the hurdles Brown overcame hardened him a bit toward strangers and made him a harder person to get to know. But those who managed to crack that exterior say that Brown’s love for the Dayton community persisted to his death in 1997 due to colon cancer.
For years, Davis and others have held out hope his dear friend would receive some sort of mention from the Dayton athletic department – a photo or a plaque next to the program’s all-time greats. The ability for his story to live on with a purpose for years to come would have meant a great deal to Brown.
“I didn’t want to engage him in it much, because he’d just say, ‘Hey man, I got screwed over. What can I say?’” said former Pacers Hall of Famer George McGinnis. “The average ballplayer wouldn’t have had any idea how to navigate through everything he did.
“And for this to come together now, I think he would have been over the roof.”