Brigham Young Cougars forward Seneca Knight (24) goes strong as he spins on Pacific Tigers guard Khaleb Wilson-Rouse (0) as BYU and Pacific play in an NCAA basketball game in Provo at the Marriott Center on Thursday, January 6, 2022. BYU won 73-51. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)
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PROVO – For BYU men’s basketball, last week’s win over Loyola Marymount was historic for all the right reasons.
No, that’s not a reference to the end of a four-game losing streak — the first of head coach Mark Pope’s three seasons with the Cougars, and one that had been on his mind a lot — although That might be enough history for a lot of people.
But for players, a much bigger barrier fell before BYU even lined up for the first tip.
Thursday’s lineup — the fourth straight game with a different starting five — included five players who are not members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
When Alex Barcello, Te’Jon Lucas, Seneca Knight, Gideon George and Fousseyni Traore gathered for a pre-match photo of the occasion, it marked what is believed to be the first time a member of the faith’s sponsoring university was not included (starters’ demographics are not recorded statistics, for various reasons). If it’s not the first, it’s definitely something that doesn’t happen often at BYU.
But what’s more: The starting lineup featured four black players for – again – what is believed to be the first time in program history. The group represented such diverse religions, from Christianity to Islam, and from Arizona to West Africa. That’s the message these players hoped to send last Thursday in an 83-82 overtime win over the Lions: No matter who you are, where you’re from or what you believe, there’s a place for you at BYU.
Representation matters, including at BYU — a university where 81% of the student body is Caucasian and less than 1% is black, according to the school’s most recent facts and figures.
“To be honest, I never planned on making history; I just came here to hoop,” said Knight, a New Orleans native who transferred to BYU from San Jose State. “But it’s kind of cool to be able to show future recruits that you can come here and be productive and not be part of the church, or be African American. Of any diversity, you can come here and be able to play, do what are you doing.”
It’s also a big step for BYU, a university with a complicated history with faith-sponsored race relations that still faces some of those same racial complications.
And yet the charge has been clear, from both BYU president Kevin J Worthen and church president Russell M. Nelson, to “eradicate racism.”
For BYU basketball, that’s more than just a saying. The Cougars have been actively involved in the social justice movement for nearly two years, with educational seminars and learning experiences from representatives from every community, including Utah civil rights leader Pastor France A. Davis, the recently retired pastor emeritus of Salt Lake. Calvary Baptist Church.
“Behind the words of the church, we have a mandate to do everything we can to ‘eradicate racism,'” Pope said. “It’s something the leaders here fully support and endorse. It’s been amplified by the highest levels of leadership at this university and this church. It’s important to all of us, and it’s important to my team. .”
The timing of starting four black athletes for the first time in program history likely didn’t arise out of a need to write history or prove a point, Pope said. But it came at the right time, both because the game revealed what was needed and the circumstances surrounding this particular team over the past two seasons.
“I think our guys are really aware and they’re excited about the growth of our country and the world,” Pope said. “And they’re also aware of the little tiny slices that we can play in there. Our team is our team, but I think all of our guys are excited to recognize a moment, and that represents a moment where we haven’t started four Black players or five players who weren’t members of the church for some reason other than what the game told us we should do on Thursday.
“It’s a beautiful thing, and I hope the world continues to let us make decisions based on that and nothing else.”
Sometimes quickly but often slowly, things change in Provo, at least in terms of perception. Provo is a place where a black football player hasn’t started as a quarterback until current starter Jaren Hall, for example; and while basketball has seen much more cultural diversity, a perception of racial unanimity has remained.
If a picture can say a thousand words, then maybe this picture of BYU’s top five vs. LMU can shatter a thousand stereotypes. If nothing else, it’s a sign to future generations – rookies included – that there’s a place for everyone.
“To be able to see that image, those stereotypes go away,” said Knight, who leaned on his teammates last week after suffering a devastating tragedy in his personal life. “Future generations and parents who may not know it will assume that BYU is a thing, and seeing that image can change their whole perspective. I think that’s huge.”
There will always be a place for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at BYU, and that goal is going nowhere, Pope said. And yet, for BYU basketball, the most important thing is to win – no matter if it comes through Barcello, Knight, Lucas or a player from diverse backgrounds.
For those who do not espouse the faith but want to follow similar precepts and a lifestyle conducive to multiple religions – the school’s code of honor fits perfectly into the daily routine of practicing Muslims like Traoré, for example – last week showed there was a place at BYU.
That includes Lucas, a transfer grad from Milwaukee who dreams of returning to his hometown and building community centers like the one that kept him off the streets and took him to college in Champaign, Illinois, in Provo.
He has already started to change the world, one starter, one game and one heart at a time.
“As a member of the church, I’m so happy to be associated with Te’Jon and the way he represents the school,” said former BYU forward Mark Durrant, who is currently an analyst for colors for BYU Radio. “I love that four of the five starters were (Black). I think that’s wonderful. I played with guys in the 90s with guys like Jermaine Thompson, Rob Jones, Craig Wilcox and Nick Sanderson – they were amazing guys, and I thought they paved the way for BYU to see what we’re seeing now.
“To see what these guys are doing now, I love every moment.”
Before returning home, Lucas wants to change BYU’s perception of the outside world. The first change started with himself, then his mother – and now Lucas hopes to spread this change in perception abroad.
“A lot of people don’t know about BYU; they think it’s all about the church,” Lucas told BYU Radio. “But they can see it tonight – it’s a family-oriented culture and school, all about faith, and guys from different faiths coming together to try and win. It’s great to have different backgrounds everywhere.”
There are few better to relay that message than Lucas, Pope added.
“He’s an incredible ambassador for this university and for humanity,” the third-year head coach said. “He’s a really special person.”
Black, brown, white or whatever, there’s a place on the BYU basketball team. And that’s a message the Cougars hope to spread to the rest of campus and beyond.
This does not mean that there are no imperfections. But through trials and feuds, Knight’s teammates are one thing.
“We brothers,” he said. “At the end of the day, we have our issues with each other – but the brothers are fighting. And we will continue to rock with each other at the end of the day.
“When we have to handle business, we’ll go out there and handle business. We don’t let anything affect our brotherhood…and the fact that we have a common goal.”