by Erin Hallissy
Odell Johnson enjoyed his time at Saint Mary's.
Five black basketball players who walked off the court 35 years ago in support of dismissed Dean of Students Odell Johnson were honored in February by the Black Alumni Chapter and Black Student Union.
The celebration turned into an emotional and heartfelt look back at a troubled time in the country’s history, when civil disobedience was widely used to further civil rights. At SMC, that included not only the black players’ walkout but also a Chapel fast led by Chicano students and a tent city on the Chapel Lawn.
The honored players were Herman Brown ’75, his brother Roy Brown ’72, Nate Carroll ’75, Maurice Harper ’75 and Al Strange ’72, who expressed pride for their conviction and abiding affection for Johnson and Saint Mary’s.
“We went through with it because of our love for that man, Odell,” said Herman Brown. Roy Brown, who called Johnson “my idol,” presented the former dean with the Muhammad Ali award that Odell gave him at graduation 35 years ago and which had been in an honored place on a wall at home.
“I was just in awe of Odell Johnson. He was so cool,” Roy said.
Al Strange, whose college education was interrupted when he fought in the Vietnam War, said Johnson “was our dad, our big brother, our friend.” Although their coach told the players to leave their problems at the front door to play, Strange said they couldn’t do that after Johnson’s dismissal.
“There are times in your life when you have to take a stand, and Saint Mary’s taught us to do that,” he said. “We stayed together, unified and dignified. We did it all for what was right and what was just. He was always there for us. How could we possibly leave him?”
Maurice Harper said he looked up to Strange for his service in Vietnam; he was proud to be Carroll’s roommate, and he felt like he was in the tournament of champions with Roy and Herman Brown as teammates.
“I was blessed to be in the situation,” he said. “It was a pleasure to stand with those men.”
Although they lost their playing time that year, Saint Mary’s provided several with scholarships to play an additional year. Several of the players, including Harper and Roy and Herman Brown, taught, coached or had other jobs at the College or in other schools, carrying on the teaching tradition of the Christian Brothers.
“They really exemplify the liberal arts tradition at Saint Mary’s College because they looked twice and asked twice,” said Tom Brown, the former dean of academic advising. “They risked all they had to offer for the sake of a struggle.”
Johnson ’58, a basketball player himself, said he knew the sacrifice the players were making, and appreciated it deeply. He also deeply appreciates Brother Mel Anderson, who retired after 28 years as College president in 1997, and thanked him for his “calm leadership during a stormy time” of student protests. When Johnson, who later became president of Laney College, retired, he invited Brother Mel to provide the invocation.