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How BYU basketball made history with its diverse starting lineup last week

When Mark Pope put together his starting lineup for last Thursday’s game against Loyola Marymount, the lineup featured four Black players — Fousseyni Traore, Gideon George, Te’Jon Lucas and Seneca Knight — for the first time in school history.

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Members of the BYU basketball team huddle up prior to game against Colorado Christian at the Marriott Center in Provo on Nov. 4, 2021.

Nate Edwards, BYU Photo

During the turbulent summer of 2020, amid the pandemic that canceled the NCAA Tournament and impacted countless lives around the world, and amid the backdrop of the protests and riots that erupted in the United States in the wake of the death of George Floyd, BYU basketball coach Mark Pope wanted to learn more about the experiences of his players and explore the issue of social justice.

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BYU (19-8, 7-5)

at Saint Mary’s (21-6, 9-3)

Saturday, 8 p.m. MST

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TV: ESPN

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Pope’s staff and players invited Black leaders like Pastor Derwin Gray, a former BYU football player, and the Rev. France A. Davis of the Calvary Baptist Church in Salt Lake City, to address his team virtually via Zoom to educate and share perspectives on race and equality.

Those meetings and conversations, which have continued during the past year, made an impact on the program.

The program took another step forward when Pope put together his starting lineup for last Thursday’s game against Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles, although it happened naturally, not intentionally.

The starting lineup featured four Black players — Fousseyni Traore, Gideon George, Te’Jon Lucas and Seneca Knight — for the first time in school history.

Also of note, BYU, which is sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also started five players that are not members of the church for the first time in school history. The fifth starter was senior guard Alex Barcello

For the program, it was a historic and significant moment. 

But Pope emphasized this week that he wasn’t trying to make a statement. 

“We didn’t start four Black players, we didn’t start five players that aren’t members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for any other reason than that the game told us that’s what we should have done on Thursday,” Pope said. “That’s really a beautiful thing if, as a world, we keep moving closer toward the decision-making is based on that and nothing else. It was a great opportunity and a really terrific moment for our guys. It’s not a goal here at BYU. But it’s something that’s good for BYU, too.”

Aware of the historic nature of the moment, Lucas had the five starters for that night’s game pose for a photo. It was posted on social media the next day after the Cougars rallied from a 17-point second-half deficit and defeated LMU in overtime to snap a four-game losing streak. 

Lucas’ tweet featuring the photo was titled, “Changing the Culture. #BYU #MakingHistory.

“I never planned on making history; I just came here to hoop,” said Knight, who transferred to BYU from LSU last summer. “But since it happened, it’s pretty cool to look at, to be able to show future recruiting classes that you can come here and be productive. You don’t have to be part of the church. You could be African American … (it shows) all diversities that you can come here and play and do what you do.”

The five starters that night belong to different faiths; Traore, for instance, is Muslim

What’s the impact of that picture and what it represents? 

“I believe that it does give a perspective to people that don’t know much about BYU and are used to the old school and the stereotypes and be able to see that picture and those stereotypes go out the window once you see the picture of that starting lineup,” Knight said. “For future generations, younger kids growing up, and parents who may not know looking from the outside in, assume BYU is one thing and then they see that picture and it changes their whole perspective. That’s a huge thing.”

“I think it was really meaningful for our guys because it’s something that we’ve been so conscious of. Not conscious of who’s starting and not starting. I don’t think our guys really care that much about that,” said Pope, adding that his players are “really aware” of the history of BYU and of the social justice issues in the United States. 

“They’re excited about our country and the world growing,” Pope added. “They’re also conscious of tiny slices that we can play in that. Our team is our team. But all of our guys were excited about recognizing a moment.”

That moment could also be a harbinger of the future of BYU basketball.

BYU basketball’s history with perceptions about race

During the late 1960s to the early 1970s, BYU’s football and basketball programs became a target for activist groups that viewed the school, and the church, as racist because Blacks weren’t allowed to receive the priesthood. 

Some of the protests were haunted by the threat of violence. Among the protests, therewas the infamous “Black 14” protest at Wyoming in football; and a molotov cocktail was hurled onto the court during a BYU basketball game at Colorado State in 1970.

In June 1978, church President Spencer W. Kimball announced that through a revelation from God, Black men who were members of the church would be allowed to receive the priesthood and Black men and women of African descent would be allowed to participate in ordinances in Latter-day Saint temples.

For much of its history, BYU’s athletic teams — like many teams throughout the country — were almost all white. Keith Rice, who played from 1977-78, was one of the Cougars’ first Black players.

When BYU advanced to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament in 1981, it was one of the only teams around the nation to start five white players. Because of its magical run that season, the team drew considerable attention. 

Fifteen years earlier, Texas Western became the first team to win the NCAA Tournament with five Black starters. 

Before one of the Cougars’ games in the 1981 tournament, a reporter asked coach Frank Arnold if BYU was “America’s Team.”

Another reporter, Dave Kindred from The Washington Post, took umbrage with the question, and regarded it as racist. 

“The newspaperman asking the fool’s question didn’t care about ‘conservatism.’ He wouldn’t know supply-side economics if it kissed him. His question had nothing to do with Ronald Reagan, but everything to do with race. What he asked, in his own gutless way, was this: ‘Is America rooting for Brigham Young because it is an all-white team?’,”  Kindred wrote. “Arnold ignored the unspoken message of the question. The coach said, ‘People are rooting for us because we have been the underdogs in every game, and they like to root for the underdog. We’ll go out there and turn it loose. I have a theory that the team that should win sometimes plays not to lose. We play to win. This is a kick in the rear for us to even be this far, and we will try and push the tempo to a fast game.’ America’s Team? Yes, if what you love is a nice fast break.”

In 1988, Sports Illustrated chronicled the remarkable start of the BYU basketball team, which won its first 17 games and achieved its highest ranking in history, No. 2. Questions about race and religion stalked that team, and other BYU teams that have followed, by various fan bases.

“When the Cougars aren’t taking abuse from foreign crowds on subjects ranging from polygamy to Marie Osmond, they often get showered with ice, cups and paper airplanes. In Laramie, fans have even heated pennies with cigarette lighters and flipped them toward the Cougar bench,” Sports Illustrated reported.

“But a sign reading THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL that greeted BYU at Texas-El Paso last month struck Michael Smith, the Cougars’ 6-foot-9 ambidextrous forward as relatively benign. ‘I guess it’s because of all of us who’ve been on missions,’ said Smith. ‘But, you know, none of us went to Brazil. I went to Argentina, Andy (Toolson) went to Chile, Brian (Taylor) went to Spain.’ Smith was blithely unaware that the title was used by Ira Levin for his 1976 novel about young Nazis. Unfazed by its tormentors, BYU has used an ingenious offense and uncommon maturity — five of its seven players are returned missionaries — to become this season’s major astonishment. The Cougars sometimes speak Spanish to each other on the court to hide their strategy from opponents, but they play honorably and hard.”

Embracing, changing the culture

In 1969, the Cougars welcomed Kresimir Cosic, an atheist from Croatia into the program. The 6-foot-11 Cosic, who later joined the church, is regarded as the pioneer of talented foreign players that have since flowed to the United States. He won Olympic medals and is enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame. His No. 11 at BYU is retired and hangs in the Marriott Center rafters.

Since the 1980s, BYU has had numerous players from various nationalities and races, such as Jeff Chatman, Timo Saarelainen, Nick Sanderson, Craig Wilcox, Terrell Lyday, Mekeli Wesley, Fernando Malaman, Jonathan Tavernari, Rafael Araujo, Keena Young, Anson Winder, Yoeli Childs (the school’s all-time leading rebounder and the only player in school history with at least 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds), Elijah Bryant, and Brandon Averette, to name a handful. Most of those players weren’t members of the church before arriving at BYU. Some joined the church after enrolling.

Former BYU star Tyler Haws, a returned missionary from Alpine and the school’s all-time leading scorer, told the Deseret News last year that he loves that so many players with different backgrounds, without ties to the school or church, feel comfortable enough to represent the Cougars. 

“I think it’s awesome. BYU is a special place. In the recruiting process, there’s a lot of shade thrown at BYU,” he said, alluding to the fact that BYU requires students to live by a strict honor code. “Coach Pope has been able to go out and recruit guys saying, ‘This is a higher standard here. We’re going to hold you to a higher standard. But it’s setting up a good foundation for the rest of your life.’

“If you want to go to school and it’s all about drinking, parties and girls, then BYU’s not the place for you. But if you want to get a great education and be held to a high standard, and play a high level of basketball, and all the other good things that come with BYU, then BYU’s the place.’ Coach Pope has been able to get guys with that recruiting mindset. It’s cool that there are guys that come and embrace it.”

Lucas, a Milwaukee native, certainly embraced Pope’s recruiting pitch. 

“I grew up in the Midwest. It’s a different change for me. I know about the (BYU) honor code and the Mormons,” he said. “I‘m trying to become more aware of my surroundings. I’m not educated on a lot of that stuff. Milwaukee’s very segregated. I wanted to make sure I know the ins-and-outs of the situation and make sure it’s the right fit. I love what I heard.”

The future of BYU basketball recruiting and diversity

When BYU joins the Big 12 in a couple of years, it’s going to become increasingly important for the athletic programs to successfully recruit the top Latter-day Saint prospects, like four-star prospect Collin Chandler out of Farmington High.  

But it will also be crucial for the Cougars to attract players from all over, from different backgrounds, that can embrace and live the lifestyle at BYU. 

“We’re going to have to recruit great,” Pope said. “As we prepare to make this move, the only reason (recruits) aren’t going to come to BYU if it has anything to do with a conference is because they think the conference is too good. Those kids we probably don’t want anyway.

“We’ve kind of been taking a national approach,” Pope added. “The last two signings were a kid from Milwaukee (Lucas) and a kid from New Orleans (Knight). We’ve been trying to reach as far as we can. We’re having some good success internationally right now.”

Future BYU teams will likely include more players like Lucas, Traore, George and Knight, Pope said. 

“For Te’Jon Lucas, this is something that’s very personal to him. He’s a veteran guy. He’s been eloquent speaking about this. One thing he told me was, ‘Some people might have some misconceptions about what an experience at BYU is like.’ He’s interested in sharing what his experience has been like because it’s been pretty special for him.

“He had some concerns coming in. I think he’s excited to make people aware of that … He’s got a heart to make this world better with his dreams of establishing some safe locations for children to grow in Milwaukee. ... He’s using his impact at BYU, not just in helping BYU grow, but also sharing with the world that BYU is a little bit different than some people think it is. He’s got a heart for that. He’s an incredible ambassador for this university. He’s an incredible ambassador for humanity. He’s a special person.”

Aside from the implications of starting four Black players last week, Knight was dealing with a personal tragedy involving someone close to him going into that game. His teammates, regardless of race or religion, rallied behind him. 

“It was really cool being able to have them. I really needed them at that time. I still need them. Just knowing that I can come here and they were positive, laughing, joking, taking my mind off of it,” Knight said. “Just knowing that we’ve got each other, knowing that I can trust them and they can trust me. There are times like that, situations you don’t expect. So it’s so good to have people around you that care about you.”

Knight ended up hitting a pressure-packed, game-winning free throw with one second remaining in overtime.

Meanwhile, Pope said he has taken seriously the goal of BYU, and the church, to “root out racism.” He credited the leadership of BYU advancement vice president Keith Vorkink and athletic director Tom Holmoe.

“Behind the words of the prophet of the church, the sponsor of this institution, we have a mandate to do everything we can to root out racism. Those are the exact words,” Pope said. “That is something that the BYU leadership is fully behind and fully endorsing. It’s an important cause, a cause that has been magnified from the highest leadership levels of this university and this church. It’s important to my team also.”

That historic starting lineup that took the court last week in Los Angeles wasn’t about making a statement. Pope was trying to win a game.

But, it happened, and as Pope explains, the BYU basketball program is better off for it.