by Mohamad Mirghahari & Charles Shepard
Walter Dukes is tired and defeated.
His Seton Hall team just suffered a demoralizing loss in Louisville, Kentucky. The quiet 7-footer is lining up for a traditional post-game handshake when first boos, then racial slurs rain down on him. Then, out of nowhere, the first punch knocks him to his knees.
Mayhem ensues. Fists everywhere. Blood smeared jerseys. Players sprawled on the hardwood. Fans rush on to the court in a rage. A Catholic devotional charm, known as a Miraculous Medal, is ripped from Dukes’ neck. The medal, which bears the image of the Virgin Mary, is tossed disdainfully into the air.
All who wear the Miraculous Medal are promised “great grace,” but Walter Dukes must remind himself daily of that promise as the whirlwind of America’s racial animus threatens to engulf him and his teammates.
It is 1953 — a year before Brown v. Board of Education, three years before the Montgomery bus boycott, 11 years before the enactment of the sweeping Civil Rights Act of 1964. It will be another dozen years before Texas Western breaks the color barrier in big league college basketball by winning a National Championship.
In 2020, Seton Hall men’s basketball was poised for its most successful season in decades — keyed by the talents of Big East Player of the Year, Jerry West Award Winner, All-American, and Naismith Player-of-the-Year finalist Myles Powell. For the first time since the 1989 season, the Pirates looked like a legitimate Final Four contender. The COVID-19 outbreak and cancellation of the NCAA tournament brought that dream run to a halt. The exploits of Powell called to mind Seton Hall’s only national title and last truly dominant player for the Hall, Walter Dukes.
The story of Walter Dukes’ hardcourt exploits is, at once, unique to the time he played for Seton Hall as the nation approached a crossroads on Civil Rights and reminiscent of Seton Hall’s 2020 season. Then, as now, Seton Hall had entered the national title conversation by virtue of the strength of a key player and a credible group of supporting role players.
Walter Dukes’ moment in history is not as well-known as those of other college basketball legends, but it remains an essential part of Seton Hall lore and a pivotal instant in the school’s rise to hoops prominence.
Three years before the riot in Louisville, a young Dukes is inside the East High School gym in Rochester, New York, practicing layups, switching from left to right with ease. Seton Hall Basketball Coach Honey Russell walks into the gym, but Dukes is so into his reps that he doesn’t notice the future Hall of Fame coach.
Russell is struck by Dukes’ height; the big man is a giant, the first true seven-footer Russell’s ever seen in person. But Russell, a tough and gritty six-footer himself, doesn’t swoon. He challenges Dukes.
Dukes passes the ball to Russell. The coach shoots and misses and Dukes grabs the rebound with a grace seldom seen in big men. They repeat the exercise over and over again, faster and faster. Each time Dukes hauls in the rebound with an uncommon finesse.
The display impresses Russell, but he presses Dukes another important point about playing a complete game, defense. Without warning, Russell steps back quickly to take a shot. Dukes, reacting with uncanny speed and agility, slaps the ball to the other end of the gym.
Russell asks Dukes if he would like to play against the best in New York City, in the fabled Madison Square Garden.
Dukes is stumped. Seton Hall? Where is that?
A few months later, Walter is waiting at the Rochester bus station — destination Newark, New Jersey.
Boarding the bus, he gets a quick reminder of what’s ahead. Back of the bus, the driver tells him with a gesture of his thumb toward the rear seats. Passengers stare at him, but Walter keeps his cool.
It is pouring when he arrives, and a group of young men are waiting in the rain for him. Except, they don’t know what he looks like — other than that he is black and seven feet tall.
“That’s got to be him.” says Dick Scott, a wiry New Yorker, the manager of the Seton Hall Pirates basketball team. Richie “The Cat” Regan, one of the team’s stars, looks at Scott in disbelief. “What was your first clue, Sherlock?” he says, “You see more than one seven-footer on that bus?” There probably isn’t another seven-footer anywhere near New York City.
The group approaches Walter. Regan and welcomes him to Newark. Their smiles and friendly manners put Walter at ease.
As Scott collects Dukes’ luggage, two police officers approach the group of young men. “Is there a problem here?”, one officer asks.
“Yes, officer there is.”, Regan says in a way that indicates he expects a problem from the police. “The newest member of Seton Hall’s basketball team just got off a long bus ride from Rochester and he needs a good Italian meal, maybe some spaghetti and meatballs, because he needs to be ready for practice in the morning.”
But he has misread the officer’s intentions. Instead of hassling Walter, he offers his hand to Seton Hall’s newest player.
“Welcome to New Jersey, young man,” he says. “Make sure you give St. John’s hell this year. They’re a bunch of heathens.”
Fall arrives, the beginning of the 1952-53 basketball season. Walter is in the Pirates locker room and nervous. His uniform is small for his large frame. It is his first practice.
He places a Miraculous Medal around his neck.
Cheers ring out. The Pirates are getting ready in a dark locker room of the 69thRegiment Armory in Manhattan — the home of the New York Knicks. The team is pumping each other up. Everyone, that is, except Walter.
His hands are shaking. “Walter, you okay?”, Regan asks.
He’s not. Who roots for Goliath, especially if he is black? He thinks he shouldn’t be there and is worried about the hate from opposing fans. “Of course, they hate you. We’re the visiting team. They hate every one of us.”, Regan replies.
No matter, Seton Hall runs out victorious over Saint Francis, 77-61. But as they leave, a fan yells racial slurs in Walter’s face. His teammates close ranks around him to protect him and rush him to the locker room.
Coach Russell gathers the team in prayer before showers and filing back onto the team bus for the ride back to Seton Hall.
Russell notices Walter with his head down and looking defeated. Russell tells him: What you heard tonight, you’re going to hear tomorrow night and every night for God knows how long. But you can’t let it bring you down. You have to let it feed you.
Seton Hall begins to pile up victories and Walter Dukes is a dominant force. Standing “firm in his faith,” but also standing tall on the court. He averages 26 points and 22 rebounds per game, enduring the worst racist taunts, extra-sharp elbows and unkind referee whistles (even once being called for a foul on the opening tip).
Still it will get worse: The Pirates travel to Dayton, Ohio, where the team encounters overt racial hostilities for the first time. Dukes is barred from staying at the hotel where the team is booked. The team elects to spend the night on the team bus rather than stay in the hotel. After an exhausting night, the Pirates lose their first game.
The Pirates move on to Louisville, Kentucky, for a rematch. In the third game of the season, Seton Hall defeated Louisville 77-66, an ugly victory marred by Louisville players spewing hate and trying to goad Dukes into a fight.
When they arrive at the city limits of Louisville, they are greeted by a threatening mob of rabid Cardinals fans, local residents, and police, who stand to the side and allow the threats to build. The crowd pounds on the train car as it inches into the train station.
Again, the Pirates spend the night on their train car which would be dropped off in the yard. This night is even more exhausting and unnerving. The players are kept up all night by the crowd that surrounds the train station, the crowd pounds on the windows of the train station and sings racist songs through the night.
The team is escorted directly to the sports arena ahead of tipoff and forced to walk a gauntlet of racist fans spitting and cursing at them. The police deliberately forced the team to park far away from the arena.
The game is violent from the jump. The teams go after each other with elbows and knees and violent body blocks. A head-on collision leaves Dukes dazed and prostrate on the floor. When Dukes gets the ball again, a Louisville player hits him in the jaw. Dukes goes down and loses the ball, but the only whistle is against Dukes, for traveling.
The buzzer sounds: Louisville 73, Seton Hall 67. Walter Dukes finishes the game with 35 points.
The postgame handshakes degenerate into a riot involving players and fans. A Louisville player lunges at a Seton Hall player and the Seton Hall player responds with a punch. Cardinal fans pouring onto the court. A fan rips Dukes’ Miraculous Medal from his neck.
Three priests who’d been traveling with Seton Hall rush Dukes off the court, but the fighting continues. Seton Hall’s Mickey Hannon is clobbered in the back of his head and collapses, out cold. Another Seton Hall player, Harry Brooks, is knocked unconscious and will need 13 stitches over his eye.
The police intervene to get Hannon and Brooks into the locker room and the team onto the train. Once in the relative safety of the train, there is nothing but stunned silence as Scott and the team trainer attend to injuries.
The 1952-53 regular season ends and Seton Hall chooses the National Invitational Tournament over the NCAA Tournament.
Why? They want a rematch with Louisville.
The Pirates receive a bye and won’t play until the second day of the NIT. But they are in Madison Square Garden on day one to watch Louisville play Georgetown. The Louisville players can’t help but notice the Pirates, especially Walter Dukes, staring them down.
Louisville defeats Georgetown and celebrates by gathering under the basket where the Pirates are seated, hurling curses.
The next day, before their game, the Pirates take the same seats under one of the baskets to watch Louisville play Manhattan. But just before the tipoff, Coach Russell hustles them out of the stands and into the locker room for some words of caution.
You are playing Niagara, he reminds them, stay focused on Niagara.
Russell studies his players before reminding them that when the season started they were at war to determine what kind of country they were living in and that every basketball game Seton Hall played would be a battle in that war. He reminded them about Dayton and Louisville.
Walter speaks, saying that what the team’s endured together reminded him of the Bible — “a brother is born for adversity.”
Everyone turns to look at Coach Russell.
“God damn right!”, he responds and cheers erupt.
Until a buzzer signaling the end of the Louisville-Manhattan game interrupts them. A Garden Attendant opens the locker room door to remind Coach Russell the Seton Hall-Niagara game is next.
“Who won?”, Russell asks.
“Manhattan”, the Garden Attendant replies.
The Pirates barely survive the quarterfinal game against Niagara. They win 79-74, but it is one of the sloppiest games they have played all season. Walter fouls out with eight minutes left in the game. When it is over, they know they’ve lucked out.
The Pirates then rout Manhattan 74-56 in the semifinal game and take down St. John’s 58-46 in the championship game. Walter leads the way.
Regan hoists the NIT Championship Trophy and then hands it to Walter, the tournament MVP.
Seton Hall finished 31-2 and remains the only New Jersey college basketball team that can lay claim to a national title. Walter Dukes pulled down 734 rebounds in 1952-53 an NCAA D-1 record that still stands.
The Pirates had a ticker-tape parade down South Orange Avenue and the Mayor of Newark hosted a big dinner for them, inviting the coaches of the teams they beat during the season. They all showed up — except Louisville.
For some, change comes slowly. But it comes because of people like Walter Dukes and teams like the Seton Hall Pirates of 1953. It isn’t the wins the pile up or even the individual records they establish along the way. It is their character and the standards they set for others to follow. Ultimately, their victory is not one of physical strength and endurance over the teams they face on the court but one of character and integrity. Theirs is the triumph of the human spirit.
Mohamad Mirghahari is a Seton Hall University alum, a University fellow at the University’s School of Diplomacy and International Relations, and a lifelong fan of the Seton Hall Pirates.
Charles S. Shepard was a longtime journalist with the Associated Press and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution with extensive experience in coverage of civil rights issues and national politics.