How BYU's unique starting lineup is part of school's efforts to 'root out racism'

Brigham Young Cougars forward Seneca Knight (24) goes hard 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, Jan. 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 skid — the first in head coach Mark Pope's three seasons with the Cougars, and one that had been on his mind plenty — though that may be enough history for plenty of people.

But for the players, a much more important barrier came down before BYU even lined up for the opening tip.

Thursday's lineup — the fourth-straight game with a different starting five — featured five players that 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 pregame photo of the occasion, it marked what is believed to be the first time that a member of the university's sponsoring faith was not included (starters' demographics are not a recorded stat, for a variety of reasons). If not first, it's categorically 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 religions as diverse from Christianity to Islam, and from Arizona to West Africa. That's the message those 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 population is caucasian and less than 1% is Black, according to the most recent facts and figures released by the school.

"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 pretty cool to be able to show future recruits that you can come here and be productive and not be part of the church, or to be African American. From all diversity, you can come here and be able to play, to do what you do."

It's also an important step for BYU, a university with a complicated history with race relations sponsored by a faith that still faces some of those same racial complications.

And yet the charge has been clear, both from BYU President Kevin J Worthen and church president Russell M. Nelson — to "root out racism."

For BYU basketball, that's more than just a saying. The Cougars have been actively involved in the social justice movement for the better part of two years, with educational seminars and learning experiences from representatives of all communities, including Utah civil rights leader Pastor France A. Davis, the recently retired pastor emeritus of Salt Lake's Calvary Baptist Church.

"Behind the words of the church, we have a mandate to do everything we can to 'root out racism,'" Pope said. "That is something that the leadership here is fully behind and fully endorsing. It's been magnified from the highest leadership levels of this university and this church. It's important for all of us, and it's important to my team."

The moment to start four Black athletes for likely the first time in program history wasn't born out of a need to make 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 for the past two seasons.

"I think our guys are really aware, and they're excited about our country and world growing," Pope said. "And they're also conscious of little tiny slices that we can play in that. Our team is our team, but I think all of our guys are excited about recognizing a moment, and this represents a moment where we didn't start four Black players or five players who were not members of the church for any other reason than that's what the game told us we should do it on Thursday.

"That's a beautiful thing, and hopefully the world keeps letting us making decisions based on that and nothing else."

Sometimes swiftly but often slowly, things are changing in Provo, at least as far as perception goes. Provo is a place where a Black football player didn't start at quarterback until current starter Jaren Hall, for example; and while basketball has seen significantly more cultural diversity, a perception of racial unanimity has remained.

If a picture can say a thousand words, then perhaps that picture of BYU's starting five against LMU can break a thousand stereotypes. If nothing else, it's a sign toward future generations — recruits included — that there's a place for everyone.

"To be able to see that picture, those stereotypes go out the window," said Knight, who leaned on his teammates last week after suffering devastating tragedy in his personal life. "Future generations and parents who may not know will assume that BYU is one thing, and seeing that picture can change their whole perspective. I think it's huge."

There will always be a place for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at BYU, and that focus isn't going anywhere, Pope said. And yet for BYU basketball, the most important thing is winning — no matter if it comes through Barcello, Knight, Lucas or a player of any diverse background.

For those who don't espouse the faith but want to follow similar precepts and a lifestyle conducive to multiple religions — the school's honor code fits neatly into the daily routine of practicing Muslims like Traore, for example — last week showed that there's a place at BYU.

That includes Lucas, a graduate transfer from Milwaukee who holds a dream to return to his hometown and build community centers like the one that kept him off the streets and took him to college from Champaign, Illinois, to Provo.

He's already begun changing 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 currently serves as color analyst for BYU Radio. "I love that four of the five starters were (Black). I think that's magnificent; 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 bit of it."

Before he goes back home, Lucas wants to change the perception of BYU to the outside world. The first change began with himself, then his mother — and now Lucas hopes to spread that change of 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 of different faiths coming together to try to win. It's great to have different backgrounds from all over."

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 otherwise, 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.

That doesn't mean there aren't imperfections. But through trials and quarrels, Knight's teammates are one thing.

"We brothers," he said. "At the end of the day, we have our issues with each other — but brothers fight. And we'll still rock with each other at the end of the day.

"When we need to handle business, we're going to go out there and handle business. We don't let anything impact our brotherhood … and the fact that we've got a common goal."

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