For Black Alumni, George Mason’s Basketball Success is Even Sweeter

By Conaway B. Haskins III
Updated: March 30, 2006

Former Alumni Association President Joseph A. Heastie, M.P.A. '84, and his wife, Ernestine;

Former Alumni Association President Joseph A. Heastie, M.P.A. '84, and his wife, Ernestine;

VIRGINIA—Outside of Baton Rouge, Gainesville, and Los Angeles, college basketball fans nationwide are joining the “Mason Nation.” Among the greatest “Cinderella” sports stories ever told, the journey of the George Mason Patriots from mid-major obscurity to the pinnacle of a national championship has captured the imagination of the sporting public. For nearly two weeks, a motley collection of talented players dismissed by major college programs has stormed through the NCAA tournament, making the Final Four in dramatic fashion against powerhouse teams featuring future NBA players. Now, as the team preparing to face the Florida Gators in Indianapolis on Saturday night, the hearts and minds of the George Mason “family” will be focused on their team.

For one group in particular – George Mason’s African-American alumni – the energy and attention that the basketball team has generated for the university itself could not be sweeter. For them, the rest of America, especially Black America is afforded the opportunity to understand what they have felt for years. Nicole (last name withheld), a 1990 alumnus echoes this sentiment by saying, “Having floor seats at the Verizon Center for the GMU-UConn game- was pure heaven! It was amazing to look up- way up into the stands- and see the sea of green and gold and to hear the true heartfelt school spirit. Many of my friends and co-workers are not too familiar with Mason. In fact, my phone was blowing up from folks watching the game in awe. Now, I don’t think I have to explain anything about the school- finally!”

According to Virginia higher education statistics ( George Mason is home to nearly 1,400 black undergraduate students and just over 800 graduate students, accounting for 6% of all black undergraduates and nearly 19% of all black graduate students enrolled in public institutions of higher-education in Virginia. With a total of 2,200 black students, George Mason’s African-American community would rank as the 4th largest black college in the Commonwealth, behind public schools such as Virginia State University (4,700) and Norfolk State University (5,200) and the prestigious, private Hampton University (5,600). Still, “black” George Mason is larger than Virginia’s private black colleges such as Division II basketball powerhouse Virginia Union (1,600) and St. Paul’s College (750). Named as the most diverse college in America by the Princeton Review, Mason is also home to one of the largest African student population in the United States and a sizable Caribbean population.

A young university originally founded in 1957 as a two-year branch of the University of Virginia, George Mason received its independent status in 1972. That seemingly allowed the university to avoid the kind of entrenched, institutionalized racial and other biases that plague older, more traditional schools. Racism and bigotry are not without their presence on campus, socially and academically, but it is widely-acknowledged to be much less pernicious than at older, more traditional schools. The university maintains a healthy respect for diversity, with a choose-your-own-adventure mentality where students chart their own courses but which requires a higher degree of self-reliance.

Data seem to underscore this. The politically-conservative Center for Equal Opportunity (, which generally opposes affirmative action and related measures, has consistently found that George Mason provides relatively equal chances at admission for black and white students, and the university’s research ( demonstrates that black students have a nearly equal shot at retention and graduation as their white counterparts. At George Mason, it’s not that race does not matter; it’s that it matters much less than at other places. Though campus and academic life is not without pitfalls, at George Mason, “blackness” often exists more a matter of cultural awareness than reacting to real or perceived racism. The school is even home to an indirect, modern-day version of the Booker T. Washington- W.E.B. DuBois “debates,” as economics professor Walter Williams holds carries the banner for black conservatism and historian and Civil Rights champion Roger Wilkins holds up the flag of black liberalism.

For many black alumni, it goes beyond simply their experiences on campus during their collegiate days. Caring deeply for the school, they often felt the slights that come with the “commuter school” rap. Says Christopher Preston, a 1996 marketing graduate who is a sales executive with the Washington, DC area United Way, “All I can say is that it is the biggest sports moment of my life and it adds a lot more credibility in conversations with friends that went to higher profile schools. They have to pay attention to George Mason now.”

Notable black faculty and administrators also support this notion. Serious scholars like Toni-Michelle Travis, who holds a PhD from the University of Chicago, and serves as director of the Department of African American Studies and associate professor of Government & Politics, are quite pleased with the recent developments. Travis asserts that, “Achieving national publicity for a quality athletic program, at a university that was making a name for itself in academics and athletics, is well deserved. Proud alumni are contacting faculty by email and returning to campus. The NCAA tournament victory provides a sense of unity that was previously not visible in a commuter school”

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That theme is particularly underscored by black alumni who were admitted to higher-regarded schools but chose Mason instead. Nowhere is this more prevalent that among alumni of the University Scholars Program which provides significant merit scholarship support for students from Virginia and beyond. The combination of financial support, program amenities, and opportunities to study with senior faculty has drawn students – particularly African Americans – who were accepted by more elite institutions, such as University of Virginia, Georgetown, and even some Ivy League schools, but who would have paid full-price and taken on significant debt.

Michael Whitlock, a 1996 graduate received a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard’s prestigious Kennedy School of Government, and a law degree from the University of Virginia. He now practices with the prominent New York law firm of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP. He says, “This basketball team really has the spirit of the black [University] scholars – everyone has said we couldn’t do it until we shut them up by pure performance.”

For other black alumni, the new fame is as a matter of long overdue recognition for a place near and dear to their hearts. In a recent newsletter by the university’s Black Alumni Chapter, Allen Johnson, a 2000 graduate and former Mason basketball player, was quoted as saying, “This is amazing. To be in the Verizon Center and see all the support and love behind these players is great. Playing on Coach L[arranaga]‘s first team at GMU back in 97’ really brings this experience full circle. Those players weren’t just playing for themselves; they were playing for thousands of people that walked that campus from Fenwick library to the Field House. I’m very proud that the world can see and hear what we’ve been saying for a long time: Mason is one of the best kept secrets in the DC area. Culture, education, location and now nationally recognized athletics– yeah that’s MY school…doing it big!”

For black students wanting to attend college in the Washington DC area, Mason is an alternative to more recognized DC area schools, particularly in terms of its setting. Compared to the gritty urban neighborhood surrounding Howard University (a leading black college), the upscale and exclusive environs of Georgetown University, and the center-city and tree-starved feel of George Washington University, George Mason’s main Fairfax campus is a pastoral, modernist setting in the heart of one of America’s leading suburbs and technology corridors. With the growth and continued suburbanization of the black middle class, African-American parents can rest assured that their children will eat, sleep, and yes, party, in a relatively safe environment. At the same time, students gain access to all that Metro DC has to offer at a fraction of the price of other schools.

One element that should not be lost are the constant references to how the Mason basketball team plays with a refreshing sense of purpose, joy, and cooperation and an attention to fundamental basketball skills. While sports fans are accustomed to these types of feel-good stories – a la Hoosiers – the protagonists are most often white. With this Cinderella story, the beautiful irony is that this merry band of young, mostly black men provides a thunderous counterpoint to the stereotypical image of African-American athletes as spoiled, “me-first,” thugs.

In the end, this team of newfound hoops stars has shown the rest of the world what George Mason’s alumni, particularly black alumni, have known for years – George Mason is a great university with great people. This Mason basketball team represents the highest ideals of its university family, especially the black alumni, and no matter the outcome in Indianapolis, George Mason University cannot lose.

Note: This writer has first-hand experience with George Mason University, having graduated from the school in 1999, and as unabashedly proud alumnus since that time.