An AAU basketball practice was the setting where Terrence Echols first heard that he played like a white guy. The graduate shooting guard on the Marist men’s basketball team is African American.
“They’d be like, ‘Oh, you play like a white boy’ just because of how I grew up,” he said. Echols is from Fayetteville, NY – a suburb near the city of Syracuse – that totals almost four thousand residents, with only 1.05 percent of those residents being Black or African American.
339 miles south, Jordan Jones hadn’t even considered playing basketball past high school, even after a senior season that saw him lead the team in rebounds and field goal percentage. “I really started playing organized [basketball] when I was like, 14,” he laughs. Now nine years and two colleges later, he appeared in every game of the 2021-22 season and came in third in the MAAC in blocked shots per game.
Jones and Echols are different people, and players and have separate interests. However, as their paths each led to Marist College, one commonality remained the same; the two young men would find themselves in a new space with a similar mindset: navigating a predominantly white institute as black athletes.
“When I got here in the fall of 2018, it was kind of a culture shock. Because coming from Baltimore, I grew up [around] all black people, and coming here, it was all white. It took a lot to get adjusted to that,” Jones mentioned.
According to the 2021 U.S. Census Bureau, Black people make up 62.3 percent of Baltimore’s population. At Marist College, they make up a mere four percent.
Echols echoes this sentiment: “When you take your first look around the classroom, and no one looks like you…that’s definitely something that I know a lot of [black] people can relate to.”
It was in these classroom settings that Echols found his race questioned the most. He did well academically, but his blackness seemed to be stripped, masked by good grades and articulated sentences.
“[People] were surprised to meet someone like me and so they didn’t associate me with being black. A lot of people were like, ‘Oh, you’re just like a white guy,’ and I didn’t like that because you knew the only reason they were calling me that was because I spoke well, and I got good grades.”
Jones didn’t know where he fit in during his start at Marist. After transferring from Charleston Southern – a school where students of color make up 31.6 percent of the enrollment – his blackness was all he knew. Now, in an environment where most of his peers couldn’t relate made him question his new surroundings.
“One of the first problems was [wondering], ‘’Where do I fit in?’” he mentioned, “I told my coach about this, and I said, ‘It’s hard to be black here. I don’t know if I can handle it.’ ”
Jones felt as if he had a duty. Being one of the only black people in a majority white space in almost every building he walked in, he took it as a responsibility to represent those who weren’t.
“I definitely felt like a burden. I felt like an obligation to my people that I had to call everything out every time something happens, or I felt obligated when I hang around black people where I feel like I have to be black, and I just can’t be myself”.
But how did this mindset change on the court? During the summer and fall of 2022, the Marist basketball team had an all-black squad for the first time in over a decade. Yet, while the team remained a pocket of the Marist campus where there were a majority of people of color outside of the classroom, the athletes were still seen as a rarity.
“Obviously, there are struggles that we have to deal with at a PWI (primarily white institution) that I try to help other guys with because I just feel so comfortable. I’ve been in this element for a long time,” Echols mentioned.
As members of one of the college’s highest-profile teams, both players feel pressure to represent more than themselves. “Being a black athlete here, from the administration and people higher up, you’re definitely the token for representation here on this campus,” Jones mentioned.
Echols said that this was expected of him from an early age.
“I had a dashiki when I was little, and my mom would bring it in and talk about it to my classmates and stuff because we had no other black kids in the class,” he said. “And my parents were experts on Black American culture because that’s what both of my parents grew up with, but the thing is, they expected Black Americans to understand African culture”.
Now, the mindset of each of these athletes has shifted throughout their time on campus. For Echols, he’s learned that his blackness is not shaped by the sport he plays. He doesn’t play ‘like a white guy’ anymore, but like he always has.
“Basketball probably is what helped keep me around both cultures,” he said. “So I think having that really helped me a lot, especially as I got older. But [my teammates] helped bring me out of my exclusively basketball shell and break into some of the other stuff which is really cool to see because not everyone is basketball 100 percent of the time”.
For Jones, his revelation was not as optimistic. It was taught through a book: What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker by Damon Young. “Being in spaces with white people […] you have to pick and choose [when] you want to point things out,” he said. “You want to choose your sanity over your peace.”
Edited by Bridget Reilly and Jonathan Kinane
Photo from Marist BSAA