RJ Cole
RJ Cole Credit: Courtesy Howard Athletic Department

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RJ Cole had plenty of options. He starred as point guard at the nationally-ranked New Jersey powerhouse St. Anthony High School that is known for producing NBA talent like Kyle Anderson of the Memphis Grizzlies. A three-star basketball prospect with stellar grades, Cole had offers from Boston University and Monmouth, while Georgetown, Bucknell, and Virginia all expressed interest.

But Cole opted to go another route. Two years ago, he committed to Howard over the more established programs. He wanted to immediately make a difference.

“I chose Howard because I felt wanted,” Cole tells City Paper, “and I was told that I’d be able to come in here and make an impact right away.”

Heading into this season, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference preseason poll picked the Bison to finish fourth in the conference, while also tabbing Cole as the preseason player of the year. Howard started the season 6-3 but will take a four-game losing streak into Saturday’s cross-city meeting with Georgetown.

With wins over the University of Massachusetts and American, the Bison have reason for confidence heading into conference play. They haven’t won the MEAC since 1992, but it’s a possibility, if not this year then in the near future. Cole continues to flourish as a sophomore, averaging 20.5 points, 6.8 assists, and 3.8 rebounds per game.

“I just want to win the MEAC,” Cole says, “win the regular season and tournament championship and bring the school something it hasn’t had in [years].”

As a freshman last year, Cole finished seventh in the country in points per game (23.7) and dished out a MEAC-leading 6.1 assists per contest while earning MEAC Rookie of the Week honors 13 times. The Bison struggled to a 10-22 record, but with Cole, the team saw promise for the future.

“I thought we had one of the best back courts in mid-major basketball last year,” head coach Kevin Nickelberry says, referring to Cole and junior Charles Williams.

Coming in as a freshman, Cole had to prove that he could be a scorer as well as a facilitator. He has done both.

“Not a lot of guards can do what he does,” Nickelberry says. “With his instincts and ability to win, I knew the more we put the ball in his hands, the more we put him in situations to make him successful, the winning will come along with that.”

Between his freshman and sophomore seasons, Cole needed to work on a few other aspects of his game. This year he’s showing better command of the flow of play and has brought added intensity on the defensive side of the ball.

By coming to Howard, Cole wanted to do something different, to blaze his own trail. A 4.0 GPA student in high school, he had a heightened awareness of the opportunities available to him at an HBCU in Shaw.

Mo’ne Davis, the former female Little League World Series star, recently signed a letter-of-intent to play softball for Hampton University in Virginia, another HBCU. She told The New York Times that it was “a perfect fit to be able to play with other girls who look like me or perhaps grew up kind of the same way I grew up.”

Schools like Howard and Hampton are increasingly emphasizing athletics as a contributing partner to the academic interests of a university. With young athletes’ increased awareness of social issues, HBCUs offer young black athletes a unique opportunity to connect with their culture, play sports at a high level, and get a world-class education.

“My friends I grew up playing basketball with are mostly going to PWIs (predominantly white institutions),” Cole, a finance major, says, “The culture is different. …Everywhere is different regardless, but the culture here versus a PWI, it’s different.”

“My parents wanted me to think about my education before basketball,” he adds. “This is a great academic environment.”