Howard Universitys Burr Gymnasiums Burr Gymnasium
Howard Universitys Burr Gymnasiums Burr Gymnasium Credit: Lawrence Johnson

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Howard men’s basketball hasn’t had much to celebrate for decades. The Bison haven’t had a winning season since 2001. Their last NCAA tournament appearance came in 1992—six head coaches ago. Last season, the team finished 4-29 in coach Kenneth Blakeney‘s first season.

But earlier this month, Blakeney scored a big, potentially program-altering win. Makur Maker, a consensus five-star recruit, verbally committed to Howard, becoming the highest-ranked player to commit to an HBCU.

The announcement represents an unprecedented breakthrough for the program.

“I need to make the HBCU movement real so that others will follow,” Maker wrote in his announcement. “I hope I inspire guys like [five-star recruit] Mikey Williams to join me on this journey. I am committing to Howard U & coach Kenny Blakeney.”

There is a possibility Maker, 19, does not enroll in college at all. The 7-footer from Hillcrest Academy in Phoenix, by way of Perth, Australia and what is now South Sudan, has declared for the NBA Draft and has until Aug. 3 to withdraw his name. But this is still a victory for Howard hoops, as Maker had offers from Kentucky, Memphis, Oregon, and UCLA.

“The fact we’re talking about Howard with a five-star prospect, that’s not customary,” Corey Evans, a national recruiting analyst for Rivals, tells City Paper. He adds that even if Maker never suits up for the Bison, his official visit and recruitment have been huge for Howard’s exposure. 

“Either way we’re talking about Howard basketball right now,” Evans continues, noting that this could lead to a “domino effect” for other HBCUs with solid basketball programs like Texas Southern, North Carolina Central, and Norfolk State.

Williams is one of the top guards in the class of 2023, and responded in kind to Maker adding his name to the conversation.

Maker putting Howard in his final list of 10 schools had already led other marquee recruits to check out the school. His commitment is putting Howard on the radar in ways it had never been before. 

“This is a major grab, not only for Howard University but for historically black colleges as a whole,” Steven Gaither, the editor-in-chief of HBCU Gameday, wrote. “Players like Maker, a potential lottery pick and almost certain one-and-done, have proved elusive to HBCUs for decades.”

In a sport where more than half of Division 1 athletes are Black, the basketball programs at Howard offer a community that many young Black athletes would have a hard time finding at a predominantly White institution. As America’s racial conscience advances and college athletes are increasingly aware of the platforms they have to affect change, it is reasonable to believe HBCU programs can garner more attention from prospective student athletes. Attending an academic power in a city rich with Black history on a majority-Black campus may have more value to them than it did before.

“Going to a school where most of the people are the same color as you, it’s almost like you can let your guard down a little bit,” Shaw University forward Davon Dillardtold Jemele Hill of the Atlantic, in an essay where Hill suggested the time is right for top athletes to consider HBCUs. Dillard transferred to Shaw University from Oklahoma State. “You don’t have to pretend to be somebody else. You don’t have to dress this way, or do things this way. It’s like, ‘I know you. We have the same kind of struggles. We can relate.’ It’s almost like you’re back at home in your neighborhood.”

But it isn’t as simple as getting good players in the door. And in a way, it’s unfair to suggest high school players should sacrifice their pro potential for a nebulous “greater good” that may or may not pan out. If players like Maker, Williams, or Josh Christopher are going to attend Howard, and thrive, the school will also need to upgrade facilities, support staff and business partnerships to make it work. Even then, there is no guarantee that improving the basketball program will automatically benefit these schools, as ESPN analyst Bomani Jones has explained.

The backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic and its effect on university and athletic department budgets is also relevant. Many HBCUs were in precarious situations financially before the pandemic, and many schools in better situations have had to eliminate sports programs or consider other cuts.

Maker’s timing also coincides with the rising support for the Black Lives Matter movement. While Maker’s visit occurred this past fall, his commitment represents another marker of change. Maker tweeted that he will explain his decision on July 9, which is South Sudan’s Independence Day.

“Now is the time,” Evans says, pointing out the timing of Maker’s interest, which started this past fall, in addition to the recent momentum in the anti-racist movement. Top athletes choosing HBCUs is not the silver bullet to getting their funding equal to their PWI counterparts, but it can be an important step for their success in the high-stakes game of college sports.

“Wherever a five-star lands, we can’t mess it up,” Blakeney told ESPN previously, about the possibility of an HBCU landing a top recruit. “If we mess it up, we may not have another opportunity to be able to do it.”