By Lenn Robbins
I hope Kareem Abdul Jabbar is smiling. It’s doubtful anyone on the planet has a better appreciation and understanding of the magnitude of prep star Makur Maker’s decision to attend Howard University – over Abdul Jabbar’s UCLA.
Consider the sheer incredulity of that decision: The 6-11 Maker chose a historically black college and university (HBCU) that has played in exactly two NCAA Tournaments over UCLA, which has won 11 NCAA titles.
Why Howard? Maybe the real question is, “Why not?”
Let’s get the basketball stuff – which is secondary – out of the way. In the era Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) played at UCLA (1966-69) it’s possible a prospect with pro potential who didn’t attend a college power was overlooked by the NBA. It’s possible.
Not today. A prospect can play at Howard or High Point, or Holy Cross or any college that starts with any letter and the NBA will find you. See Scottie Pippen (Central Arkansas), Steve Nash (Santa Clara), some guy named Curry (Davidson).
For a skilled big like Maker, who already has a cousin in the NBA (Thon Maker) the only hesitation about playing in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) which is comprised of black colleges and universities, is level of play. Unless Kyle O’Quinn, the last player drafted from the MEAC (2012, second round), returns to Norfolk State, Maker won’t get hoops schooled the way he would at Michigan State or Kansas or UCLA.
But he will play with an Abdul-Jabbar like burden.
Maker will certainly be the most skilled and probably the tallest player in every league game. He will be the center (or forward or point guard) of attention. He’ll likely receive second glances at every party and first class of the semester.
And he just might be remembered as the Pied Piper of MEAC basketball.
When Howard hired Kenny Blakeney prior to last season, it was the first step in making Maker’s decision a possibility. Blakeney has been a highly-regarded assistant in many stops, none more so than Harvard where he assisted Tommy Amaker in changing the business of Ivy League basketball.
Before Amaker arrived in Cambridge, Harvard walked to the same muted drum as every other Ivy League program – basketball was a nice extracurricular endeavor. Beat Yale. End of story.
Amaker immediately began recruiting so aggressively The Ivy League, prompted by a New York Times article, investigated if Amaker’s first class included players who had diminished academic standards.
Because Lord knows the mere prospect of academically successful black high school basketball players qualifying for the Ivy League is enough to make a lily-white institution tremble. Amaker was cleared and Harvard has become a borderline Top 25 program.
Can Howard achieve similar success? Probably not. Because despite all the jokes about almost every other college being the Harvard of its area, Harvard is still, well, Harvard, with an endowment of about $40 billion and 369 Rhodes Scholars.
Howard, however, can boast a pretty impressive resume of its own.
It’s located in Washington, D.C. the political power epicenter of the nation. It’s ranked 34th by U.S. News & World Report in social mobility. And have you seen its list of alumni?
Ralph Bunche, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Elijah Cummings, Toni Morrison, Andrew Young. Geez.
Just as Alcindor’s decision to choose UCLA over St. John’s changed the landscape of college recruiting, opening the West to Eastern recruits, Maker’s decision could be stunningly altering. He’s already become Howard’s best recruiter, trying to convince point guard Mickey Williams, the No.1-ranked prospect in the class of 2023, to join him at Howard.
“I was the 1st to announce my visit to Howard & other started to dream ‘what if,'” Maker posted on Twitter. “I need to make the HBCU movement real so that others will follow. I hope I inspire guys like Mikey Williams to join me on this journey. I am committing to Howard U & coach Kenny Blakeney.”
It’s always fascinating to watch change in real time. The Black Lives Matter movement is making a lot of Americans take a different look at the USA. A historically black college, which might hold a stigma to some, is a safe, smart option for young people of color.
Howard is 86-percent black. Most of us feel more comfortable with people of a similar racial and socio-economic makeup. So why not pick a university where a young man who is going to stand out, feels as if he fits in?
“A lot of people are comfortable with familiarity,” Ed Smith, Maker’s guardian, told ESPN recently. “Kids could say, I would feel welcome that I’m not just an athlete — I’m part of a community. On the visit at Howard, that was the main difference. Just for me on the outside looking in, he’s part of the fabric. You’re not just the athlete or the Black athlete.”
By all accounts Maker, 19, is a unique athlete and young man. At 6-11 he has point guard ball-handling skill and a good mid-range jumper. Born in Kenya and raised in Australia, Maker came to America in 2015 and was fast tracked on the basketball protégé path.
Like many foreign-born players, Maker has a more global appreciation and perspective than American stars that have been coddled and hyped at an early age. He sees the opportunity that is Howard. Josh Christopher, another five-star recruit, also visited Howard before signing with Arizona State.
“I think we’re starting a different culture with top recruits coming to visit here and taking this seriously,” Maker told The Undefeated. “A lot of HBCUs are being overlooked.
“There a lot of business opportunities, a lot of black leaders here. I’ve seen the alumni. I spoke to the president. The opportunity is here.”
What if more elite prospects embrace this opportunity? Imagine an NCAA Tournament with a MEAC school upsetting an ACC or Big Ten foe. Harvard’s last appearance in the Big Dance was a 67-65 loss to North Carolina in 2015. The Crimson has first round wins over Cincinnati and New Mexico in 2014 and 2013.
“Wherever a five-star lands, we can’t mess it up,” Blakeney told ESPN. “If we mess it up, we may not have another opportunity to be able to do it.”
The bet here is that Howard won’t mess it up, it will open it up. And maybe one day, an elite white prospect will choose an HBCU school.