men summer 2020, Makur Maker made headlines. The Kenyan-born South Sudanese-Australian athlete raised eyebrows because of where he chose to play. But unlike other five-star college recruits he didn’t necessarily land at the particular school. Instead, it was about the type of the school choose a Maker. The 16th ranked basketball recruit (according to ESPN) announced his decision to attend an HBCU. Specifically, Howard University.
At the time, this was very unheard of. For the past 50 years, schools like the University of North Carolina, Gonzaga, Georgetown and Duke have dominated college basketball recruiting. Historically Black colleges like Howard, Fisk, Bethune-Cookman, Jackson State and LeMoyne-Owen were not commonly considered standout players, and were not often run by coaches who competed at the highest level. As such, HBCU squads have rarely made big waves in March Madness.
But that is changing – and fast. In recent weeks, Michael Jordan’s company, Jordan Brand (a subsidiary of Nike), announced a 20-year partnership with Howard. And, recently, a growing collection of former NBA stars have signed on the dotted line to lead HBCU basketball programs in hopes of elevating the schools and HBCU legacies. Former NBA star and New York City “Point God,” Kenny Anderson is the head coach at Fisk University. Reggie Theus, a two-time television star and former Saturday morning television star, is the head basketball coach and athletic director at Bethune-Cookman. The NPA itself is also involved. There was even an HBCU Showcase during this season’s NBA 2K23 Las Vegas Summer Series.
The 6ft 11in Maker, who is a cousin of former NBA first round pick Thon Maker, has decided to attend Howard University, saying then, “I need to make the HBCU movement a reality so others will follow.” The decision came six weeks after the police killing of George Floyd and subsequent global protests. A change was taking place. And Maker, at least basketball-wise, was suddenly in the middle of it.
But while Maker’s decision put the spotlight on HBCU basketball programs, it wasn’t the first time these schools had big players. HBCUs, originally founded to offer educational opportunities to Blacks after emancipation, have a long history with the benefits, although not as much in recent times. NBA legends Willis Reed, Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, Ben Wallace, Anthony Mason, Charles Oakley and Sam Jones are all HBCU alums. There are role players like Avery Johnson and Robert Covington (the only active HBCU player in the NBA), too.
On the football field, the NFL legend has also made waves in the HBCU universe. Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders took the head coaching job at Jackson State in 2020 – he and Williams are now teammates. In two seasons, Sanders has made his program cool again, not to mention successful. In 2019, Jackson State went 4-8. In 2020, after Sanders took over, the school was over .500, going 4-3 in a shortened season affected by Covid-19. And in 2021, just two years after his arrival, the school had an impressive 11-2 record (unbeaten in the conference), playing in the Celebration Bowl, led by Sanders’ son (and fellow field man), Shedeur, at quarterback.
This is the kind of impact Anderson and Theus (along with Dixon, Williams and Wells) hope to have on their schools. The question is, how will their NBA star power affect HBCU programs moving forward?
Fisk University, part of the Gulf Coast Athletic Conference, is a historic institution. Its list of alums rivals most schools and includes the likes of poet Nikki Giovanni, Beyonce’s father Mathew Knowles, pioneering civil rights politician John Lewis, NFL players Neal Craig and Robert James, and Alma Powell (wife of former secretary of state USA, late Colin Powell). Anderson can add his name to the list of famous people who have walked the Nashville, Tennessee, campus since 2018. His goal? Giving back to his young players.
“Not just in basketball, but in life in general,” Anderson tells the Guardian. “I get that from my high school coach, Jack Curran.”
Anderson, who says he was “retired” before taking the job at Fisk, knew he needed another shot at coaching. Before that, he coached at the lower levels of professional basketball, but with so much experience in the game, after falling in love with it at the age of six in Queens, coaching came back to him. He contacted then-Fisk president Kevin Rome, who knew Anderson from his days as a star player at Georgia Tech, and accepted the job, which Anderson calls “a great fit.” Last year, Fisk had a tough season, finishing well below .500. But it is a process. Italy’s Rome, nor a basketball champion, is not built in a day. It begins, however, with excitement. Something to rally around.
“The pride,” says Anderson, “I’m just trying to take it. I’m being built here at Fisk. As a basketball player and NBA all-star, a point guard from New York City, it’s the other things in life that I reach out to these young men. [about, too]. It is a blessing for me to be involved.
Reggie Theus took the position of athletic director at Bethune-Cookman, part of the Southwest Athletic Conference, in 2021. Theus, who was a head coach in the NBA with the Sacramento Kings and in college with New Mexico State (and an assistant at Louisville under Rick Pitino), also aired at the highest levels with TNT and other outlets. He starred in a basketball-themed sitcom, Hang Time. But Theus knew “he wasn’t done with the training.” In fact, he says he was “praying” for the opportunity.
“When I started praying for that opportunity to do more,” says Theus, “this job opened up.”
He applied as a coach, but the school offered him full equipment. He accepted a job as athletic director and “hired” himself as head basketball coach, with the school’s blessing. But a big challenge, according to Theus, is finances and the fact that Bethune-Cookman does not own its arenas or sports courts. He is leading the development of an athletic program into his vision, but it takes time. “If you want to be good,” says Theus, “you have to be willing to do things to be good.” Patience is needed, but also economic support.
“When you look at the attention HBCUs are getting with the social awareness that’s going on,” says Theus, “and also the athletes who want to get involved now, it’s only going to get better. When you think about the fact that you don’t have to go to a Power-5 school to make it to the NBA or play in Europe – these parents and kids, they want to do what we’ve already done. They look to us as role models.”
Theus says HBCUs are earning more and more visibility, thanks to Sanders, Jordan, Maker and others. “Oh yeah,” he says. “100%.” His student-athletes Google his name and those like Anderson and see their bona fides. And while the past few years have been tough for Bethune-Cookman’s basketball and football teams, in part due to the impact of Covid-19, other teams like baseball and softball are doing well. For that reason, Theus has high hopes for the coming seasons. “Everything is moving positively,” he says.
Today, Maker is making his way as a professional, too, slowly but surely. Although his time with Howard was cut short due to injury and the pandemic, he is working to rise in various developmental ranks. But whether he plays big minutes in the NBA or not, Maker has already made his mark on basketball history. He raised the HBCU name at a time when the schools needed it. Now, Jordan is leading, and Anderson, Theus, Dixon, Williams and Wells are also there. These NBA stars continue to influence the HBCU landscape as a whole. But they may do to him what the game of basketball has done to them. That’s the mission they chose to take on, starting again this fall.
“I know it’s going to be a lot more work,” Anderson says. “But this is a great opportunity. We don’t have all the things we need to be successful in the game of basketball. But we’re getting there.”