This time last year, it had been roughly two months since the killing of George Floyd and racial tensions were high as an abundance of Black Lives Matter protests and marches brought out countless world leaders, celebrities and athletes to speak against racism, inequality and police brutality.
The trickle down, as it pertained to the college basketball recruiting space, was an influx of interest from elite high school stars in Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU).
Top players who customarily post offers via social media from college basketball heavyweights like Kentucky, North Carolina and Duke, were trading in the blue blood offer announcements to feature offers from HBCU like Howard, Hampton and North Carolina A&T.
“It was a beautiful thing,” said elite 2022 combo guard Skyy Clark. “I committed to Kentucky because it was the perfect fit for me, but I loved to see it. It’s always been a question about why players don’t look at HBCU more, but last year we saw a lot of top guys putting out that they were interested in them.”
Floyd, a Black man, died on May 25, 2020, after being pinned beneath police officers, one of whom kneeled on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, as he was detained. Floyd repeatedly told the officers that he couldn’t breathe.
The officer who kneeled, Derek Chauvin, was convicted of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter and was sentenced to 22 and a half years in prison last month.
Fourteen months later, with less national headlines surrounding racial and social issues, the social media posts have halted to an extremely slow drip at best, which begs the question: Is HBCU interest still real among elite players or was it all just a knee-jerk reaction to the moment?
Howard men’s basketball coach Kenny Blakeney said it’s “still very real,” but that “the narrative is a lot less focused than it was last year.”
Blakeney made history last July when landed consensus top 15 player Makur Maker, giving the Bison the highest rated player in the modern recruiting era to commit to a HBCU.
Unfortunately, Maker never got to shine on the big stage.
He suffered an injury two games into last season then Howard was forced to cancel its season due to COVID-19 related issues.
Recently, Maker announced that he planned to turn pro this coming season, despite withdrawing his name from this year's NBA Draft last week.
“There was such an intentional focus surrounding the horrible murder of Mr. George Floyd at the time,” Blakeney said. “It’s been over a year, and, as things do, it’s died down. As a result, players and their families wanting to have the association of HBCU and their recruitments has not been the same. It’s still there, it’s just not as loud.”
When Maker committed to Howard he said his goal was “to make the HBCU movement real so that others will follow.” He specifically named Mikey Williams as one of the rising high school stars he wanted to influence “to join me on this journey."
Williams, a rising junior, is the second most popular high school athlete in high school sports after Bronny James, the son of NBA superstar Lebron James.
His Instagram following eclipses 3.1 million and he’s constantly rubbing elbows with hip hop stars like Drake and Da Baby, as well as NBA superstars like LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard.
Earlier this month, Williams inked a deal with Excel Sports Management, becoming the first high school basketball star to sign with a major sports agency to pursue name, image and likeness (NIL) endorsements.
Williams’ mother, Charisse Williams, was a star softball player at prestigious HBCU Hampton University and earlier this month his father, Mahlon Williams, said his son is “leaning toward” playing at a HBCU.
Nick Smith Jr. is one of the top scoring guards in the 2022 class and said, while he respects the HBCU that offered him scholarships, he told them early that he didn’t think it was a good fit.
“I just always saw myself at the high major level,” Smith said. “I respect HBCU way too much to waste their time. I’m not gonna do something because it’s trendy to do it. A lot of that was going on last year because of everything going on. Nah, I’m not a follower.”
Phoenix Suns star Chris Paul is doing his part to keep HBCU at the forefront, consistently sporting HBCU paraphernalia before and after games, most recently wearing a Winston Salem State hoodie during the NBA Finals.
He talked about the importance of promoting HBCU, and recently produced the docuseries “Why Not Us,” which followed HBCU powerhouse North Carolina Central.
Paul, who played two years at Wake Forest before going on to the NBA, is currently studying Communications at Winston-Salem State University.
“Just trying to make sure that they get that spotlight,” Paul said.
North Carolina Central coach LeVelle Moton contends that while the spotlight is currently illuminated it's not aligned with the trend; and therein lies the problem.
“These kids do what’s trendy, it’s the world we live in,” Moton said. “Whatever’s hot is the wave they ride. The bottom line is this: When it comes to decision time are they gonna turn down the aesthetics and glitz and glamour and go with the culture?"
Elijah Fisher, a rising junior who is widely regarded as a top five player in the 2023 class, said he wants to normalize HBCU offers being a big deal.
“I got offered by Morgan State and it’s a big deal for me,” Fisher said. “I think it’s important to support the schools that predominantly have people that look like me there. I love that Morgan State is a HBCU.”
Typically, players in Fisher’s position opt for schools in Power 5 conferences to maximize resources and exposure, but Fisher said, “It may be time to change things.”
Bryson Warren, a rising junior, recently took a visit to Tennessee State, a HBCU in Nashville, and said it was “one of the best visits” he’s ever taken.
Tigers coach Penny Collins was courtside for most of Warren’s games at Peach Jam last week.
“There’s a sense of pride as a young black man at a HBCU like Tennessee State,” said Warren, widely regarded as one of the top guards in the 2023 class. “Back in the day people like me could only go to these colleges, so it means something to me. The facilities are great, and they’ve had success in the past and are focused on winning. I wanted to seriously consider HBCU so I’m glad they reached out.”
Former Oklahoma State point guard Cade Cunningham, the probable No. 1 overall pick in tonight’s NBA Draft, never had that luxury.
Cunningham grew an affinity for HBCU watching the famous Prairie View A&M-Grambling rivalry while growing up in Texas.
Still, when it came to his recruitment, Cunningham never received any interest, likely because of his stature as a top five player with top pick projections even in high school.
Cunningham said he would’ve “seriously considered” HBCU had they reached out.
“I definitely support any younger guys that want to go to HBCU,” Cunningham said. “I think that would be a great step.”
Still, Blakeney said while ultimately landing elite prospects is the obvious goal, the attention top tier players bring by reciprocating interest in HBCU via social media “definitely helps.”
“I think any time that we can bring light to our HBCU, especially young men with social media followings reaching tens of thousands, that’s a good thing,” Blakeney said. “Just seeing what took place since Mr. Floyd’s murder, and seeing Makur come to Howard and grow and develop even as a one-and-done type player is a positive. He’s a guy who will have a chance to achieve his goals and dreams, and that’s the ultimate goal.”