During his first season as head basketball coach at Howard University, in 2019-2020, Kenny Blakeney tried to tune out all the noise. That task, however, proved near impossible. His team slogged through a 4-29 season. Not that 20-loss seasons were at all irregular at Howard: the men had lost 20 or more games 19 times in the previous 24 campaigns.
Still, Blakeney—a Duke graduate who won a national championship as a freshman in 1992—was hired to bring a winning pedigree to Howard. So not many fans and boosters were impressed with his rebuilding effort. “Everybody’s telling me I’m doing a terrible job,” Blakeney says about that period. “You’re sorry, you can’t coach. I hear all that. I read it. I don’t forget it.”
His second year, 2020-2021, delivered more heartache. After the May 2020 murder of George Floyd and the subsequent protests against racial injustice, Howard secured a commitment from high school senior Makur Maker, who became the first five-star prospect to sign with an HBCU since ESPN’s recruiting database began in 2007. Maker hoped to lead a revival of HBCU basketball, but he played in just two games that COVID-shortened season, in which Howard finished 1-4. Yes, 1-4. After several players tested positive for COVID-19 in January 2021, Howard canceled the remainder of that season in early February. Maker left Howard to play professional basketball in Australia; he now plays for Capital City Go-Go, the G-League affiliate of the Washington Wizards.
Even inklings of a turnaround left burned Blakeney out. Howard finished with a 16-13 overall record last year, just the program’s second winning season since 1992. The Bison came in second place in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) in 2021-22, finishing 9-5. But Coppin State upset Howard in the first round of the MEAC tournament, abruptly ending Howard’s season. Eventually, three years of working 12- to 16-hour days, sometimes seven days a week, caught up to Blakeney. “After that tournament game I continued to work,” says Blakeney. “But I checked out. I needed a break.”
Blakeney escaped with his wife and daughter to Ireland and France for a month last summer for a mental-health vacation. Now, in March 2023, he’s “sleeping like a baby,” he says. Which is no surprise. Because for the first time in 31 years, Howard, the so-called Harvard of HBCUs, alma mater of Vice President Kamala Harris, Toni Morrison, Thurgood Marshall, and so many other luminaries, is dancing.
After finishing the regular season first in the MEAC, and winning the conference tournament championship game in a comeback thriller over Norfolk State, 65-64, Howard—a 16-seed in the West regional—faces the defending national champion, No. 1 Kansas, on Thursday in Des Moines, Iowa, at 2 p.m. EST. Though Howard underinvested in men’s basketball for years, Blakeney has now created a new culture in Washington, D.C. He’s incorporated off-court elements, such as an annual social justice initiative and work with a respected sports psychologist, to complement the Xs and Os. Although Makur’s tenure at Howard did not pay direct dividends on the court, his decision to play for the school, plus increased attention for HBCUs in the wake of America’s 2020 racial reckoning—the NBA, for example, generated $3 million in HBCU donations at the 2021 NBA All-Star game in Atlanta—helped raise Howard’s profile in the recruiting world. Howard has suited up the past two MEAC rookies of the year, sophomore point guard Elijah Hawkins and freshman Shy Odom, who played alongside the sons of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade at Sierra Canyon High School in Los Angeles, one of the top programs in the country. Odom was also named the outstanding performer at the MEAC tournament.
Knocking off the defending champion Jayhawks, as the 2023 edition of men’s March Madness tips off and saps productivity from workplaces around the country, will be a tall order for Howard. Only one No. 16-seed has ever defeated a No. 1 seed—UMBC toppled Virginia back in 2018. But Blakeney is building something special in the nation’s capital. And beating Kansas would only bolster the HBCU brand. “They can really get after it,” says John Williams, a former player at UNC-Asheville who called Howard’s MEAC tournament victory for ESPN. “I don’t want to ever say that there’s no chance because, in March Madness, crazy things happen. We’ve seen it before. And I think they have the personnel to do something crazy. I’ll say that. The personnel to do something mad.”
In engineering Howard’s turnaround, Blakeney had to navigate complicated times. Following Maker’s commitment in 2020 and the death of George Floyd, for example, he started hearing from more top recruits. But he says he soon discovered that many players were not serious about going to Howard. “Some of those guys were using HBCUs and trying to get offers just for their social-media clout,” says Blakeney. “If we would offer a scholarship, it’s like, ‘Well, I can show people I’m down with the cause.’ The perceived outlook was, ‘I’m a person who’s in touch with what’s going on with my culture.’” Blakeney pulled back some scholarship offers over the course of these conversations.
Still, better players started coming to Howard. They’ve thrived in off-court settings too. Hawkins, a D.C. native who attended DeMatha High School, a local hoops power, interned for Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.)— chairman of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol. His intern duties included helping set up the Jan. 6 hearings and taking notes on cable-news coverage of the committee’s work.
The team picked Black maternal health as its social-justice initiative. Black women are three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than white women, according to the CDC. The players decided on that issue after the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs Wade last year, putting Black women at further risk. Players and staff attended the Black Maternal Health panel at the Congressional Black Caucus Annual Legislative Conference. Blakeney and his players spent a day putting together care kits at Mamatoto Village, a maternal health center run by Black women for Black women. The team’s new chief program strategist, Daniel Marks—who used to work for the Milwaukee Bucks—leveraged NBA connections to present $7,500 scholarships, donated by the Golden State Warriors and Washington Wizards, to two Howard student mothers on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
“Even if they upset Kansas, the thing that I’m most proud of for them is that they’ve not only excelled on the court, but off the court as well,” says Howard president Wayne A.I. Frederick.
Applications to HBCUs have surged since 2020, and Frederick says Howard received a record number of applications for the 2022-2023 academic year: 42,658. While Howard is already an established name in higher education, Frederick knows that success in the NCAA tournament could spark even more interest in a school. A key to applications boosts, however, is sustained success, along the lines of that enjoyed by schools like Gonzaga and Butler.
We’ll soon find out if Howard is on that path. Before the team left for Des Moines, Frederick, a cancer surgeon who is scheduled to give a talk Thursday on pancreatic cancer in his native Trinidad and Tobago, shared a message with the hoops team. “I’ll be there Saturday,” Frederick told them. “To see you play in the second round.”