Photograph: Gregory Payan/AP
In the summer of 2020, Makur Maker made headlines. The Kenyan-born South Sudanese-Australian athlete raised eyebrows because of where he chose to play. But unlike fellow five-star college recruits, it wasn’t necessarily for the specific school he landed on. Instead, it was because of the type of school Maker chose. The then-16th ranked basketball recruit (according to ESPN) announced his decision to attend HBCU. Specifically, Howard University.
At the time, this was largely 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 have not commonly been considered by standout players, nor have they often been run by coaches who’ve competed at the highest level. As such, HBCU squads have rarely made major waves in March Madness.
But that is changing – and fast. In the past few weeks, Michael Jordan’s company, Jordan Brand (a subsidiary of Nike), announced a 20-year partnership with Howard. And, lately, a growing collection of former NBA stars have signed on the dotted line to lead HBCU basketball programs with the hope of uplifting the schools and the HBCU legacy. Kenny Anderson, the former NBA all-star and New York City “Point God,” is the head coach at Fisk University. Reggie Theus, a two-time all-star and former Saturday morning TV star, is the head basketball coach and athletic director at Bethune-Cookman. The NBA itself is also involved. There was even a moment HBCU Showcase during this season’s NBA 2K23 Las Vegas Summer League.
Related: Could Deion Sanders tip college football’s power balance toward Black schools?
The 6ft 11in Maker, who is the cousin of former first-round NBA draft pick Thon Maker, made his decision to attend Howard University, saying then, “I need to make the HBCU movement real so that others will follow.” The decision came six weeks after the police killing of George Floyd and subsequent global protests. Change was afoot. And Maker, basketball-wise at least, was suddenly at its center.
But while Maker’s decision put the spotlight on HBCU basketball programs, it wasn’t the first time these schools boasted big-name players. HBCUs, which were founded originally to offer educational opportunities to Black people later emancipation, have long histories with the pros, 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. Role players like Avery Johnson and Robert Covington (who is the only active HBCU player in the NBA), are too.
On the football field, an NFL legend has also made waves in the HBCU universe. Hall of fame cornerback Deion Sanders took over the head coaching job at Jackson State in 2020 – he and Williams are now colleagues. In just 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 above .500, going 4-3 in an abbreviated Covid-19-affected season. And in 2021, just two years after his arrival, the school boasted a remarkable 11-2 record (undefeated in conference), playing in the Celebration Bowl, led at quarterback by Sanders’ son (and co-yogurt pitchman), Shedeur.
This is the type of impact Anderson and Theus (along with Dixon, Williams and Wells) hope for their schools. The question is, how will their NBA star power affect the 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, groundbreaking civil rights politician John Lewis, NFL players Neal Craig and Robert James, and Alma Powell (wife of the late former US secretary of state, Colin Powell). Anderson can add his name to the list of well-known folks who’ve walked the Nashville, Tennessee campus, as of 2018. His goal? Giving back to his young players.
“Not only in basketball, but in life in general,” Anderson tells the Guardian. “I got that from my high school coach, Jack Curran.”
Anderson, who says he was “retired” before he took the job at Fisk, knew he wanted another shot at coaching. Previously, he’d coached in professional basketball’s lower levels, but with so much experience in the game, having fallen in love with it at six-years-old in Queens, coaching called to him again. He linked up with the then-president of Fisk, Kevin Rome, who’d known Anderson from his days as a star player at Georgia Tech, and he took the job, which Anderson calls an “awesome fit.” Last year, Fisk had a tough season, finishing well below .500. But it’s a process. Neither Italy’s Rome, nor a basketball champion, is built in a day. It starts, though, with excitement. Something to rally around.
“The pride,” Anderson says, “I’m just trying to build it. I’m building it here at Fisk. Being a basketball player and an all-star in the NBA, a point guard from New York City, it’s the other things in life that I’m reaching out to these young men [about, too]. It’s a blessing for me to be involved.
Reggie Theus took the job of athletic director at Bethune-Cookman, part of the Southwestern 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 broadcast at the highest levels with TNT and other outlets. He starred in a basketball-themed sitcom, Hang Time. But Theseus knew he “wasn’t finished coaching.” In fact, he says he “prayed” for the opportunity.
“When I started to pray on having that opportunity to do more,” says Theus, “this job came open.”
He’d applied as a coach, but the school offered him the whole kit-and-kaboodle. He accepted the position of athletic director and “hired” himself as head basketball coach, with the blessing of the school. But a major challenge, Theus says, is finances and the fact that Bethune-Cookman doesn’t own its sports arenas or courts. He’s been given the charge of developing an athletic program in his vision, but it takes time. “If you want to be good,” Theseus says, “you have to be willing to do things to be good.” Patience is required, but also economic support.
“When you look at the attention being brought to HBCUs by the social awareness that has gone on,” Theus says, “and also the athletes that are pushing to be involved now, it’s just going to get better. When you think about the fact that you don’t have to go to a Power-5 school to get to the NBA or play in Europe – parents and these kids, they want to do what we’ve already done. They look at us as role models.”
Theus says that 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’s and see their bona fides. And while recent years have been tough for Bethune-Cookman’s basketball and football teams, in part due to Covid-19’s impact, other squads like baseball and softball have been faring well. In that vein, Theus has high hopes for the upcoming seasons. “Everything is moving positively,” he says.
Today, Maker is making his way as a professional, too, slowly but surely. While his time at Howard was cut short due to injury and the pandemic, he’s working to rise in various developmental leagues. But whether he plays major minutes in the NBA or not, Maker has already made his mark on the history of basketball. He’s uplifted the HBCU name at a time when the schools needed it. Now, Jordan is taking the lead, with Anderson, Theus, Dixon, Williams and Wells there, too. How these NBA stars will continue to impact the HBCU landscape is yet to be seen in full. But it’s possible they will do for it what the game of basketball has done for them. That’s the mission they’ve chosen to accept, starting again this fall.
“I know it’s going to be a lot more work,” says Anderson. “But this is a great opportunity. We don’t have all the things we need to prosper in the game of basketball. But we’re getting there.”