Kenny Blakeney dreamed big, and now Howard is in March Madness


The basketball program nestled on Georgia Avenue has more wins than any other Division I men’s team in Washington over the past two years.

The school’s name ascended to the second-highest Twitter trending topic Saturday afternoon.

And when players and staffers gathered on Selection Sunday to celebrate their first invitation to the NCAA tournament in 31 years, Wolf Blitzer showed up to the watch party.

Four years ago, when Kenny Blakeney interviewed to become the next men’s coach at Howard, he brought along his 75-page business plan. The written words still could not contain his grand vision for what he believed Howard basketball could become: a hoops destination in a city that loves the game. And, also, a brand that could transcend local confines and connect nationwide with the Howard allure. This week, Blakeney’s vision feels like a fairy tale come true.

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The Howard men — yes, from that long-overlooked program on Georgia Avenue — are dancing as a No. 16 seed and will face No. 1 Kansas in the first round Thursday in Des Moines. The March Madness platform is the kind of marketing that a master salesman such as Blakeney had envisioned — even if he was being a bit ambitious and a little naive during his initial pitch to Howard President Wayne A.I. Frederick.

“Dr. Frederick has talked about how he’s never done more than a three-year contract for coaches,” Blakeney said, recalling their 2019 meeting. “It was something like that. So one of his questions was: ‘How fast do you think you can win a MEAC championship and get to the NCAA tournament?’ ”

Blakeney said three years. Then he put his vision to work.

In the wave of activism and Black empowerment that swept the nation following the death of George Floyd, Blakeney signed Makur Maker, the first five-star recruit to pick an HBCU in the modern era. Though Blakeney thought Howard would make the tournament with him, the Maker effect never translated to the court. The prized freshman played in only two games because of injuries and the pandemic before declaring for the NBA draft.

Still, Blakeney credits Maker for elevating the program’s visibility. The seeds of that commitment would later blossom into Howard landing three-star recruit Shy Odom, who teamed with Bronny James at Sierra Canyon School in Los Angeles. In his first season with the Bison, Odom ranks third on the team in scoring (10.8 points per game) and second in rebounding (4.5).

Odom represents the kind of player who fits Blakeney’s vision, which spreads beyond the four walls of the gym. His players go to Soul Food Thursday like any other students. They attend campus panels, including one moderated by Blitzer, the CNN anchor. (That’s why Blitzer would later reveal himself as the most famous fan at the team’s closed watch party.) And these players also make space for inclusivity.

A private historically Black university known for famous alumni such as author Toni Morrison and Vice President Harris, Howard has never been a basketball powerhouse. Rather, it’s a campus overflowing with achievers, intellectuals, activists. Mostly, they’re women. Last fall, according to the school, the Howard student body was 71 percent female — and the men’s basketball team is powered by women, too.

According to Daniel Marks, the team’s chief program strategist, the team has 67 student managers because Blakeney doesn’t want to turn anyone away from receiving résumé-building experience. Naturally, the majority of the managers are female college students. When Blakeney encouraged the players to take on a social justice project, they chose the issue of Black maternal health — guard Jelani Williams’s idea.

Marks relayed this story: Upon hearing about the team’s commitment, a Howard student reached out to Odom through social media. She was seeking help to remain enrolled in college while navigating her pregnancy. Odom could have ignored the message, but instead he informed Marks, asking if the team could help. With the backing of the Golden State Warriors and the Washington Wizards, Howard basketball presented the student with one of two $7,500 scholarships that the NBA teams funded.

Blakeney “talked about what Howard basketball could mean [in] representing this university and this brand,” said Marks, who worked with the Milwaukee Bucks for nine years but left because he wanted to be part of what Blakeney was building at Howard. “His line is: ‘If our players leave Howard without having made an impact outside Georgia Avenue, then I’ve failed as a head coach.’ And he really believes that.”

Through his ability to connect with power brokers, Blakeney — who besides working as an assistant coach in the college ranks for a dozen years also co-founded a fashion line — engineered the university’s collaboration with Jordan Brand. The Jumpman logo is all over Howard, splashed on students’ tote bags, on signs outside the gym and on the court. As the floor underwent its Jordan Brand makeover, players had to bus to Gallaudet University for 6:20 a.m. practices. A sacrifice but one the team was willing to make.

Besides, the high-profile connection goes right along with Howard basketball’s cameos in the mainstream. For the past two seasons, Howard has highlighted its campus on nationally televised games played in Burr Gymnasium on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Burr is an intimate space, but Blakeney said the team played in front of more sold-out crowds this year than in any of his previous seasons. Considering how many studious women rule the campus — students who probably have other activities on their social calendar — the sold-out games should be a barometer of how much Howard appreciates this team.

“It’s just seeing my friends excited and the people around me excited for such a big accomplishment,” said Amari Graves, a first-year biology major. She understands the Bison are massive underdogs this week, but that hasn’t dampened her enthusiasm for the players. “After 30 years — and they were so happy when you see all the pictures and the videos of them dancing or the TikToks. It’s just nice to see them excited for it.”

To complete the vision, Howard had to win basketball games. A year ago, the Bison had their first winning season since 2001-02. And if you discount the pandemic-interrupted 2020-21 season, in which the Bison played just five games and faced no conference opponents, Blakeney didn’t lie to the school president. He needed just three full seasons to accomplish what Howard could not do in the previous three decades.

That type of ascension makes people notice. After the team’s Monday night practice, sophomore Bryce Harris was telling me how his life has changed over the past few days, being showered with love by people he hasn’t heard from in years. Then, an older gentlemen interrupted the conversation because he spotted the blue-and-red practice jersey.

“Congratulations! You on the men’s team?” the man called out. “Congratulations, bruh! I’ve got to shake your hand early. You’re going to be in somebody’s magazine.”

Harris accommodated his new fan — “Now, that’s the change,” he said of the constant attention — and returned to explaining how Blakeney sold him on the vision three years ago.

“Being able to take the foundation of what people who have come before us [did] and build something bigger,” said Harris, a Long Island native. “He’s a firm believer in raising the standard, and that’s been perfect for us.”

Blakeney isn’t the first coach with big aspirations. Dreams like his can be found throughout the bracket. But only Howard can claim that its chief visionary is creating a basketball mecca.

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