Makur Maker, a five-star forward who could very well be bound for the NBA after one year, stunned the college basketball world Friday when he announced via Twitter that he would play at Howard University, a Historically Black College in Washington, D.C.
Maker, who also considered UCLA, Kentucky or Memphis, wrote that he hoped his decision would start a movement of elite prospects playing for HBCUs.
But the responsibility to make HBCUs more relevant in the world of college basketball, where the egalitarian nature of the NCAA tournament makes it theoretically possible for schools like Howard to compete with the blue bloods, shouldn’t fall on players alone.
The reality is, without the willingness of coaches at high-profile programs to schedule Howard and television executives to give them a platform on ESPN and Fox, Maker’s bold choice is more likely to be a one-off rather than a movement.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Assuming Maker actually shows up on campus this fall instead of going to the G League like several other top players in this recruiting class, and assuming the college basketball season happens on a semi-normal schedule amid the COVID-19 pandemic, there will be massive interest and curiosity about this situation.
While Howard is well-known around the country as an academic institution and the alma mater of many famous Black politicians, journalists, doctors and artists, it is not known for high-level basketball. Howard plays in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, a league that barely gets noticed by the national media during the season and whose champion generally gets relegated to No. 15 or 16 seeds in the NCAA tournament. But it’s not like Howard is a powerhouse even within its league: The Bison haven’t won an automatic bid to the tournament since 1992 and went 4-29 last season.
So the notion that a top-20 player in the country is going to show up at a program in that situation is endlessly fascinating because it just doesn’t happen. And there’s a reason for that.
In making the choice to play for an HBCU, Maker is sacrificing a lot of things that his peers are getting.
Hillcrest Prep's Makur Maker at the Hoophall Classic in Springfield, MA. (Photo: Gregory Payan, AP)
He’s not going to be featured on ESPN every week or flying on charter planes to every road game like he would have at Kentucky. Instead of playing in the FedExForum at Memphis, his home games will be at the 2,700-seat Burr Gymnasium. Instead of playing for a UCLA program with 11 national title banners, he’ll be playing for a program that has won the MEAC four times.
It is unreasonable and, frankly, unfair to expect any young person who has all those options to give them up for the sake of elevating HBCU athletics when everyone involved in the ecosystem of college sports is responsible for leaving them behind.
There are 100 reasons why college sports became financially stratified the way they did over the last 40 years, but the reality is that Howard and other HBCUs only loosely play the same sport as Duke and North Carolina despite being under the same banner and governance in Division 1.
Just as an example, Howard did not play a single home game last season between Nov. 5 and Nov. 30, traveling from South Bend, Indiana, to Toledo to Huntington, West Virginia, to Muncie, Indiana, before finally coming back to D.C. They did it because Howard needs to earn guaranteed paychecks from bigger schools in non-conference games in order to meet its budget. HBCUs lose the vast majority of those games — no surprise, given that they are playing road game after road game against teams with built-in advantages — meaning they usually enter conference play with abysmal records.
North Carolina Central has been the MEAC’s dominant program recently. But even had the Eagles won the MEAC tournament for a fourth straight year before it was cancelled, they likely would have been sent to the First Four rather than the main bracket of the NCAA tournament because they had to play 10 non-conference road games and lost them all.
That means they don’t get much of a chance in the tournament, which means their highly successful coach, LeVelle Moton, rarely gets mentioned for bigger jobs, which perpetuates the idea that HBCU basketball isn’t the best route for career advancement, which means too many quality young coaches who could help build these programs up would prefer to start down an easier path.
On every level, the game is rigged.
For Maker, of course, there’s little risk that playing in the MEAC will dampen his NBA prospects. He won’t have the same experience that other top-20 players in the ACC or Big Ten will have, which he certainly understands at this point. But no matter where he plays or how good or bad his team turns out to be, scouts and general managers will be able to chart his progress.
The question is, once Maker shows up on campus, will the rest of us even know he’s there? Will we get to see him at the big events in December at Madison Square Garden? Will big-time programs be willing to venture to D.C. to play against him in a tiny gym? Will TV networks be willing to show Howard and feature MEAC basketball?
Otherwise, the incentives for other players to follow the same path as Maker just aren’t there. It’s cool and unique that he’s willing to take the first step as an elite recruit going to an HBCU. But to truly make this a trend, the entire college basketball community — and not just other high school kids — needs to get on board.
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