Standing 7-feet with the ability to run the court like a guard, Makur Maker is one of the most highly sought high school basketball players in the country.
The storied program at UCLA wanted him, desperately. So did coach John Calipari and his NBA-star producing machine at Kentucky. Same for former NBA great Penny Hardaway and the Memphis Tigers.
Maker, instead, picked Howard University.
Yes, Howard, which hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 1992.
Yes, Howard, which went 4-29 last season, including just 1-15 in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.
“I need to make the HBCU [historically black colleges and universities] movement real, so that others will follow,” Makur wrote on Twitter early Friday morning in announcing his decision.
So, yes, Howard, the academically elite, historically black university in Washington D.C. — alma mater of Thurgood Marshall, Toni Morrison, Elijah Cummings and so many others.
In the annals of college basketball recruiting, this is one of the most stunning (considering the program’s on-court history) and important decisions. ESPN reported that Maker, considered a consensus top-20 recruit in America, is the highest-rated prospect it’s ever tracked to commit to an HBCU.
The decision, Maker has long noted, is about more than basketball. Maker, whose cousin, Thon, plays for the Detroit Pistons, was born in Kenya but grew up in Australia before coming to America to pursue high school basketball. He played his senior year at Hillcrest Prep in Phoenix.
Long before the current movement for social justice, Maker contemplated playing for an HBCU and discussed changing the narrative about what college hoops should be about. He plugged Howard into his list of potential college destinations and last October took an official visit to the school that sits less than two miles northeast of the White House.
“I think we’re starting a different culture with top recruits coming in to visit here and taking this seriously,” Maker told ESPN’s The Undefeated last fall. “A lot of HBCUs are being overlooked.”
Maker has been vocal about the ability of athletes to extend their influence beyond competition and has cited the work of LeBron James and Colin Kaepernick. The more he learned about Howard, the more he became impressed with the institution as a whole.
“There’s a lot of business opportunities, a lot of black leaders here,” Maker told The Undefeated last fall. “I’ve seen the alumni. I spoke to the president. The opportunity is here. It seems like everybody is all in together, everybody knows each other. The culture is definitely here. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
In the hoops world, that all sounded interesting, but unlikely. Maker wasn’t the first highly recruited athlete to consider an HBCU. Just last month, Mikey Williams, a top five player from the Class of 2023, said he was looking at HBCUs.
“Going to an HBCU wouldn’t be too bad,” Williams wrote on social media.
By signing day though, at least in the past, these players have always wound up in the same big-time places.
Adding to the mix is that Maker, unlike most American players, is eligible for the 2020 NBA draft. He has declared for the draft, but his camp says that he’ll pull his name out if he isn’t a sure-bet first-rounder (right now he isn’t projected to be one).
The coronavirus pandemic has pushed the NBA draft back until the fall and thrown everything — including the 2020-21 college hoops season, of course — into flux, but Howard appears to be the likely path for Maker at this point.
Even with the draft talk, the big schools never stopped pursuing him. UCLA, Kentucky and Memphis wound up in the final four, but there were others. As much as Howard remained a finalist, almost no one in the basketball world thought the Bison would win out in the end. Just listing them was a sign of respect.
However, coach Kenny Blakeney never stopped pushing. He sold the school’s top academics, its cultural influence and its location. Blakeney played at Duke and was a member of the 1991 and 1992 national title teams, so he’s familiar with elite college basketball. Last season was his first as a college head coach, but he previously was an assistant at Harvard and Columbia in the Ivy League.
He knows how to sell what he has — which isn’t 11 national title banners (UCLA), an NBA arena as a home court (Memphis) or dozens of former NBA draft picks (Kentucky).
What Blakeney continued to point out to Maker is that NBA stars come from everywhere — he particularly noted that 2019 No. 2 pick Ja Morant played for mid-major Murray State. Recent No. 1 overall picks such as Ben Simmons (LSU) and Markelle Fultz (Washington) played for struggling teams that didn’t reach the NCAA tournament.
In short, Howard wasn’t going to hold him back.
By Friday morning, that was apparently enough. Maker took to Twitter and made his decision.
“I need to make the HBCU movement real so that others will follow,” Maker wrote. “I hope I inspire guys like Mikey Williams to join me on this journey.”
With that, Makur Maker made some history. And he hasn’t even bounced the ball on campus yet.
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