It isn’t often a high school basketball player is offered the opportunity to play his college ball for a so-called major conference program, and declines.
With a monopoly on prime television slots on major cable networks, these conferences are homes to the schools young hoopers grow up watching, get to know, root for or against and ultimately hope to play for.
So when the opportunity is presented to play at a Duke, North Carolina or Kentucky, even if it’s just one offer in a pool of mid-major and small conference offers, players take it, hoping to play in front of thousands of people in the stands, millions more on TV, and scouts who aren’t going out of their way to view one particular player.
But what happens when these players think outside of themselves, and start thinking about the entire sports landscape? The power they collectively hold to change the dynamic of college sports and the way we view these institutions. The potential they have to build communities and universities traditionally reserved for people who look like them, but often underfunded and overlooked.
These are questions that may have an answer soon after one simple tweet by a high school sophomore. “Going to an HBCU wouldn’t be too bad,” Mikey Williams, an ESPN 5-star guard out of California, said last Tuesday.
Going to an HBCU wouldn’t be too bad...👀— . (@glengarryblock) June 2, 2020
It was just a thought, a thought from a young man still several years from actually having to make that decision. But he gained widespread support from people around the country, including NBA players like Lou Williams and DeMarcus Cousins, using his tweet as an opportunity to place Historically Black Colleges and Universities on a proper pedestal, as places where students can gain comparable, if not better, education and opportunity as a predominately white counterpart.
Already, we’ve seen that momentum translate into a National Letter of Intent, as Nate Tabor, an ESPN 4-star forward, has signed to play for Norfolk State University in the 2020-21 season.
“Today is a good day for Spartan Basketball. As the talk of a culture shift in collegiate sports has become relevant recently, Nate Tabor has decided to start that shift,” Norfolk State head coach Robert Jones said in a school statement Thursday. “It is not every day we or other HBCUs get a Top 100 player.”
Tabor, who attended Sacred Heart High School in Waterbury, CT, is ESPN’s No. 32 small forward in the country, No. 32 overall player in the East region, and No. 2 overall player in the state of Connecticut. He was previously committed to St. John’s, which plays in the Big East Conference. Tabor also had offers from two SEC schools (Auburn, LSU), two Big 12 schools (Texas Tech, TCU) and two AAC schools (UConn, East Carolina). But he chose to play his collegiate ball in the historically black MEAC.
"Nate can do it all. At his size, he can play anywhere from the 1 through 4 positions,” Jones said. “If he keeps progressing, he has NBA potential with his size, strength, skill and athleticism. We are very happy to add Nate to our Spartan family!"
Ultimately, that’s the goal for these top recruits when they decide to go to college, to reach the NBA. If that dream can still be realized while at an HBCU, what makes the traditional path a better one? It’s a question players are starting to ask themselves.
Williams, who already has offers from schools like Arizona, Kansas and UCLA, said it’s a “good chance” he chooses an HBCU when it’s time. “It just depends on how my future plays out,” Williams recently told Bleacher Report’s Taylor Rooks. “Only God knows what the future holds for me, and as of right now, I don't.”
Since his tweet, he’s received offers from several HBCUs, including Norfolk State and other nearby schools like Howard, and the school his mother attended, Hampton.
“She put it in my head early. With my social media following and influence, I feel that I have a chance to change sports forever,” Williams told Rooks. “A lot of athletes are so starstruck by big-name schools and coaches that they forget they control their own narrative. If there's anybody that is getting paid from me being at their school, I'd want it to be my own people. It's all about timing and situation. I support the black community to the fullest and any way possible I can help, I'm going to do so no matter what it is.”
Recent protests over racism and police brutality following the murder of George Floyd have people rethinking societal norms, and wondering how they can do more to support black communities. But for Williams, attending an HBCU was clearly something on his mind long before the protests. Still, this new line of thinking, combined with a top recruit’s efforts to change the narrative, could be what opens the door for HBCUs to become home of some of the country’s best athletes, as they once were in the past.
Some players will still be attracted to the bright lights of the traditional major conference powerhouses. And for some, those schools will absolutely be the right decision, whether it's for family allegiances, proximity to home, or player-coach relationships. But on the heels of Tabor's decision to go to an HBCU, it won’t be a surprise to see other top recruits choose that path too.
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