After landing Makur Maker, the No. 16 recruit in the nation, this summer Howard University became the first historically black college or university to land an ESPN top 100 basketball athlete. Under normal circumstances, the Bison’s Burr Gymnasium would be filled today with fans, alumni and other spectators coming to see the debut of the 6’11” Maker, one of the top-ranked centers in the Class of 2020. His arrival would have brought in revenue that the university hasn’t seen from an athlete ever before, but with the COVID-19 pandemic wreaking havoc across the United States, no one will be in the stands and TV revenue will be minimal.
Even without fans and TV revenue, though, Howard’s athletic program will likely remain solid due to the donations the school has received from outside sources. In July the university received $40 million from philanthropist and author MacKenzie Scott, the former wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Scott’s gift alone is four times the size of Howard’s annual budget, which is just over $10 million, and should cover the school’s combined men’s and women’s basketball expenses of $2.47 million.
The school has also received $15 million in equipment from Thermo Fisher Scientific to expand COVID-19 testing. So far, Howard’s men’s basketball team has received no positive COVID-19 tests.
“You couldn’t have picked a worse time to showcase talent but that said, the ability of Howard to actually attract that caliber of recruit speaks very highly of them,” said Irwin Kishner, co-chair of the Sports Law Group at New York law firm Herrick Feinstein. “If they’re able to become one of these smaller go-to schools, that has lasting benefits for the university at large in [terms of] notoriety, reaching more fans and earning more revenue.”
Although neither Scott’s nor Thermo Fisher’s donations were influenced by Maker’s commitment, his effect on Howard has already begun to manifest in other ways. Bison men’s basketball head coach Kenny Blakeney believes that Maker’s announcement, coming in the midst of nationwide social unrest over the murder of George Floyd, further encouraged student-athletes to want to be a part of the movement. “I have no idea why it’s been over 40 years that not even one five-star basketball player in the United States has decided to play basketball at an HBCU,” the Kenya-born, Australia-raised son of South Sudanese immigrants told The Undefeated in July. “But I do know that, in this Black Lives Matter movement that’s empowered and assembled many different people across the country and the world, that it won’t be another 40 years until it happens again.”
Blakeney said the school has been in talks with multiple five-star and top-notch recruits who have shown substantial interest in Howard. “We’ve received so many calls from student-athletes that want us to recruit them and part of that I think was that they wanted to be a part of the movement and solution,” he said. “A lot of these five-star kids wanted to have Howard or other HBCUs on their list; we were appearing on lists for guys that we never even once recruited, so it was interesting that it became a badge of honor.”
On Nov. 14, the university landed Kuluel Mading, who’s ranked the 89th best prospect in the 2021 class according to 247Sports. One of the class of 2023’s biggest recruits, Mikey Williams, who’s ranked third by ESPN, announced his top 10 list in July with five HBCUs on it. (“I hope I inspire guys like Mikey Williams to join me on this journey,” Maker had written in his July 3 tweet announcing his Howard commitment.)
“I really feel that he has changed the landscape of the way HBCUs will be perceived athletically,” said Blakeney. “Now it’s up to us leaders in the HBCU community to capitalize on it.” The Howard basketball coach wouldn’t give out his “industry secrets” to keeping highly touted recruits coming to HBCUs, but he did say that he expects many athletes to follow in Makur Maker’s footsteps.
The Bison will square off against the Belmont University Bruins tonight at 5 p.m. Eastern on ESPN3.