Blakeney set it up. When the team arrived from San Antonio, Blakeney greeted Barksdale.
“I asked him if he recruited white kids,” Barksdale said with a laugh last week. “He said, ‘Absolutely.’ I said, ‘I may have one for you.’ ”
Barksdale told Blakeney about Jordan Wood, an excellent student who was being pursued by Division I schools after flying under the recruiting radar until he transferred to play his senior season at Cornerstone, which plays a national schedule. Blakeney and his staff went to see Wood play the next day and came back convinced he could be a major part of their rebuilding program.
“He was perfect for us in every way,” Blakeney said. “He was a 6-8 stretch four who could play the three spot or even the two. He could really shoot, and he could really pass. Plus, he was a great student [with a score of 1340 on the SAT and a 4.4 grade-point average with Advanced Placement classes counted], perfect for Howard academically.”
As impressed as Blakeney was with Wood’s shooting, a whipped left-handed pass put him over the top.
“He told me when I made that pass, he got really excited,” Wood said from his home in San Antonio. “That’s when he knew he wanted me to come play for him.”
There was one potential catch: Howard, known as the Harvard of the historically black colleges and universities, has a white student population of about 2 percent.
“I wondered if he would actually pull the trigger on coming to an HBCU,” Blakeney said. “He had other offers from very good academic schools.”
At the time, Blakeney didn’t realize that wasn’t important to Wood.
“My parents spent a lot of time overseas when they were young,” he said. “My dad lived in Panama for a while, and my mom traveled all over when she was young. So they were used to being in places where they were a minority.
“Plus, I figured wherever I went, most of the guys on my basketball team would be African Americans. You’re a basketball player; who do you hang out with most? Your teammates. So I honestly didn’t think the experience at Howard would be all that different from any other school I might pick. And I really liked the campus when I toured it, and I really liked Washington. It made a lot of sense to me.”
Ivy League schools Cornell and Columbia offered Wood scholarships during the season. A lot of mid-majors and high mid-majors also recruited him, hoping he might be a late signee.
“He’s at least a mid-major player,” Iona assistant coach Tom Abatemarco said. “Maybe better than that.”
Abatemarco was Rick Pitino’s first hire at Iona after he took the job last month. Normally, Abatemarco would have hit the road immediately to recruit high school seniors who hadn’t signed letters-of-intent. Instead, because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, he got on the phone, asking anyone and everyone he knew to recommend available players.
A friend in Texas who runs a recruiting service sent him video of Wood. “I liked him right away,” Abatemarco said. “I knew [Pitino] would like him, too, because he could shoot. So I sent him the tape.”
Ten days later, Wood’s phone rang: Pitino was offering a scholarship. There was one catch: Pitino said he needed an answer in the next nine hours.
Wood knew all about Pitino.
“I knew about the championship being stripped [at Louisville],” he said. “I also knew if I wanted to play overseas someday or even have a shot at the NBA, he’d probably be a great coach for me. It would be taking the good with the bad.”
Wood called Blakeney about an hour before Pitino’s deadline to ask him what he thought.
“He was looking for guidance,” Blakeney said, laughing. “I gave it to him. I said, ‘You need to come to Howard,’ and I told him why — again.”
Wood was genuinely torn. He called Pitino to ask a question: “Are you recruiting me because you need bodies or because you think I can really play for you?”
Wood said Pitino gave him what he undoubtedly thought was the right answer. “Son, I’ve got six other guys blowing up my phone right now who want to come. I’m holding them off until I get an answer from you.”
“Funny thing is that kind of put me off,” Wood said. “I felt like he had a list and if I said no he’d just cross my name off and go on to the next guy. I knew Coach Kenny really wanted me.”
Still, he was torn. He finally called Pitino at the deadline and said, “Coach, I just can’t make a decision this important this fast.” Pitino replied: “No problem. Let’s talk again in a couple days.”
“About an hour later, I saw on Twitter that another kid who played my position had committed to him.” Wood added. “I thought: ‘Okay, fine. Move on.’ ”
On April 14, he called Blakeney and told him he was coming to Howard. The next night, the letter-of-intent arrived.
“He’ll play right away for us,” Blakeney said. “I think he has the talent to play anywhere — I mean anywhere. All along, I really worried about the HBCU thing. The good news is, he wasn’t.”
Blakeney’s first season at Howard was a 4-29 nightmare. A number of the team’s top players transferred when the school parted ways with Kevin Nickelberry last spring. Blakeney found encouragement in the Bison winning two of their last four games, including a victory against South Carolina State in the first round of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament.
“I think that showed that the kids never quit working or trying to get better,” he said. “But there’s no doubt we need an infusion of new talent.”
Nine new players are slated to be on campus when classes resume. The centerpiece of the group very well may be Wood.
“It’ll work not just because he’s a good player but because he has the absolute right mind-set for this and for Howard,” Blakeney said. “I can’t wait to work with him.”
Barksdale said he thinks Wood’s decision was about more than basketball.
“He wants to be a pro someday,” he said. “He has that dream, and I think Kenny will be a terrific coach for him. But he looked past the time when he’ll play the game. He didn’t make a four-year decision; he made a 40-year decision.”
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