“It gives me chills,” Blakeney said this week. “I’m sitting here outside on the back patio right now, and I have chill-bumps all over my body hearing [it described] that way. To have, probably, one of the top five biggest brands in intercollegiate [sports] and higher education agree to come play us, an HBCU, but also one of the most important and significant brands in our culture is unique and special.”
The game, expected to be played at Burr Gymnasium, was agreed upon long ago. Its spot on the schedule — in the middle of conference play — was changed this month in the wake of protests coursing through the country following the death of George Floyd, among others.
Notre Dame Coach Mike Brey had a previous relationship with Howard Athletic Director Kery Davis, and an agreement was struck for a home-and-home series that began in South Bend, Ind., last season. Blakeney was an assistant under Brey at the University of Delaware, but their connection goes all the way back to the D.C. area. Brey, who would go on to be an assistant for Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, grew up in Hyattsville and went to DeMatha. Years later, Blakeney starred at DeMatha and was recruited by Brey to come to Duke.
The two grew close, with Brey becoming a father figure to Blakeney. “We are family,” the Howard coach said.
Brey has a long history of playing home-and-home series with former assistants. The significance of this date, however, at a moment when the country is coming to grips with its history of racism, began to grow. Howard officials suggested putting the game on MLK Day, and Brey put his conference concerns aside and called his former assistant.
“I said, ‘Kenny, we need to do this,’ ” Brey said. “Let’s have our teams do something together. Let’s use it as an educational moment, number one, for our players. . . . Let’s be honest, for us to be on that campus on that day, it’s extremely powerful for us and our university. I’m being very, very honest. We have not had the best record on the diversity front here at our place. . . . I’ve always been sensitive to that and how can we be better in that area.”
The goal is to turn the game into an event. Organizers are brainstorming voter registration options and possibly something to do with law enforcement. A trip to Capitol Hill is also a consideration. With the inauguration soon thereafter, there probably will be a migration of important figures to the area who also could get involved.
“It’s kind of big,” said Notre Dame guard Prentiss Hubb, a former standout at Gonzaga. “Just to go from the point where seeing in today’s world how people are saying all white people are bad or all cops are bad, but when it comes down to it, it just brings people together.”
Said Howard guard Nate Garvey: “Increase the awareness of what needs to be changed and needs to come, eventually, in the future, as soon as possible within the United States.”
Blakeney, who went 4-29 in his first season at the helm of the Bison (including a 79-50 loss in South Bend), knows this game is about much more than basketball.
“It’s a parallel with our universities,” he said. “With Notre Dame, there’s a lot of Irish-Catholic people or Catholic people or Irish people that identify with Notre Dame. You don’t have to be a Notre Dame alum to identify with them. It’s the same for us. Howard is probably the standard of black excellence in higher education.”