The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Howard sees its basketball fantasy come to life slowly in showcase game against Notre Dame

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 17: The Howard Bison and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish line up for the national anthem before the game at Burr Gymnasium on Monday. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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The Howard Bison had all they needed for a splashy introduction to college basketball fans Monday afternoon. A Power Five conference opponent on the other side of the court, the production team for a nationally televised event and a respectable, oh-so-close 71-68 defeat that can build confidence. Howard had everything — except a basketball atmosphere.

This caught the attention of Miles Rawls, the legendary voice of the Goodman League who has worked as the public address announcer at Burr Gymnasium this season at the request of Howard Coach Kenneth Blakeney.

“It’s too quiet in here,” Rawls said into the microphone during a second-half timeout as Howard trailed Notre Dame by 10 points.

Rawls gestured toward the sections where students had spent most of the game as though this was study hall — they even had the nerve to remain seated while “Swag Surfin’ ” blared through the gym. The man known for bringing the heat on the street-ball court pleaded with the Bison faithful and Fighting Irish fans to turn this polite gathering into a basketball party.

“Play that rock song,” Rawls cried out. “C’mon, Bisonettes! C’mon H-U!”

Throughout much of their MLK Day Classic, the Bison played like a basketball program on the rise, but the atmosphere and culture hadn’t quite caught up with their growth.

For those watching the game at home on Fox, they saw graphics about Howard’s history and photos of its prestigious alumni. They, however, did not see Howard as a basketball school. They couldn’t have — not with the quiet of the gym when Notre Dame players sank free throws and the bored stares in the stands when officials blew their whistles against the home team.

The arena was packed but dormant. That was until the final four minutes, when Howard roared back, rattling Notre Dame ballhandlers and cashing in turnovers during a 10-0 run. Suddenly, Burr Gymnasium woke up.

The students, now on their feet, tested the limits of their larynxes. They hollered when redshirt sophomore Steve Settle III — Rawls called him “Silky Smooth” — pulled up for a three-pointer to cut the deficit to 58-54. Then moments later, they booed passionately when feisty point guard Elijah Hawkins was trying to trap and rip the ball away but got called for a foul. A white-gloved saxophonist in the band threw up both her hands while making the shape of an “L” toward the nearest official. A drummer leaned over the railing and twirled his sticks in the sightline of a Notre Dame player at the foul line, so that those shots didn’t come so easy and free.

When Hawkins did get a steal and tossed an alley-oop, fans leaped almost as high as graduate student Tai Bibbs did for his thunderous slam, and they came down screaming louder than ever. But when Bibbs went to the free throw line with 56.2 seconds to play, they allowed him to trim the lead to 67-66 in silence.

This time when “Swag Surfin’ ” played again during a timeout, the students stood and swayed as the song demanded. And this time when Rawls called out “H-U” into the mic, the crowd responded with its collective chest: “You Know!”

As the students surfed, the band members taunted and the three dance troupes broke free of choreography and just cheered, Blakeney could see his vision coming into focus.

The house that Blakeney has been building for the last three years is now settling into its foundation. In his first season the Bison went 4-29. Last year, the covid-19 season, lasted just five games. Now he has a 6-8 team that can put up decent showings against Villanova and Georgetown (before the end gets messy). He now has a team, he envisions, that can be the best basketball draw in the District.

And it starts with little things, such as bringing in Rawls to liven up the joint.

“Kenny Blakeney called me and said, ‘I need you,’ ” Rawls said. “He said he wanted to change the culture. I don’t normally do college games. I’ve been asked to do a lot of college games, but I’ve turned them down … but prestigious job, HBCU, my hometown. But when the coach calls you and says he needs you, it’s kind of hard to turn down.”

The plan continues with tapping into his vast network and getting longtime friend Mike Brey to bring his ACC school to Howard’s campus to play on national television. Blakeney has a background in sports marketing with Under Armour, so he knows about promotion. However, as he revealed his goal for the future of Howard basketball, he sounded more like a dreamer than a dollars-obsessed businessman.

Long after the students and alumni on both sides had left, Blakeney stood on the court and his eyes canvassed the empty seats. It was as though he could see it all.

“That is the atmosphere and the environment that I want to create,” Blakeney said, pausing often as he fixed his stare above the court. “I would love for this place to be the place where Black lawyers … D.C. entertainment … doctors … entrepreneurs … businessmen, whatever it is — this is their spot where they come to connect, watch a great product, network. That’s the culture that I’d like to be here. That’s kind of the vision when I’m thinking about it.”

Though it took a while, the Bison could feel the culture shifting above them in the crowd as they put on a show against Notre Dame and possibly introduced themselves to a new audience of fans. For a few moments Monday, Howard indeed looked like the basketball school Blakeney believes it can be.

“Howard, with our brand, with the DNA we have not only here in the footprint of the DMV but globally,” Blakeney said, “I really felt that if we could ignite this place, that this could be the basketball place in the DMV.”