After paying his dues as an assistant at Harvard, Marshall, St. Bonaventure, Delaware, La Salle and James Madison — along with entrepreneurial stops spent running his own scarf company and heading Under Armour’s grass-roots program — Howard Coach Kenneth Blakeney’s basketball journey brought him back to the place he grew up.
The Washington Post caught up with Blakeney as he prepared for a pivotal third season with the Bison. The following has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you end up playing basketball?
Growing up in a basically 100 percent Black community, basketball was very prevalent and it was almost like a badge of honor for those that were good basketball players. So naturally everyone wanted to play.
Right, wrong or indifferent, drug dealers were recognized. Hustlers were recognized. Gamblers were recognized, but so were guys that were really good athletes.
Playing basketball also offered me a bit of a pass throughout the city where I could go to a lot of neighborhoods and not have to worry, which I took advantage of and met a lot of people.
So basketball players being protected and granted access to neighborhoods that they didn’t live in isn’t just a plot line from a Spike Lee joint?
Yeah, man, that was real life. You go to certain gyms or playgrounds and people didn’t know you, you were putting yourself at risk. Especially during that period I grew up in — that late-80s, mid-80s kind of era.
D.C. was considered the murder capital of the world, and it was one of the crack capitals of the country, too. It was different; they had money games where the neighborhood drug king would put $5,000 a person down. That was the kind of environment I grew up in.
What happened when you lost?
[smiles] Oh, I never played in those games. I just watched from afar. [laughs]
You were a huge Georgetown fan growing up — they even offered you a scholarship — yet you went to Duke. Why did you turn down the hometown team?
A huge part of it was Johnny Dawkins and that ‘86 team. Johnny grew up in my neighborhood and went to the same barbershop as me. I actually never met him till I got to college, but I always heard stories. He was always fun to watch, and Duke’s system was a system that I thought was fun to play in.
Another huge part of it was that the average Duke grad at the time was making $55,000 or $60,000. And I was like, “OK, that’s pretty good.” But also I wanted to win, and I knew that Duke was a winner.
On my [recruiting] visit, we were in the locker room and [Brian Davis] grabbed me and said, “It’d be a shame if you don’t come to Duke because we’re going to win a national championship, and when we do you’ll be able to call any Duke alum and they’ll take your call.”
Why did you become a coach?
Probably because I couldn’t do anything else. [laughs] I think at the end of the day when you start thinking about what you want to do moving forward, the one thing that was consistent is that every coach I played for was excellent. So with my pedigree, passion and desire to remain around basketball, the avenue of coaching felt like something for me and a thing that I thought I could have some success at.
What was it like to finally get a head coaching opportunity in the city that raised you, after all of those years working behind the scenes?
To be honest, I don’t think I was Howard’s first option, and that’s fine. I probably haven’t been some females’ first options, so I’m used to it.
Twelve years ago, this same position opened while I was working at Harvard, and [head coach Tommy Amaker] asked me if I’d be interested and I told him: “Hell, no. I grew up down the street, and I don’t think they are serious about athletics.”
When the job came open again [in 2019] and I got a text message from [Athletic Director] Kery Davis, I was scared to respond. I was in a different space than before and knew what the Howard brand meant and how I could utilize it to build a program that could become a national program. After years spent running my own company and then working for Under Armour, I knew I could present and tell a story that would position me for the job even though I wasn’t their first choice.
After two years, what page of the business plan would you say you’re on?
[smiles] It’s been about as expected. Obviously covid is not expected, but I knew my first year here was going to be a struggle. Am I confident that we can win games? Sure. But I was the second-to-last hire in the country, and most recruits were gone by then.
Our first year, we brought in young men that were more potential than production guys, and guys that I mostly hadn’t seen in person — a guy like Steve Settle I saw maybe two or three minutes of film — so I had to walk in faith and just believe. We hit on him, but creating a whole roster like that isn’t ideal.
How do you think the recent name, image and likeness changes will affect Howard?
I think the name, image and likeness thing could be really beneficial for our student-athletes, but it’s really early right now.
Following the social unrest this past year, our country has become incredibly conscious — both ways — and with that consciousness there’s some sensitivity around Blackness that corporations are now mindful of. As a staff, we have to work with our student-athletes to help them capitalize.
Now that you’ve had some time to step back and reflect on Makur Maker’s time at Howard, how would you grade that experience?
Overall, I think it was a success. Makur got to come to our campus, experience life at an HBCU and bring attention to our school, which was his goal. Unfortunately, he suffered an injury and then a covid outbreak canceled our season before we could really get going, but I think that it was still a success. He had an opportunity to be out on his own and coached by different voices. All of that will be very valuable to him as he progresses throughout his career.
What’s the biggest inhibitor for HBCUs recruiting top-tier talent?
It’s just extremely expensive. Oftentimes you don’t get a four- or five-month advance notice, so depending on where they are coming from, getting them and their family a flight to D.C. can easily run you $3,000 or $4,000.
Then you have to get hotel rooms for them to stay in for the weekend, which is another thousand dollars and potentially more if the player’s parents are divorced or separated. Throw in food for the weekend for them and whoever their host is and now you’re looking at a $5,000 to $10,000 weekend for a kid that potentially has no interest in your school and just wanted to experience the culture or take a few pictures at an HBCU.
But with that being said, those pictures on our campus can provide a ton of value for us with other players moving forward. So it becomes a situation where you really have to weigh whether it’s worth it to blow a majority of your recruiting budget on courting one player or not.