When Kenny Blakeney joined Jim Engles’ staff in 2018, he was trying to satisfy “an itch.”
Blakeney had not coached a basketball game in six years. After building up Harvard University’s program from a low-level Division I team to a consistent Ivy League title contender with head coach Tommy Amaker from 2008 to 2012, the Washington, D.C., native left Cambridge to enter the private sector, joining Under Armour’s marketing division.
There, he was the company’s “ears and eyes for talent evaluation.” Each summer, he would write scouting reports on all of the players participating in the Under Armour Association league, where some of the nation’s top high school basketball players compete.
While he enjoyed his time in marketing, “being away from the game and having an opportunity to have your finger on the pulse of 1,500 young men when you’re evaluating them really gave me an itch to get back into coaching,” Blakeney said.
But to come back into coaching—which Blakeney considers, above all else, to be teaching—he would have to find an opening in New York City, as his wife was stationed there with their infant daughter.
“I wasn’t going to go take a job in Arizona; I wasn’t going to go take a job in San Diego or anything like that,” Blakeney said. “It had to be a program that really kept my family intact as much as it could.”
Now, Blakeney is the head coach at Howard University. With 2020 five-star recruit Makur Maker—who chose Howard over schools like University of California, Los Angeles; University of Kentucky; and the University of Kansas—now on his roster, along with Columbia seniors Tai Bibbs and Randy Brumant slated to join him next season as graduate transfers, Blakeney is at the forefront of a movement to make basketball at historically Black colleges and universities relevant on a national level.
Yet two years ago, things were not so certain. As all of the Lions’ assistant coaching positions were filled, Blakeney initially joined the staff in a volunteer capacity wherein he was not paid for his work. He was eventually promoted to an official assistant coaching role when former Columbia assistant coach Jean Bain left to take on a head coaching job at Brandeis University.
Blakeney was also living in Long Island, which required a one-to two-hour commute each way. “That’s how committed I was to the situation at Columbia,” Blakeney said. “I wasn’t even thinking about anything else. I was totally happy and loved my time at Columbia.”
His commitment to the program did not go unnoticed. “From day one, he came in and made an effort to really get to know all the players, from the best guy on the team to the last guy off the bench,” Bibbs said. “I really respected that, and he just made an effort to really get to know all of us and push all of us to be the best players we could be.”
“He would always be there after practice and even before practice, just coming up to you like, ‘Work on this, work on this,’” Brumant recounts. “It felt like he genuinely wanted us to get better, and that was a good feeling.”
This type of commitment to his players did not start at Columbia, though. While at Harvard, Blakeney coached NBA champion and fan favorite Jeremy Lin. Lin eventually decided to pursue the NBA draft, and even when his collegiate career was coming to a close, Blakeney was still right there by his side.
“I basically stopped going to all my classes, and [Blakeney] worked me out twice a day every day after my senior season,” Lin said. “It was the prime example of a coach caring above and beyond for a player.”
Blakeney eventually settled into his new lifestyle. After he became a full-time assistant coach, he and his family moved to Harlem. Little did he know that he would be returning to his hometown less than a year after he accepted the assistant coaching position in Morningside Heights. In spring 2019, Blakeney received a text from Kery Davis, the athletic director at Howard, a school he was very familiar with as a D.C. native. He was asked if he would be interested in having a conversation about the future of Howard basketball.
“I didn’t say anything to my wife for about an hour, hour and a half, because I knew if I replied to that text, it was going to change my life,” he said. “I didn’t know that I could get the job. I didn’t even know if I wanted the job.”
The prospect of coaching at Howard had been mentioned to Blakeney in conversation several years before while he was still at Harvard. But back then, he “just kind of laughed” at the idea.
“Howard is an incredible school. It’s a great brand, but I’ve never seen them be serious about athletics.”
However, his attitude changed over time. His time in marketing, as well as his experience building up the Harvard program, gave Blakeney a better understanding of branding. Though he loved the life he had established in New York, Blakeney felt he now had the requisite knowledge to leverage Howard’s position in the nation’s capital as well as the accomplishments of its alumni to attract talented players and create a winning program. He went through with the interview process, and on May 6, 2019, he was officially named the next Howard men’s basketball head coach.
“I knew I could tell a story of Howard that no one else could tell,” he said. “I understood going into the interview process, even though there were guys that probably had more experience, I knew that I could present Howard in a way that no one else could.”
A blue chip pedigree
Blakeney boasts a basketball résumé paralleled by few others.
He played high school basketball under the late legendary coach Morgan Wootten at powerhouse DeMatha Catholic High School. There, Blakeney was named a McDonald’s All-American—an honor given to only 24 players in the country each year—and the Maryland Gatorade Player of the Year.
His impressive play as a high schooler landed him a spot on Duke’s roster. In Durham, North Carolina, Blakeney played alongside NBA Hall of Famer Grant Hill, one of his childhood friends, and Christian Laettner, who many consider to be one of the greatest college basketball players of all time.
Those Duke teams were perennial national championship contenders. During Blakeney’s college career, the Blue Devils went to three national championship games, winning it in Blakeney’s redshirt freshman year in 1991 and again in 1992.
Blakeney recalls one of the most iconic games in college basketball history: Duke’s Elite Eight matchup against Kentucky in its ’92 championship run. With 2.1 seconds remaining, Duke trailed by 1 after Kentucky’s Sean Woods banked in a runner in the lane to put the Wildcats in the lead. Desperate, Duke had to dig deep in its playbook to find a solution. As the Blue Devils could not advance the ball up the court, they had no choice but to go for a Hail Mary. According to Blakeney, they had been in a similar situation earlier that year against Wake Forest. In the earlier game, the play flopped as the ball sailed out of bounds before anyone could catch it.
This time, their luck changed. Hill launched a full-court pass to Laettner, who calmly caught the ball, took a dribble, turned around, and swished it home to send Duke to the Final Four. While Blakeney was not on the floor during that miraculous play, which is now known simply as “The Shot,” he still remembers the game vividly.
“I don’t think you could find a better well-played game than that one,” he said. “It was one of those games that makes up the magic of March Madness.”
The impact playing at Duke had on Blakeney, though, did not end with national championships. Playing with such high-level players, as well as being a standout player himself, facilitated his transition to coaching great talent.
“It’s easy to pick up the phone and have a conversation with a guy that may be a four-or five-star kid when one of my childhood friends and lifelong friends, Grant Hill, is a basketball Hall of Famer,” Blakeney said.
Not only did he play with numerous future NBA players, but he also played under coach Mike Krzyzewski, the winningest coach in college basketball history and now a friend and mentor of Blakeney’s.
“When you see [Krzyzewski’s] name come up on your cell phone, no matter what you do, you pick it up,” he said. “To be able to pick his brain and try to download some of the gems he’s given me, I’m just really lucky to be able to do that.”
Branding and creating a winning program at Howard
While Blakeney had experienced success on the court his entire life, the Howard program he inherited has historically been one of the weakest teams in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, winning its last conference title in 1992—the same year Blakeney won a national championship at Duke.
In the 2019-20 season, Blakeney’s first as a Bison, the team struggled, finishing with a 4-29 overall record and winning only one conference game.
“I took it for granted how hard winning is,” he said. “Winning is really hard. I’ve been very lucky that I’ve played on teams, even when I was 10 years old, that were championship teams. ... But it is really, really hard to win a game as a college basketball coach.”
This year, the team was 1-4 before its season was cut short due to COVID-19 concerns. Despite the lack of success early on, Blakeney is excited about working to transform the Howard program into a consistent winner.
“That’s something that I’m excited about, the future of our program, to be able to move forward with the guys that we have coming back and guys that we have coming in,” he said. “That we can be consistent and start a tradition of [winning] at Howard.”
Part of that transformation, Blakeney believes, will involve utilizing Howard’s brand and resources as an institution in D.C. He looks back at his stint at Harvard, where “the only thing we had ... was the brand” and his marketing work with Under Armour, in addition to his experience with Sportin’ Styles, a sports-themed accessory company he created.
“I got to understand brand; I got to understand positioning; I got to understand how to use those tools in a way that I could have success with it,” he said.
In a similar way, he hopes to leverage Howard’s resources to turn its program around. He has spoken with Krzyzewski about “the brand Howard, our alums, being located in Washington, D.C., internships, and building and developing a program that can be sustainable in a way that you use all the things that the university has accomplished on the academic side and things that the alums have accomplished.”
“It’s like we’re standing on the shoulders of giants at a place like Howard,” Blakeney added. “So how do you stand on the shoulders of giants to build your program?”
Landing Makur Maker and the importance of HBCUs
One evening last July, Blakeney was on the patio of an apartment he was renting in the Hamptons. Since it was close to the Fourth of July, he was having a barbecue outside with family. Then, he got a phone call.
“And I missed the phone call,” he said.
Blakeney had left his phone inside. The call was from Makur Maker, an unsigned five-star recruit and the brother of NBA player Thon Maker.
When he went back inside and saw his notifications, he called the young recruit back. Maker, a highly touted prospect who held offers from numerous Power Five schools, told him something few people expected: He wanted to commit to Howard.
“I was like, ‘Am I hearing this right?’” Blakeney said. “I’m literally having this dialogue going on in my head during that period, and I’m like, ‘Stay cool. Okay.’ It was one of those moments that I’ll cherish forever.”
Maker was the highest rated recruit in ESPN’s recruiting database history to commit to Howard—or to any HBCU. The day his commitment was announced, he wrote in a Twitter statement, “I need to make the HBCU movement real so that others will follow. I hope I inspire guys like Mikey Williams to join me on this journey. I am committing to Howard U & coach Kenny Blakeney.”
His decision came at the height of last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests and inspired several professional athletes, including Carmelo Anthony, to encourage young athletes to choose HBCUs over predominantly white institutions.
“I think people have started to understand even more the value of an HBCU and its position in our society,” Blakeney said.
Some of that value may come from the opportunities HBCUs provide for Black coaches. Historically, barriers such as a lack of networking opportunities and nagging stereotypes of Black coaches as merely recruiters have prevented Black coaches from progressing into head coaching positions. HBCUs provide opportunities to Black coaches that many other schools do not—according to NBC Sports, in 2020, 29.2 percent of Division I men’s basketball head coaches were Black; excluding HBCUs, that figure dropped to 24.1 percent.
According to Blakeney, that value also comes from students’ shared experiences and the supportive environments at HBCUs.
“What Howard has been able to create along with other HBCUs as a community and a family, forming a campus [where] you have people that look like you, similar backgrounds, similar interests, that are all rowing the boat in the same direction—that makes for a really special environment for achievement,” he said.
Blakeney was particularly struck by a story told by sports broadcaster and Howard alum Gus Johnson. When he was in college, Johnson broadcasted a women’s basketball game to the campus community. Unsure if anyone had even listened to the broadcast, after the game, Johnson returned to his dorm, where a football player on his floor told him that he had listened to it and that he thought Johnson had potential to be a great broadcaster. Blakeney believes this story is emblematic of the environment at Howard and other HBCUs.
“It’s an encouraging, nurturing kind of environment,” Blakeney said. “And I think that’s the biggest thing that HBCUs provide that PWIs can’t provide.”
Lasting relationships and empowering the next generation
Despite all the success he’s experienced in the basketball world, for Blakeney, being a coach is not just about wins and losses—rather, it is about teaching lessons through basketball to empower the next generation.
“I consider [my job] teaching at one of the top universities in the country. … To be able to pour into the next generation is really special,” he said.
While Lin was a standout at Harvard, he did not consider himself to be good enough for the NBA. Blakeney saw things differently, and he turned out to be right.
“Coach Blakeney was the first person who told me he thought I could be an NBA player,” Lin said. “I legit thought he was crazy when he sat me down after one of [our] workouts and said I could do it. … Without that recognition and belief in me, I wouldn’t be where I am today. He taught me to believe in myself, and that is everything for a player to receive from their coach.”
Lin also credits Blakeney with teaching him about how to confront racism. Lin remembers a game where the opposing team’s fans were shouting racist comments at him, frustrating him and throwing him off his game.
“After that game, Coach Blakeney pulled me aside and told me his own stories of experiencing racism as a player at Duke,” he said. “There was so much he experienced that was truly hurtful.”
Blakeney taught Lin that “when I let racism towards me get under my skin and cause me to act rashly and play badly, I’ve let the person calling me names win. Instead, I can choose to use it as fuel to make me a better, stronger player. Ever since he shared that with me, I never let racist comments get to me as a player again,” Lin said.
While Lin may consider what Blakeney did for him as going above and beyond, in Blakeney’s view, being a resource for his players, both on and off the court, is just part of his job.
“[As a coach], you build relationships with young men, and you hope that there’s a bridge that’s strong with that relationship where he trusts you and you trust him,” he said.
According to Lin, “his greatest strength is his ability to connect with players. Some coaches know the game well; some coaches are great relationally; some coaches have the past experience of being a player; some coaches are great at player development; some coaches are great at team concepts. Coach Blakeney has all of these things.”
Even though his time in Morningside Heights was short-lived, Blakeney made lasting impressions on his players then too. Despite the opportunity to return to Columbia next season, Bibbs and Brumant decided to follow their former coach for their fifth year, citing the relationships they had developed with Blakeney as a major reason for their decisions.
Brumant said that he appreciated Blakeney’s honesty during the recruitment process and that speaking with Blakeney was like “talking to a friend again.”
With such a young squad—12 of Howard’s 15 players this year were first-years or sophomores—Bibbs and Brumant will look to bring their leadership and experience as former starters at Columbia. And with Maker likely to return to school, “we’ll be able to surprise some people,” Bibbs said.
Similarly, Blakeney has high hopes for the future.
“I want to ignite the campus, and I think we can do that through basketball,” he said.
Though Blakeney’s basketball prowess is unquestioned, he says he could not have made it to where he is today without his former coaches, from Krzyzewski to his recreational league coaches, who “laid the groundwork” for him. That is why his one piece of advice to a young athlete would be to “choose your mentors wisely.”
With a coach like Blakeney to look up to, Lin, Bibbs, and Brumant certainly did.