Hours before Penn men’s basketball triumphed in perhaps its closest battle of the season — an 89-88 win claimed in the last seconds over Brown on its home court on Feb. 19 — the Howard Bisons had notched a victory over Morgan State in the NBA’s inaugural HBCU Classic.
Penn senior guard Jelani Williams sat out in an unfortunate absence from the Ivy League matchup that evening. The Washington, D.C. native had sustained an injury the previous weekend against Harvard, one that sidelined him for the remainder of the Quakers' regular season campaign.
Then two months later, Williams would finally knot a connection back home with his announcement to commit his remaining years of NCAA eligibility at Howard University. Washington D.C. now awaits Williams with the exciting prospect of joining an HBCU basketball program on the rise, and also the opportunity to work toward a degree at a prestigious institution.
“Howard was actually the first to call me when I started looking at other schools in the transfer portal,” Williams said. “And immediately it kind of jumped out as being a school back home, and good school; a different experience than what I've had before.”
The HBCU Classic featuring the two MEAC programs had been the NBA’s newest addition to the All-Star Weekend. As part of its initiatives to elevate HBCU athletics within the national spotlight, the game was broadcast on TNT and ESPN2 during a weekend featuring some of the biggest names in basketball. Chris Paul and Stephen Curry made appearances to meet the players of both schools — each who have been strong benefactors in supporting HBCUs and their athletic programs through the past several years.
Later that day in Providence, R.I., before tipping off against the Bears, the Quakers remained seated during the national anthem in endurance of their symbolic protest against racial injustice. In its season on return amid a national reckoning with racism and violence upon Black communities, Penn men’s basketball began the season with initiatives of civic engagement, and continued the movement through the season even when the mainstream avidity for Black Lives Matter seemed to wane.
"The guys who were really behind the discussion [of] whether we would sit or not, those guys are very thoughtful, and are articulate with their point of view, and are informed and knowledgeable about the subject; whether it's the history of it or their own personal experiences," associate coach Nat Graham said in January.
Williams was among the players vigilant to pick up the lead in the team’s engagement with social justice from greater roles of leadership. After a summer of involvement from home in Washington, D.C. in 2020, Williams upheld the reigns of activism throughout his remaining career at Penn. He is now set to take this leadership to Howard, while also continuing his studies at an institution with lists of alumni who hold immense gravity in Africana studies.
For Williams, his move to Howard more resembles a homecoming.
“People don’t know this, but I actually went to middle school on Howard's campus. They have a public charter school on the campus of Howard,” Williams said. “I went to middle school there, so it just felt kind of like, going back home, being able to have my parents and my family members at games."
Then, as an alumnus of Sidwell Friends School for his high school career, his basketball talents have traveled from D.C. to Philadelphia, and are now headed back to Georgia Avenue, where Howard’s basketball program stands aimed at an upward trajectory.
Kenny Blakeney, head coach of Howard men’s basketball, also had a career of touring the Ivy League before making a return to his hometown of Washington D.C. After becoming a two-time NCAA champion while playing at Duke from 1991-95, Blakeney entered coaching immediately upon graduation. From 2007, he coached for over 10 years in the Ivy League with Harvard and Columbia, until 2019, when he was named to his first-ever position as head coach of a collegiate basketball program with Howard.
“With Blakeney at the helm for the next couple of years, I think they have the opportunity to be a really good program,” Williams said, “and I'm excited to be one of the guys that helps jumpstart that.”
This past season was one of the Bisons’ most successful campaigns in the past 10 years, with a 16-13 and 9-5 conference record to badge Blakeney’s first full season at Howard. In 2020, the Bisons welcomed five-star recruit Makur Maker to their roster after contending against UCLA, Memphis, and Kentucky. And with the initiation of HBCU-focused traditions like the NBA’s HBCU Classic and the 2022 inaugural HBCU Combine, Howard stands a promising chance at leading the resurgence of HBCU athletic programs in the national arena of collegiate basketball.
“His vision for the team and for the program — eventually, I think Howard is going to be one of the premier basketball programs in the country in a couple of years,” Williams said. “I just have that much belief in the way that they're building and which way they're trending.”
Blakeney has also proven how he can adapt Ivy League talents to build a formidable team. Graduate transfers Tai Bibbs and Randall Brumant, who both played three seasons at Columbia, were one of four players on the Howard roster to lace up for every single game in the 2021-22 season. In early April, Brumant was selected with fellow Howard teammate Kyle Foster to participate in the inaugural HBCU All-Star Game in New Orleans.
“I was able to make great connections with not just Blakeney, but the entire coaching staff, the team that's there now, the guys that are coming back, and I think we have an opportunity to do something really special next year,” Williams said. “So I'm excited.”
Williams’ talents have always magneted toward prestige. Howard’s basketball program thus fits in perfect frame to the continuing reel of his basketball career. While his departure from Penn and the community he found here will be bittersweet, especially after proving resilience through immense obstacles, there will be a crowd waiting to welcome Williams home.
“At high school, coming to my games [were] my little brother, my family members, my mom, my dad, my uncles, grandparents, and all kinds of people, so I'm super excited to be able to go play back home.”
This coming fall, Williams’ basketball story will look to live on through The Hilltop, Howard’s student newspaper. Co-founded by Zora Neale Hurston in 1924, the publication wears the title of the oldest Black collegiate newspaper, and is where Williams’ journey from the Cathedral to the Mecca of college basketball will continue to be written with a team on the rise.