Boardroom spent a day at Howard University to dig into how Jordan Brand is transforming the HBCU’s athletics program and interacting with students.
Boardroom first broke the news in May about Howard inking a landmark 20-year deal with Nike’s Jordan Brand. The prominent HBCU and Jordan Brand officially announced their school-wide partnership on Aug. 11.
“You don’t see anything but Jordans on campus,” Kenny Blakeney, head coach of Howard’s men’s basketball team, told Boardroom in an exclusive interview. “I always ask, what would history be without Howard? What would culture be without Howard? I think Jordan understands that as well.”
With only three months of the partnership officially becoming a reality, the iconic Jumpman symbol has since been added to all Howard Bison athletics teams’ gear. The pair quickly jumped into the partnership with some activations on campus as well, but Boardroom wanted to take a deeper look into how the deal came about and what it means for the Bison community.
The Birth of Howard x Jordan Brand
Howard’s six-year deal with Under Armour began in the summer of 2016, and the contract expired sometime this past summer. Howard was the first HBCU to sign a deal with the Baltimore sportswear maker at the time. Under Armour supplied the university’s athletics team with apparel, accessories, equipment, and game-day uniforms. Howard’s new deal with Jordan Brand seems like it will expand far beyond just interfacing with the university’s sports program and reach students and campus infrastructure.
Blakeney was a part of the initial conversations regarding the Jordan Brand partnership and said the deal came about in such an interesting way.
“I knew it was a reality from day one,” Blakeney said.
Blakeney said he was getting a bunch of calls about a documentary, but since he didn’t know much about filmmaking, he reached out to Grant Hill, his old teammate and friend from Duke University. When Blakeney asked Hill for some guidance, Hill told him to give Spike Lee a call instead. Rest assured, Blakeney’s five-minute call with Lee turned into an unexpected six-hour conversation on a Saturday afternoon.
“As we’re having this conversation, he naturally [said], ‘I see your program changing,'” Blakeney said about how Howard Bison athletics and Jordan Brand came up in his discussion with Lee. “This was all on a random Saturday the first time I reached out to him.”
From that first talk, Blakeney said Lee reached out to someone in Michael Jordan’s camp and helped him start building structure for what turned into a 20-year deal between Howard and Jordan Brand.
Ty Grace, Howard women’s hoops head coach, remembers being super excited about the opportunity to work with Jordan Brand when she first heard about the partnership. Grace felt a sigh of relief when the deal was officially signed, she said.
“It’s a good feeling to be a part of something people regard so highly,” Grace told Boardroom. “It’s nice to be able to say, ‘yeah, that’s us. We with them.'”
Grace looks at the deal as a way to elevate everybody at Howard, not just athletes.
“The global effect that Jordan has on people is way bigger. It’s a part of the culture, it really is,” Grace said. “People can say what they want, but Jordan is Black culture. People recognize that fully.”
Some may assume that being in a Jordan Brand-sponsored sports program comes with much pressure to perform well, but Blakeney said he doesn’t feel any of it.
“I think my standards are higher for myself than someone else’s standards will be for me,” Blakeney said. “I have my own pressure and my own things I challenge myself with.”
Grace agrees and says there is always added pressure at Howard, but her mission remains the same: to win championships and put her players on the right path to graduation.
“That’s always been the plan. Even before Jordan Brand, we wanted to be the best,” Grace said. “I look at it as [Jordan Brand] has our back, and they are going to support us as we try to achieve these things that they represent and that we represent.”
A hopeful future
With Jordan Brand and NIL in play now, there are so many opportunities for Howard to excel. Regardless, Blakeney hopes the university’s athletics program sticks to its guns.
When bringing up-and-coming athletes to Howard’s campus, Blakeney is more concerned with making sure they can thrive on campus and in the community, and have adequate living quarters. Simply put: He wants the student-athletes to feel as if they are fully supported.
“Everybody thinks we should probably be recruiting five-star kids, [but] it has to be the right one, to be honest,” Blakeney said. “Some things just don’t mix. It’s about us finding the right young men for our program regardless of what those stars look like.”
Blakeney is most looking forward to bringing Howard’s athletic facilities up to par, including a remodeled locker room, training room, and more. He said these campus updates, along with improving living conditions, are “certainly in the works.”
“It’s about infrastructure. Can we get our infrastructure up to a place where student-athletes feel like they’re not taking a discount by coming to Howard or feel like they aren’t compromising anything? It doesn’t have to be the Taj Mahal,” he said.
Grace thinks this was a great move by Jordan Brand and “absolutely strategic,” with Howard being the first and only HBCU signed to the company. She said that Jordan Brand signing with Howard in a deal that spans two decades shows how committed the company is to the university’s success.
“Howard already had this brand of black excellence, and people view us as one of the top academic institutions where Black people come from,” she said. “To bring in athletics, it seals the deal now. [Howard] is doing everything big.”
As the years go on, Grace hopes Jordan Brand will engage with Howard’s student body culturally and academically.
Jordan Brand’s Influence
Boardroom talked to a group of Howard athletes about what they hope Jordan Brand brings to the HBCU’s culture and how they envision their collegiate athletic tenures progressing under Jumpman.
These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
MICHELAI GRAHAM: Is there added pressure to perform as a Jordan Brand school?
Steve Settle III, forward: I don’t feel like there’s added pressure. Obviously, the Jordan Brand name holds a lot of weight. I feel like people, student-athletes included, that go to this institution are ready for it. It’s something we are built for. We go to the best HBCU in the country, and it’s not easy. It’s nothing different from lacing up your shoes and giving it your all every day.
Destiny Howell, guard: Yes. We are the first HBCU sponsored by Jordan Brand, so of course, that puts a lot of pressure on all athletes on campus. Other schools that are Jordan Brand have been with the brand for a while.
We are definitely feeling it, but pressure makes diamonds.
Elijah Hawkins, guard: No, I feel like it’s all the same.
Nia Nelson, wing: No, because we still have to play the best basketball and be ourselves. That doesn’t change. I feel like there may be a little bit more pressure to be active on social media.
MG: What was your immediate reaction when you found out about the Jordan Brand deal?
SS: I honestly didn’t know how to react because I didn’t expect it to actually happen. We’re an HBCU, so I didn’t understand the magnitude of it until it really happened. Now that it’s real and we’re getting Jordan Brand gear and seeing the symbol on the court, it’s a big deal.
It was the greatest feeling ever to see all the people excited for us, too. It felt like they were 100% behind us.
DH: I was at the crib when they did the big announcement, and I was like, “Yo, we’re with Jordan.” At that moment, I felt like this was bigger than the gear and Jordan. We have someone that believes in Howard and helping put our name on the map for sports. I was really excited.
EH: I was in my dorm room when I found out. I was excited. I’ve never been part of Jordan Brand for anything. It’s always been Nike, Under Armour, or Adidas.
NN: I was shocked and excited. Shocked because we’re the first HBCU to get signed by Jordan and excited because we’ll get noticed more.
MG: How is Jordan Brand already changing your athletic experience at Howard?
SS: It has changed a lot. You know, Under Armour shoes weren’t the most comfortable. The quality and everything are so much better. You can just really feel the difference and the love the brand has for us. Jordan has gifted students a number of things already, too. This is a 20-year partnership, so I can’t imagine what the future holds.
DH: There are boxes of gear downstairs. When we were with Under Armour, it was a bag. It wasn’t the same type of vibe. We’re feeling the love, and I really like what’s going on.
EH: It’s expanding my drip on the court!
NN: Honestly, it’s the court for me. It feels like it has more grip on it and the balls are a little better. The shoes feel nice, too.
MG: What do you hope comes of Howard and Jordan Brand’s partnership?
SS: I hope we can elevate this program to be seen as one of the top programs. HBCUs are in a whole separate category and aren’t mentioned with some of the top programs. We have some of the same talents, and we can compete with those top schools. We aren’t always given the same opportunities and aren’t mentioned in the same breath. I feel like this partnership is a step in the right direction.
DH: We’re trying to be an NCAA Tournament team. We’re not trying to be a MEAC team, no disrespect to the MEAC. The expectations for tournament teams are definitely higher, and that’s something we’re trying to meet and grow into. We’re trying to build a culture here at Howard, and Jordan sees the vision as well.
EH: I hope it brings new experiences. People are really starting to see Howard for real on an athletic level now. I think the history of Howard basketball isn’t talked about enough. When you hear about Howard, you hear about academics, and don’t get me wrong, we have great academics here, but we have good athletes, too.
NN: I hope that it brings more athletes to the program, specifically ranked players.
MG: What would you like to see Jordan Brand bring to Howard’s campus?
SS: Besides gear, I want it to bring a sense of community. I want us to feel like a big family. I want the athletes and the students to be seen as one. This is not just for the athletes, it’s for everybody. Jordan Brand is doing stuff for everybody, not just us.
DH: Jordan sponsored our Bison Madness; we never had Under Armour do that. Our students have already been very involved. Everybody loves Jordan. They had this pop-up shop where they gave out bags and slides and a lot of different stuff. The students were just eating it up, and they didn’t get the same stuff we got. The fact that Jordan is being inclusive of all students is nice.
Under Armour wasn’t doing that at all. The fact that Jordan is trying to be so pro-Howard, it’s something that we’re all feeling.
EH: I hope it brings more attention to us.
NN: I hope it brings more students and supporters to the games. I really want more people to come to see us play.
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