By Tim Reynolds
AP Basketball Writer
Mo Williams played for the Eastern Conference in the 2009 NBA All-Star Game, and he fully understands the enormity of the event’s platform.
His team lost that game.
His current team — and a lot of others — should be big winners this time around.
The March 7 All-Star Game in Atlanta is generating $3 million for historically Black colleges and universities, through donations to scholarship funds. But the actual value to those schools will far exceed that influx of cash, with almost every All-Star element set to showcase and celebrate HBCU traditions and culture.
“Everything’s about exposure,” said Williams, who played 13 NBA seasons and now is a first-year coach at Alabama State of the Southwestern Athletic Conference. “Being that the All-Star Game is putting an emphasis on HBCUs, it gives us exposure, and it helps in a lot of different areas, a lot of different ways, a lot of different schools.
“It’s no different from Super Bowl commercials. People spend millions of dollars to put their commercial on the Super Bowl for the exposure. And, you know, the exposure we’re getting this weekend from the NBA All-Star Game, it only can help.”
Those Super Bowl ads can be as short as 30 seconds.
This exposure is going to last several hours — and cover almost every aspect of the NBA’s midseason showcase.
“It was part of the reason why we’re here in Atlanta,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said March 6. “This was an opportunity to focus on the HBCUs.”
The court was designed in collaboration from artists who attended HBCU schools. The famed bands from Grambling State and Florida A&M will perform during the player introductions. Clark Atlanta University’s Philharmonic Society Choir will perform “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” commonly called the Black national anthem. Gladys Knight, a graduate of one of the nation’s oldest HBCUs in Shaw University, will sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The refereeing crew of Tom Washington, Tony Brown and Courtney Kirkland all are HBCU graduates.
“We are here representing HBCUs and trying to shed light on their ability to dream and one day have the opportunity to follow in our footsteps,” Brown said. “So, this game is mainly about giving people hope and allowing them an opportunity to dream.”
The timing and location — Atlanta, birthplace of Dr. Martin Luther King — to pay tribute to HBCUs seems right.
During the past year, racial injustice has become perhaps more of a national discussion point than at any time in a generation. It also saw history, with Kamala Harris — a graduate of Howard — becoming not only the first woman to be elected vice president but the first HBCU graduate in the White House. Harris is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, one of the Divine Nine fraternities and sororities, groups that the NBA is also paying tribute to Sunday.
NBA players used their platform in the league’s bubble restart last summer to speak out against inequality. They were often at the center of the Black Lives Matter movement in response to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many more.
“You can’t talk about Black Lives Matter and not talk about the historically Black colleges and universities,” said Charles McClelland, the commissioner of the SWAC and a member of the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Committee. “A lot of these student-athletes have been talking. A lot of these professional athletes have been talking. But the platform really wasn’t that great for them to be able to extend that message. This is just in a unique time, and I think we’re at the right time, and I’m ecstatic that it’s happening at this point in time — because it’s so long overdue.”
The NBA has just one active player who had the traditional HBCU experience: Portland’s Robert Covington, who went to Tennessee State. He was invited to be part of the skills challenge, which will precede Sunday’s game and typically is part of All-Star Saturday night; the events were condensed to one night this year because of the pandemic. All-Star Chris Paul, the National Basketball Players Association President and a longtime proponent of HBCUs, played at Wake Forest but is finishing his degree at Winston-Salem State.
Covington realized the significance of this moment. He could have been on vacation. He went to Atlanta instead.
“I just want to leave a legacy,” Covington said. “I want to leave my mark and I want to let kids know that anything is possible.”
That message has resonated in recent months.
Some top basketball recruits have said they were considering bucking offers from traditional powers to attend HBCUs. Pro Football Hall of Famer Deion Sanders has taken over as football coach at Jackson State, giving that school instant notoriety. And as the first half of the NBA season wound down, LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers played in a pair of sneakers that paid tribute to Florida A&M — a school that just finalized a six-year deal with Nike to play in James’ line of uniforms, apparel and footwear.
This game will provide more boosts.
“The exposure, I think, will be incredibly valuable,” Silver said.
The Thurgood Marshall College Fund and United Negro College Fund will collect a total of $3 million, if not more. And HBCUs everywhere will share in the investment of time on a huge platform if nothing else.
“To highlight the significance of HBCUs, it is a tremendous windfall,” McClelland said. “It’s not just about the money. The exposure is going to allow students to go to our member institutions, to learn about our history, to learn about our culture. What they’re doing for the All-Star Game, we could not pay for and we could not duplicate.”