On consecutive weekends, Josh Christopher and Makur Maker did what five-star prep basketball players regularly do — they took official visits to college campuses.
High school basketball prospects are allowed a total of five official visits, so top-ranked recruits are very selective about which colleges they include in that list.
Maker and Christopher are both seniors from California, ranked right behind each other at No. 4 and No. 5, respectively, in the 247Sports composite California rankings. They are both top 15 players on the national scene, which means they have options when it comes to deciding where they’ll play college basketball next season.
Big name programs from the PAC-12, SEC and Big Ten are after both prospects, with heavyweights like Kentucky and Michigan in the hunt.
But on back-to-back weekends, Christopher, then Maker traveled to Washington, D.C. to take official visits at Howard, a Historically Black College in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.
Top college prospects don’t typically visit HBCUs, where there are no huge TV deals, no chartered flights and are not typically an outlet to the NBA. But with Christopher and Maker taking official visits, perhaps a change is coming.
“I do think there is a conscious effort right now out there,” N.C. Central women’s basketball coach Trisha Stafford-Odom told the media at a recent press conference. “It could be strongly because of the state of politics right now. I think people are interested in alternatives. There’s an empowerment movement and I think people are cheering for underdogs these days.”
Athletes nowadays are aware of their influence. And visits to HBCUs from top high school athletes like Maker and Christopher could start a new trend for others to visit and play for these schools.
“Howard is a great school and it represents my roots,’ Christopher told USA Today earlier this month. “I know they’re not the prestigious basketball school, but I’m confident that if I picked them I could help to change that.”
An education on the history
LeVelle Moton, the men’s basketball coach at N.C. Central, was a trailblazer back in 2009. One of the top players in the nation was Word of God guard John Wall, a player Moton had known since he was a kid.
Moton knew, the whole country knew, that Wall was a one-and-done talent, no matter where he went. That didn’t stop Moton from bringing Wall on campus for a visit and offering him a scholarship, despite the five-star prospect holding offers from Kentucky, Georgia Tech and Kansas.
It was unlikely that Moton was going to land Wall, but back then it wasn’t that unrealistic.
“I cringe because I am somewhat of a historian, but we have some of these kids going to play in an arena named after people that wouldn’t allow their ancestors the right to step foot on that campus,” Moton said. “That’s pretty much the means of HBCUs and why they were established. They were established because we weren’t allowed to go to those predominantly white institutions.”
The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame is filled with players who played at HBCUs during a time when that was their only choice. Earl Monroe (Winston-Salem State), Sam Jones (N.C. Central), Willis Reed (Grambling) and John McLendon (the legendary N.C. Central coach) are some of the names Moton uses with top prospects who show interest in an HBCU.
HBCU vs. Power 5 schools
247Sports’ Crystal Ball is predicting that Christopher is 100 percent going to UCLA. The recruiting website also says Howard is “warm” on Maker’s list.
“I think we’re starting a different culture with top recruits coming in to visit here and taking this seriously,” Maker, a 6-11, 235-pound center, told The Undefeated during his visit to Howard earlier this month. “A lot of HBCUs are being overlooked.”
But the reality is no top-15 prospect has turned down all that comes with playing at a big-time program.
USA Today did a study in 2018 showing the finances for 230 Division I programs. UNC’s total expenses for its athletic department was $102,430,558. The expenses for NCCU, which is about 10 miles away from UNC, that same year were $13,323,995.
Coaches like Moton and Stafford-Odom know what they have to offer is a tough sell in comparison to Power 5 conferences. Triangle ACC schools UNC, Duke and N.C. State charter flights to play conference games, while programs like N.C. Central uses buses to get to games. Power 5 schools have their own practice facilities. Moton has told stories of having to practice at local high schools when McDougald-McLendon was being used for other events.
But in reality, there’s not much that separates the schools.
Stafford-Odom, who has been an assistant at both Duke and UNC, has seen it from both sides.
“We’ve got to make an effort to connect with potential student-athletes and what their actual bottom lines and needs are,” Stafford-Odom said. “We assume they want all the glitz and glamour, but at the end of the day it’s about relationships and I do think the better and more often we form relationships with these athletes and get a better understanding of what they are looking for on the college level, we can answer in truth and tell them we are able to offer those things at HBCUs.”
Some argue that HBCUs are missing the exposure that players would get if they went to a Power 5 school. Moton has always made the argument that the TV deals follow the product no matter where they go. Last season, just four MEAC men’s basketball games were broadcast on ESPNU, as well as the the men’s and women’s MEAC tournament championship games.
If Christopher or Maker decide to go to Howard, Moton believes networks would air games because those players would draw an audience.
“If Zion would have come here, he was the most viewed athlete in the world last year,” Moton explained. “If he would have come here just think about the marketability it would have had not only for himself but just for the school as well.”
What’s it going to take?
Both Moton and Stafford-Odom agreed that Christopher and Maker taking visits to Howard was a step in the right direction for HBCUs.
First, Moton said it would take just one top-ranked high school player committing to an HBCU to get others to follow.
“I just don’t think it’s in their nature to be the first one,” Moton said . “They are waiting to see what this person does before they do it. They are not going out and reinventing their own personality to stand out.”
Stafford-Odom said she thinks HBCU commitments will come, but high school players could be waiting to see someone else be the first. She also said she could see a situation where a group of players decide to commit to an HBCU together. Could that be Maker and Christopher? One things for sure to Stafford-Odom, there will be more elite players taking visits in the future. Moton feels it’s way past time for one of them to play for an HBCU school.
“It’s nothing wrong with five-star athletes attending HBCUs,” Moton said. “I think it’s long overdue, I think it’s well-deserved and I think we can provide the same opportunities that any other school can.”