The NCAA men’s Final Four isn’t the only hoops game being played on a national stage in New Orleans this weekend. The first HBCU All-Star Game will be held Sunday at 4 p.m. ET at the UNO Lakefront Arena, featuring 24 of the best HBCU student-athletes from the MEAC, SWAC, CIAA and SIAC conferences, plus Tennessee State, North Carolina A&T and Hampton.
“It’s a great feeling to be chosen and a part of an event as historic as this and to know my hard work is being noticed,” said Howard University guard Kyle Foster, a senior. “My main goal is to showcase my talent, as well as raise awareness for the talent that comes through HBCUs.”
The 2022 HBCU All-Star Game, which will be broadcast on CBS, is the brainchild of former Tennessee State and Fort Valley State men’s basketball coach Travis Williams, who founded the company HBCU All-Stars LLC in 2019, and the company’s COO April Taylor. Williams had planned for the initial all-star game to tip off in 2021, however, it was sidelined due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“It is important for our culture for these young men to get the opportunity to be on this stage,” said Williams, a former forward for Georgia State University under legendary coach Lefty Driesell. “And not only that, it’s important for our young folks to get an opportunity to see our guys and let folks know that our HBCUs [historically Black colleges and universities] are first-class organizations. I got an opportunity to see both sides. You know, I played for a PWI [predominantly white institution] and I coached HBCUs. So in a way, this journey encompasses what I have seen as far as the differences in the experiences between the haves [PWIs] and have-nots [HBCUs]. That’s why it’s important to impact these guys’ lives in this to show that they, too, can be successful on and off the basketball court.”
The HBCU All-Star Game staff spent the past three months scouting the country’s top HBCU seniors who are in their final year of eligibility, narrowing the list down from 60 players to 24.
“We have a HBCU national scouting staff just like the NBA scouting staff,” Williams said. “It was hard. We met every Sunday night. We call it our war room [and] we have some of the most prestigious coaches. We fought for each one of these guys in here. It was a tough process, but we feel good about the talent here and the representation of our HBCU conferences. We’re excited about it.”
Foster, a Hampton, Virginia, native who played in the NBA’s inaugural HBCU Classic (between Howard and Morgan State) during NBA All-Star Weekend in February, was named all All-MEAC First Team in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference this season, averaging 15.8 points and 4.1 rebounds for the Bison. He also led the nation in 3-point field goal percentage, shooting 45.8%.
“It feels good to be here,” Foster said. “I always knew I was capable of these things. I have to attribute it to hard work and staying consistent even when things aren’t going well.”
Led by Norfolk State head coach Robert Jones, Foster will play for Team John McLendon (MEAC, Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, N.C. A&T, Hampton). The team is named after McLendon, the first African American head coach in a major professional league (Cleveland Pipers, ABL) and the first African American head coach of a predominantly white university (Cleveland State).
Team McClendon will face Team Clarence “Big House” Gaines (Southwestern Athletic Conference, Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association, Tennessee State). Team Gaines is named after the former Winston-Salem State University coach and one of the first African Americans to be inducted as a coach into the Basketball Hall of Fame. Team Gaines will be coached by Alcorn State head coach Landon Bussie.
Williams and Taylor have already begun to plan the HBCU All-Star Game for next year’s Final Four weekend.
“[The future] is bright,” said Taylor. “I hope it’s impactful. I hope it continues to really showcase what all of us really care about, which is young people and change within the community. We’ve already started to plan for Houston. We’re excited about it, we really want to continue to be intentional with our impact.”
Another player who was selected for this year’s HBCU All-Star team and is hoping to get some national exposure this weekend is Florida A&M senior forward Darian “DJ” Jones, who averaged 8.0 points, 6.0 rebound and 1.3 blocks for the Rattlers this season. He will face off against Foster as a part of Team Gaines. Jones, who grew up in Brusly, Louisiana, is excited to be back in his home state for the all-star game.
“Yeah, it’s cool to be able to play in the game. I’m grateful and excited. It’s one thing that my brother can’t say,” he said with a laugh.
Jones’ brother is Damian Jones, who currently plays center for the Sacramento Kings. He was drafted by the Golden State Warriors with the 30th pick in the 2016 NBA draft, later winning two NBA championships with the team in 2017 and 2018. After he was drafted, Jones added him to his list of favorite NBA players to look up to, along with Kevin Durant of the Brooklyn Nets and Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks. Jones had the opportunity to ride the parade floats around Oakland, California, with his brother and the rest of the Warriors roster after the 2018 title, which cemented his desire to play professionally.
“[Watching him win NBA titles] was crazy because I was actually like on the floats. So it was a very fun experience,” Jones said. “Honestly, all of it was just amazing. I’m glad I got to experience it. I’m glad my brother got that opportunity. Definitely, seeing him play and win makes me want it more. He’s playing at a level I want to be at, so I think about that every day and where I want to be and how I want to get there.”
Aside from his brother Damian, another player whom Jones looks up to is LA Clippers forward Robert Covington, currently the only HBCU player in the NBA. Williams was an assistant coach at Tennessee State when Covington played there from 2009-2013, and was promoted to head coach during Covington’s senior season. Williams says he witnessed the struggles it took for an athlete of Covington’s caliber to get professional looks simply because he was at an HBCU. With events like the HBCU All-Star Game, he’s hoping to make it easier for the next generation of HBCU basketball players.
“Sometimes you have these guys get up and put in the work [and] the time commitment and we don’t see scouts or agents come to your university. It affects us,” Williams said. “As coaches, we want to make sure we provide every one of our guys as many resources as possible that we can for respective HBCU universities. We had an NBA Pro Day combine and had 10 teams in there. So that is important. We hope this game helps to continue to build that platform and someday have all the teams there, including G League teams [and] international teams.”