Coaching and art may seem like two worlds that would never merge. However, for Howard University men’s basketball coach Kenneth L. Blakeney, they are closely aligned.
Blakeney, in just his second season at Howard, is building a program that features Top 20 recruit Makur Maker and a roster of players working to make the historically Black college a destination for the game’s top stars. Blakeney is doing it all in the midst of a pandemic, as his team looks to rebound from a 1-4 start in what has been a challenging year of limited contact and complicated scheduling due to the coronavirus.
But when Blakeney isn’t recruiting, drawing up plays or planning for the season, he may be found expressing his creativity through art.
Blakeney, 49, says creative curiosity pushed him out of his comfort zone. While he had always appreciated art, fine music and fashion, he developed a deeper appreciation when he began to travel to art museums.
“Typically when I go to different cities, I go to art museums, and those things are inspiring to me,” Blakeney said. “… It is a part of my thing. It is something that I do away from basketball, away from work that I really enjoy and I have a passion for.”
From designing fashion accessories to staging rooms with just the right touch through interior design, Blakeney expresses his creativity in a variety of forms.
Blakeney also has an interest in painting, interior design and graphic design. His art collection, which consists of 20 pieces all inspired by camouflage print, are displayed throughout his home. A specific piece dedicated to and inspired by his former Duke basketball teammate and Hall of Famer Grant Hill is part of this collection. He describes camo as a critical part of his designs that has always been present since he first started.
In 2009, Blakeney co-founded Sportin’ Styles, a fashion sports accessories company. Through the company, he has partnered with several NHL and NBA teams to license pieces such as a scarf for the Los Angeles Kings, socks for the Detroit Red Wings and ties for the Chicago Bulls.
When it comes to fashion, Blakeney is clear on one of his sources of inspiration: Thom Browne, an American fashion designer known worldwide for his signature gray suits and cropped silhouettes.
For Blakeney, it’s the “simple kind of details” such as horizontal stripes and intriguing access colors that Browne incorporates into his fashion, that make his looks pop.
Blakeney doesn’t have to look far for more sources of inspiration. His wife, Tracey Blakeney, has been in the fashion industry for more than 20 years. She is the president of Rainbowwave North America, a high-end fashion showroom headquartered in London. A constant supporter of his art and fashion expertise, she has worked as the logistical and operations person for his company. Thus, the two have fostered a great relationship between fashion and business.
“He has always had an eye for fashion,” Tracey Blakeney said. “It was something that I could tell straight away. Whether it was the way he presented himself from a fashion perspective, the way he dressed, everything about how he coordinated his outfits, his look, his presence, to how he lived.”
When he was living in Boston, Tracey Blakeney remembered visiting his apartment and noticing his attention to detail and how it was decorated.
“… Everything that he connected with was always on a very high taste level,” she said.
While in Boston, Blakeney was an assistant coach to fellow Duke alum Tommy Amaker at Harvard University. He and Amaker deepened a bond that allowed Amaker to see who Blakeney was professionally and personally.
“Kenny has a gift of being able to connect whether you are white or Black, whether you are rich or poor, whether it is a country club or it is in the ‘hood. It doesn’t matter. Kenny knows how to communicate and connect with people,” Amaker said.
While an assistant for Amaker from 2007 to 2011, Blakeney was part of the staff that recruited back-to-back Top 50 recruiting classes to the Ivy League school. It was during that time that Blakeney officially launched his company. Amaker didn’t know about Blakeney’s artistic talents, but he recognized his creativity and coaching mindset.
“Kenny is very astute; he is wise beyond his years. He has a high level of interests in a variety of different things and that is one of the reasons for his talents,” Amaker said. “He is able to communicate and share thoughts and ideas, which allows him to broaden his scope and to connect with people from a wide range.”
When Blakeney created Sportin’ Styles, he said, it was to fill a void in the sports licensing area for fashionable accessories. However, it ended up becoming much more.
“I was at a point in my career, I think, in the basketball world where I came to a crossroads,” Blakeney said. “I needed to choose if I wanted to remain at Harvard at the time or if I wanted to go and pursue the business that I had started full time.”
He began devoting more of his time to his business and grew his network. His passion for graphic design, interior design and paintings seems to have unconsciously influenced the art of his coaching as well.
“I do not think it has inspired me on how I talk or communicate with [players], but I think there are some similarities in both,” Blakeney said. “I think No. 1, mostly in interior design and also in art, for me, it is about spacing, and there is always spacing on the court. Basketball is all about spacing, on the offensive end and defensive end.
“I think the other thing is understanding when to stop. You can go overboard with coaching, practice or communication, and the same thing in art, and that can hurt you more so than it can help you. One of the things that I have always heard about art is that the toughest part is to know when you are done, when you are finished, when to stop. That is the same thing in coaching.”
This has all seemed to come into play this season, as Blakeney has been on a mission to turn Howard men’s basketball program around. The Bison have not recorded a winning season since 2001-02 when they finished 18-13. They have had two .500 seasons in that same time frame (2014-15, 2018-19).
The 2020-21 season is throwing its own set of challenges at Howard, as the program is off to a slow start and Maker hasn’t played since aggravating a groin injury on Nov. 27.
While the pandemic is affecting Blakeney and his team, he is remaining optimistic about the future.
“COVID has just really allowed me to focus on basketball and family and that’s it,” Blakeney said. “That has been my focus: our team building and growing our team, and spending as much time as I can with my family. That has been COVID for me. Outside of that, I have not done anything else. That has been kind of my heart and soul during COVID.”