2019 consensus national freshman of the year. 2020 SEC Player of the Year. 2020 Associated Press First-Team All-America.
Rhyne Howard’s accomplishments are extensive and featured neatly on her profile page on the University of Kentucky’s website, but the school’s star junior guard uses other words to describe herself.
Across from the list of accolades on the site, Howard has hand-selected a few:
Blessed Beyond Measure. Humble. Goofy Goober.
And then the phrase that stands out: Unapologetically Black.
The word Black is underlined for emphasis. The best player in college basketball, currently playing in one of the biggest social activism hubs in the country, wants you to know she is proud of her Blackness.
“I’m not going to apologize for anything because of the color of my skin,” said Howard when asked why she included the phrase. “If you don’t like me as a person of color, or if it bothers you or you view me as a threat, that’s your own problem. Being a person of color, being a Black woman, you can either take it or leave it.”
As Howard prepares to take the court for the No. 11-ranked Kentucky Wildcats, her stellar game will be something to watch, but it won’t be the only thing. This season, Howard and her teammates are playing with a greater sense of purpose than ever.
Inspired by players in the WNBA and NBA, Howard is one of many student-athletes across college sports who has mobilized as an activist while the nation grapples with its most poignant social justice discourse in decades.
“If Rhyne believes in something strongly,” Kentucky forward KeKe McKinney said, “she’s going to make sure that her voice is heard.”
One of the most notable victims of police violence this year was Breonna Taylor. For Howard, Taylor’s shooting death hit close to home.
Taylor, who was killed by police in Louisville, was a former student at the University of Kentucky.
“I was hurt and saddened to see that we’re still living in this world where racial injustice happens, no repercussions are being put in action for police officers who don’t get convicted and everyone is set free for killing a Black person or a person of color,” Howard said. “They just go on, get fired and that’s it. If it was the other way around, the person of color would be put in jail.”
On Aug. 27, the day after NBA and WNBA players opted to not play their playoff games in response to the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, players from Kentucky gathered on a practice court. But instead of practicing, they sat together in a circle on the floor.
Motivated by the social activism of WNBA players in particular, Howard and her teammates talked about how they wanted to contribute to the current dialogue and be a part of the change in their own community.
“We were pitching our own ideas based on what we saw from the WNBA players,” Howard said. “We were pitching them to our coaches and support staff saying that we wanted to do something like this, and make our voices heard just as they are making their voices heard.”
What the team settled on, was a unity march and fair. With the support of the team’s staff, the players created and promoted the event, which was held on the university’s campus on Sept. 16.
“Our biggest thing was to make sure people were registered to vote and inform people about what is going on in our world — about equality, the Black Lives Matter movement,” McKinney said. “A lot of members of our team are African American women. Those that aren’t, they support it very strongly. It turned out to be an amazing outcome.”
As participants marched a mile from the university library to the Memorial Coliseum, their home court, Howard commanded the group’s megaphone and, alongside redshirt sophomore Dre’una Edwards, led the group’s chants:
“Black Lives Matter!”
“More than athletes!”
“With me leading, I knew people were going to be watching,” Howard said. “I knew that everyone was going to listen to what I was saying.”
Rhyne Howard and Dre’Una Edwards lead the group toward Memorial Coliseum
— Maggie Davis (@MaggieDavisTV) September 16, 2020
For the first time in 13 years, Kentucky’s women’s basketball team will have a new coach roaming the sideline. Kyra Elzy, who was the team’s associate head coach, was named interim head coach after Matthew Mitchell retired earlier this month. During her introductory news conference, Elzy shared a part of her strategy going forward.
“The best advice that I have received thus far,” she said, “ ‘If all else fails, put the ball in Rhyne Howard’s hands, and let her do what she does best.’ ”
The 6-foot-2 guard will start the year as the SEC preseason player of the year and an AP preseason All-American. She’s also the favorite to win national player of the year.
Howard has established herself as one of the top scorers and shot creators in all of college basketball. Her ability to either work off a ball screen and pull up, or catch and shoot in rhythm, has made her a scoring threat from just about anywhere on the court. She ranked 10th in the nation in 3-pointers per game, while also demonstrating a proficiency in getting to the free-throw line.
“She’s just so smooth,” said South Carolina center and fellow AP preseason All-American Aliyah Boston. “The way she can shoot the ball. She can come off anything and she’s pulling up. The range, she got that.”
Her whatever-it-takes mentality is always on display, too, as seen in January in a conference matchup against Auburn.
After committing a foul with 3:08 to play in the third quarter, Howard went to the locker room with an injured left hand. She had fractured her pinkie. But, with her finger in a splint, Howard managed to re-enter the game late in the fourth quarter. In those remaining minutes, she converted a layup with her injured hand, blocked a shot, collected a steal and knocked down three clutch free throws to ice the game.
“She was in a lot of pain and she still made things happen for us at the very end when we needed her,” McKinney said.
During her first two seasons with the Wildcats, Howard has had success leading by example on the court. This season, the team will be counting on her to be a vocal leader, too.
“Rhyne is quiet,” said McKinney before correcting herself. “She was quiet.
“She’s starting to speak more. She is expanding by being more of a vocal leader, which is helping our team a lot.”
As Howard demonstrated with her activism the past few months, she is up to the task.
The actions taken by the Kentucky team this offseason haven’t come without criticism from those with opposing views, some who were fans of the program. But Howard isn’t apologizing.
“Some fans said they didn’t want to be a part of our family anymore,” Howard said. “That’s fine with me. We’re still going to go out, we’re still going to focus on us.”
Howard added: “This is definitely going to be a year where we use our voices.”