From Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton to Sam Jones to Willis Reed to Earl “The Pearl” Monroe to Bob Love to Anthony Mason to Charles Oakley to Ben Wallace, it used to be commonplace to see players from historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the NBA All-Star Game. But today, it’s rare to see an HBCU player in the NBA at all.
There is only one HBCU player left among the 30 teams: Portland Trail Blazers forward Robert Covington, who starred at Tennessee State.
“That’s a little disturbing,” Wallace told ThePowerBloc. “Most of us HBCUs, we’re scorers or specialists. The league has shifted to shooters and that has weeded out a lot of the HBCU players.”
Last season, Covington had company in then-Philadelphia 76ers center Kyle O’Quinn, who went to Norfolk State. But in January, O’Quinn signed as a free agent with Fenerbahce Beko in Turkey.
“I definitely have to hold it down and keep it rolling for the next couple years, too,” Covington said. “I really don’t know why I am the only one. I think it’s because of the opportunity that I had and the situation. I was a taller guy with a skill set that is unique. [HBCU players] don’t really get the exposure. My junior and senior year, the agency I went with and my pre-draft camp performance is what allowed me to stand out. It’s about getting the opportunity. …
“There were players that they said I couldn’t compete with. But when I went on the court, it was every man for themselves. I was able to thrive and show what I was capable of.”
On Sunday, the NBA is hoping to bring a spotlight to HBCUs during its All-Star festivities.
Covington won’t play in the 2021 NBA All-Star Game in Atlanta, but he will be representing HBCUs by taking part in the skills challenge before the game. The night will also feature performances by HBCU musical groups, alumni and students.
|Anthony Mason||1||Tennessee State|
|Ben Wallace||4||Virginia Union|
|Bob Dandridge||4||Norfolk State|
|Bob Love||3||Southern University and A&M College|
|Charles Oakley||1||Virginia Union|
|Dick Barnett||1||Tennessee State|
|Earl Monroe||4||Winston-Salem State|
|Nat Clifton||1||Xavier University of Louisiana|
|Sam Jones||5||North Carolina Central|
|Truck Robinson||2||Tennessee State|
|Willis Reed||7||Grambling State|
|Woody Sauldsberry||1||Texas Southern|
|Zelmo Beaty||2||Prairie View A&M|
Legendary singer Gladys Knight, who graduated from HBCU Shaw University, is slated to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” before the All-Star Game. The Clark Atlanta University Philharmonic Society choir will sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” from their campus. The Grambling State University Tiger Marching Band and Florida A&M University Marching 100 will play during player introductions. And members of the Divine Nine fraternities and sororities, nine Black Greek-letter organizations, will introduce step teams from Spelman College and Morehouse College during the game.
As part of the festivities, the NBA and National Basketball Players Association will also donate more than $3 million to HBCUs through the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, the United Negro College Fund, National Association for Equal Opportunity and the Direct Relief Fund for Health Equity.
“For the NBA to start recognizing and helping out says a lot,” said Wallace, a Virginia Union graduate. “We do play in a majority Black league in the NBA. It’s time for us to start reaching out to these HBCUs and to the Black communities to show people we haven’t forgotten about them. We remember where we came from. And not only are we coming back, but we’re bringing some heavy hitters with us. That is what it is all about, educating the next man what it is about to get involved.”
Wallace was the last HBCU player to suit up for an NBA All-Star Game in 2006. In total, 13 HBCU players have been named All-Stars, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Clifton, who played at Xavier University of Louisiana and was the first Black player to have a contract in the NBA as a member of the New York Knicks in 1950, was also the first HBCU player to play in the All-Star Game in 1957. Reed, a former Grambling State star and Basketball Hall of Famer, is the leader among HBCU players with seven All-Star appearances.
Wallace made all four of his All-Star appearances as a member of the Detroit Pistons, but he always felt that he was representing HBCUs as well.
“I was excited to be there to represent the Pistons and the city of Detroit and Virginia and HBCUs all around the country,” Wallace said. “I definitely took pride in the fact that I was the one able to represent these different places. Normally, HBCUs don’t get any type of recognition. It made me feel good. It made me feel proud.”
So who’s next? For HBCUs, getting the next NBA player is much more important than the next All-Star.
Howard freshman Makur Maker, who averaged 11.5 points and 6.0 rebounds in two games during the Bison’s pandemic-shortened season, is ranked as the 91st-best prospect by ESPN.com. Although one NBA scout expected Maker to return to Howard for his sophomore season, Covington believes Maker will eventually be the next HBCU player to play in the NBA.
“That kid is versatile and talented,” Covington said. “He will definitely have an opportunity. I haven’t talked to him, but I saw him play once. He definitely has it. He’s a 7-footer who can do pretty much everything and is kind of similar to KD [Kevin Durant]. He has similar traits. He doesn’t shoot the ball as well as [Durant]. But he has a similar skill set.”
Three NBA scouts told ThePowerBloc that there are no other players from HBCUs who are considered draft prospects this year.
But aspiring NBA players from HBCUs can still find hope in the paths Wallace and Covington took.
After going undrafted in 1996, Wallace tried out for a team in Italy before making the Washington Bullets roster during the 1996-97 season. The undersized center went on to win four NBA Defensive Player of the Year awards with the Pistons and an NBA championship in 2004. Wallace played in 1,088 games during his NBA career and has been a finalist for the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Wallace, who is currently a minority owner of the G League Grand Rapids Drive and has NBA coaching aspirations, offered advice to HBCU stars with NBA dreams.
“Don’t be afraid to show what you can do,” Wallace said. “Coming from an HBCU and doing the things we had to do to survive on campus and just to get to school, we already have weight once we sign with an HBCU. … Don’t doubt yourself. Believe in yourself. One thing you got to know, if you come from an HBCU and end up on any one of these basketball courts, you’ve earned it. It ain’t just a tryout. … Either they think you have the potential to make it or they don’t even deal with you.”
Covington also went undrafted in 2013. During the 2013-14 season, he played seven games for the Houston Rockets but spent most of his time in the G League. “Ro Co” got his break during the 2014-15 season when he played in 70 games – and started 49 – with the 76ers, averaging 13.5 points and 4.5 rebounds. Covington was named to the NBA All-Defensive first team in 2018 and is now in his eighth season.
Covington, who has donated $1 million to Tennessee State’s men’s and women’s basketball program, wants HBCU players to stay motivated.
“Whether you get the opportunity to play in the NBA or overseas, as long as you get an opportunity to do what you love, you gotta take it for what it is,” Covington said. “Sometimes you don’t get as much exposure. … People didn’t think I could play in the NBA at first. But when it came to it, we all lace our shoes the same way.
“I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder. I have always been overlooked. It gave me extra motivation and I used all of that.”
With the NBA shining a light on HBCUs on Sunday, Wallace also thinks Chris Paul deserves recognition for his efforts.
While Paul didn’t play at an HBCU, the Phoenix Suns’ All-Star guard has been a big supporter in part because many of his family members went to HBCUs. Paul regularly wears clothing to games highlighting HBCUs. He is also the co-executive producer with Stephen A. Smith of an ESPN+ documentary called Why Not Us: North Carolina Central University’s Men’s Basketball.
“He’s like a spokesman for HBCUs even though he didn’t attend one,” Wallace said of Paul, who is the president of the players association. “For him to show the love that he does to historically Black schools is awesome.”
Paul recently discussed the importance of getting the schools exposure.
“Everybody has been working on showcasing them and making sure they get to that stage,” Paul said. “Exposure helps. Once you start getting a few guys that are elite [high school players] to these programs, hopefully it will start a trend.”