By: Brett Fauntroy
Kenneth Blakeney has managed to succeed at all levels. That hasn’t stopped at Howard University.
In just his fourth year as men’s head basketball coach at Howard, Blakeney has completely turned the program around and given the historic institution another success story.
“My first year…we won 4 games, but we had to kind of go through it to get to the other side. And I understood that. And I don’t know if a lot of people did understand that,” said Blakeney.
Blakeney’s success didn’t begin at Howard, but it did start just minutes away in Northwest, Washington D.C., where he grew up. “D.C. is home,” Blakeney said fondly. His ties to the city run deep. As a student at the famed DeMatha Catholic High School, Blakeney won Maryland Gatorade Player of the Year and is no stranger to the competitive nature that permeates in this area..
After setting his foundation for success at DeMatha, Blakeney continued his basketball journey at the esteemed Duke University. “I learned a whole lot there. I learned the business of basketball there, and to be honest, it was almost like an undergraduate degree in basketball, right?” said Blakeney. While at Duke, Blakeney won two national championships and highlighted how fortunate he was to be surrounded by great basketball minds who helped him “understand how to win.”
Coach Blakeney brought his background of winning to Howard in 2018, but he faced some challenges at the start.“Howard had at that point only had two winning seasons in the last 30 years,” Blakeney explained. He understood he had some rebuilding to do.
Howard’s Burr Gymnasium needed some more banners, but Blakeney’s vision began with homing in on the campus’s rich history. When Blakeney took the helm, the coach said he wanted to “be able to mimic the success that the university had had on the academic campus by utilizing…the history, the culture, and the tradition.” Blakeney said the Black excellence Howard is renowned for was “really invigorating” and kept him going, even before his first game as head coach.
In the 2018-19 season, Blakeney’s first ever as head coach, the Bison went 4-21. Though his first season was rough, the coach made a big splash when he recruited the highly touted Makur Maker the following season. Blakeney had promise and high expectations for the future of the program, but that all changed in 2020. “It was crazy, man,” he said. Blakeney and his staff worked hard to “find creative ways for our young men to stay fit” and cited boxing, martial arts, and yoga as pandemic-safe solutions for exercise.
As the pandemic’s restrictions loosened, Blakeney started to see a shift in his players and team as a whole. “We got kids that were more mature… We got kids that only cared about winning,” Blakeney explained. He also cited the maturity-through-adversity in the younger players, who had seasons of losing and uncertainty, which helped grow the team and players individually.
Blakeney said that he knew at the start of the ‘22-’23 season, that things were about to be different. “Understanding from the beginning of the year that we could have a special year…was probably one of the most motivating things for me.” This preseason inkling for Blakeney arose with new additions to the team, including homegrown players Marcus Dockery and Jelani Williams.
The Bison started the season with a nationally televised game against powerhouse blue blood Kentucky, which they lost by over 30 points. The next ten games brought mixed results, but a turn came when Howard pulled out a gutsy win against Harvard on the road. This game marked the first time Howard has beaten Harvard in six previous matchups. It also held a special significance for Blakeney, who had previously served as an assistant coach at Harvard under his former Duke coach Tommy Amaker.
Following the Harvard win, Blakeney and the Bison finished the regular season 13-4, which included a historic 9-game win streak, snapped by the Morgan State Bears in February. Blakeney and the team ended the regular season by beating the Norfolk State Spartans in a statement win to mark the end of their turnaround year.
Blakeney cited the lack of previous success to keep him going, saying “Every day I would walk into Burr, I would look up and see…maybe a few MEAC banners…And I always just, you know, envisioned us hanging a banner.”
The Bison finished the regular season on top, but the job wasn’t finished. The MEAC tournament consists of three games to decide the championship, and ultimately who would head to the NCAA Tournament. Blakeney and the team won the first two games with ease, and yet again faced Norfolk State. Despite the Bison defeating them twice in the regular season, the odds weren’t on their side. Norfolk State was favored to win by two, but Blakeney wasn’t concerned. Although there was “so much doubt” and “a lot of haters,” Coach Blakeney still had hope for his squad. The game went back and forth, finishing with a big shot from Dockery and even bigger free throws from veteran transfer Jelani Williams, winning the game for the Bison.
Having won both the regular season and the tournament championship, the Bison had an automatic bid to March Madness, an experience Blakeney said “can be something you can utilize for the next 40 to 50 years of your life.” Despite losing to #1 seed Kansas in the first round of the Big Dance, Blakeney feels like this season’s accomplishments have helped establish the program’s winning culture and will “allow us the chance to have sustainable success.”
Though the season was one to remember, it ended with the disappointing announcements that three of the team’s starters are entering the transfer portal. Blakeney recognizes this as a major part of college basketball now, and says he“had to step away from the emotion” of it and look to the future. Blakeney highlighted Shy Odom and Marcus Dockery as key returners, and is working on “finding pieces that can connect us in a way that allows us to maximize our ability as a team to try to do something special.”
Blakeney wants his players to leave his program with an experience bigger than basketball.
“My basketball court is a classroom,” he said. The coach wants his players to “understand that while you’re in that classroom setting, there’s an educational experience that you’re having, as well as a student-athlete experience.”