Ever been to an HBCU (historically black colleges and universities) event? If you’re a resident New Jerseyan, the answer to that question is likely a resounding “no.”
The HBCU experience is one that’s nearly impossible to find within the state’s borders. In fact, one would have to venture hundreds of miles below the state line to even scratch the surface of the riches that historically black colleges and universities have to offer—there are no such institutions in New Jersey; the majority are in the South.
But this weekend, the HBCU experience will be descending upon the East Coast’s northern regions, as the Invesco QQQ Legacy Classic tips off at Newark’s Prudential Center on Dec. 19, bringing with the basketball programs from a number of storied institutions and their high-energy, unique music and dance squads.
The event features a hoops double-header that kicks off with Hampton University versus North Carolina Central at 1 p.m., before Howard University and North Carolina A&T clash at 4 p.m. Both games will be broadcast nationwide on TNT.
It’s a showcase that represents the culmination of numerous efforts. Turner Sports, WME Sports, Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment and actor Michael B. Jordan all joined forces to make the spectacle a reality. All parties shared one collective goal while putting the spectacle together: Heighten the sports landscape’s awareness of excellence in HBCU athletics, and broaden its scope to a large-scale audience.
“I think it’s really important, just to shine a light on HBCUs.” Jordan said recently on TNT’s Inside the NBA. “They haven’t been getting their credit and respect over the years, and I know it’s been a popular topic. But let’s just give them a platform to be able to give to the community, and where their talents can be seen on a high level. I think the time is now for them to get the respect they deserve.”
The reach of HBCU athletics has been on the uptick for quite some time now, and the ascent is in large part due to support from some of sport’s biggest names.
Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul is one of those. The North Carolina native has long been an avid proponent of historically black programs for years.
And while NBA fans have become accustomed to Paul’s pregame tunnel wardrobe featuring some less-than-implicit homage to one of his beloved athletic departments, Paul’s put his money squarely where his mouth is in the effort to help the programs take flight.
Paul recently partnered with Sour Patch Kids, and the Thurgood Marshall College Fund to create the Mischief for Change Scholarship, which will disperse $1 million over the next five years for students choosing to opt towards the HBCU route.
He also created the Boost Mobile HBCU challenge, which took place in late November at Phoenix’s Footprint Center, and co-produced Why Not Us, a docuseries exclusive to ESPN+ that details the lives and times of North Carolina Central’s basketball team. NCCU is one of the teams featured in the Legacy classic.
Paul’s involvement in the cause has shifted the needle immeasurably for institutions, as their profiles remain on the rise. But he’s not the only household name with an invaluable imprint on HBCU growth.
Deion Sanders, also known to many as simply “Prime Time,” now makes his living as Jackson State’s head football coach. The 2021 Tigers amassed an 8-1 record in “Neon Deion’s” second year at the program’s helm, climbing all the way to the 15th-ranked spot nationally—its highest FCS seeding in years. It also won the 2021 Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) championship, collecting its first conference title since 2013. The squad was guided at quarterback by none other than Deion’s son, freshman Shedeur Sanders.
Meanwhile, a few states over, Shaquille O’Neal’s youngest son Shaqir is a 6’7″ freshman suiting up for the Texas Southern Tigers, who just routed then-No. 20 ranked Florida 69-54 on Dec. 6. O’Neal’s daughter also turned heads after leaving her father’s former school, LSU, to venture to TSU’s women’s program, which is coached by WNBA legend Cynthia Cooper-Dyke.
TSU is certainly no stranger to big-time wins. The Tigers men’s hoops program, along with Norfolk State’s squad, combined last season to etch their names in history: Their first-round wins made them the first teams from the SWAC and Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference to win a tournament game in the same year.
Those victories, coupled with NC A&T’s haul of star track & field athletes (the school sent nearly a dozen competitors to this past Olympics, returning three medals back home) netted the three universities an influx of nearly $1 billion combined in additional profit through the ensuing calendar year.
And HBCU athletics as a whole are continuing to grow.
Jackson State reported an profit increase of $19 million in the nine days that followed Deion Sanders’ hiring (per The Undefeated), while former NBA Champion J.R. Smith’s enrollment in NC A&T’s golf program set off waves of public interest storylines stemming from the university’s green.
And in 2020, top NBA prospect Makur Maker became the highest-ranked recruit (No. 16 in ESPN’s national list) to commit to an HBCU, opting for Howard University over powerhouses like UCLA and Kentucky.
Still, sports at historically black colleges and universities are continuing to evolve, and ingratiate themselves to the general viewing public despite their recent successes. Events like the Invesco QQQ Legacy Classic will propel that effort in innumerable ways.
Oh, and I’d be remiss to pen a piece regarding HBCU events without elaborating on the accompanying entertainment I mentioned earlier.
In addition to magnificent on-court physical feats, fans will get a unique musical treat. We’re talking bands, and everything that comprises them, from the rhythmic drumming hands, to the dazzling dancers who light up the grandstands, is uniquely captivating.
But don’t take my word for it: Have a glimpse for yourself.
Oh, and did I mention great hoops?