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HBCU Basketball

Jordan Wood, Zach Kent may be two hoopers to watch at HBCUs this season

The players, who are both white, share why they chose to attend historically black colleges

Howard University head coach Kenny Blakeney says it took less than a minute watching Jordan Wood on the court to become enamored with the 6-foot-8 forward from San Antonio.

“Actually, it hit me in the first 15 seconds of watching him,” Blakeney said. “I was like, ‘Whoa, who the f— is that?’ ”

For Delaware State head coach Eric Skeeters, a phone call alerting him that Zach Kent was transferring from Tennessee gave him visions of the 6-foot-10 forward playing in Dover, Delaware.

“His game is very much reminiscent of Dirk Nowitzki: a big-time scorer inside and out,” Skeeters said of Kent, a Delaware native. “If he wanted to come home to play, I had a scholarship available.”

Wood, who had interest from schools in the Pac-12, Big East, Mountain West, Big 12 and the Ivy League, decided in the spring to attend Howard as a freshman. Kent transferred to Delaware State not long after leaving Tennessee in December.

Both players will be main attractions this season if basketball is to be played in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference in 2020-21. They are talented, and they both happen to be white.

And neither is intimidated about being the rare white player playing basketball at a Black college.

“It might be a bit of a culture shock,” Wood said. “But I’ve played basketball all my life, mainly with African Americans, so it’s not going to be something I’m completely not used to.”

Kent, who was enrolled at Delaware State for the spring semester, agreed.

“I play a predominantly Black sport, and my friends have been predominantly Black growing up,” Kent said. “So, honestly, it won’t have an impact on me.”

When Wood stepped off his team’s bus and walked into Burr Gymnasium on the campus of Howard University in December, he was a high school senior on a new team trying to find his footing. When he stepped back on the team bus a few days later to leave Washington, he had a college scholarship and increased confidence.

It’s far from what Wood expected from the trip. At the time, he was considered a diamond in the rough who wasn’t even on the radar of most schools.

“When I met Coach Blakeney, I didn’t take him seriously at first because I didn’t think he’d recruit me,” Wood said. “We had other guys I thought he’d look at, and I wasn’t completely confident because I was still transitioning to my new team.”

Cornerstone Christian’s Jordan Wood (center).

Marc Estrada Photography

That team, Cornerstone Christian School, was in the Washington area to play in the National Hoopfest tournament hosted by DeMatha Catholic High School, a national powerhouse. The level of talent at Cornerstone, including Jerrell Colbert (LSU commit), was a step up from Wood’s previous school, Brandeis High School in San Antonio.

“I was the only guy on my team that could dunk,” Wood said of his time at Brandeis, where his play earned him offers from Air Force and Navy. “They were playing the game at just one speed.”

What Wood expected going into that National Hoopfest was to find a way to fit in with his new teammates. After a strong showing during which he showed he could play at all speeds, he left with a scholarship offer.

“I offered him before he got on the bus and, I’m going to say this respectfully, I didn’t care if he was white,” Blakeney said. “What I cared about was that when I watched him play — a stretch-4 who could play multiple positions — I thought of our team needs and the way I want my team to play moving forward. I had an extra fixation on him, because he was the perfect fit.

“I took my shot.”

As Wood’s game blossomed, schools such as San Diego State, Colorado, Kansas State and Columbia were suddenly interested. Wood, accompanied by his parents, would make his official visit to the Howard campus in March as he weighed his decision to be a minority on the campus of a historically Black college and university (HBCU).

“My father wasn’t concerned because he grew up in Panama, where he was always the guy who didn’t look like everyone else,” Wood said. “My mother was a little concerned, mainly because she wondered whether I would fit in.”

In April, weighing offers from Iona (coached by Rick Pitino) and Howard, he chose the HBCU.

“I knew [Blakeney] really wanted me at Howard,” Wood said. “The school felt like a welcoming place, and I really love the city of Washington. It just felt like somewhere I really want to be.”

When Wood takes the court for his first game, he’ll become the first white player at Howard since Gil Goodrich played point guard there during the 2001-02 season, leading the Bison to the MEAC tournament title game and the team’s last winning season (18-13).

He’ll also get a chance to play alongside Makur Maker, one of the nation’s top recruits, who committed to Howard earlier this month (unless Maker gets drafted by an NBA team in October).

“We played against him in high school, and some of the things he does are next-level,” Wood said of Maker. “It’ll be great for me, because I’ll be able to take advantage of opportunities with all eyes being on him. I’m excited.”

Wood is also looking forward to growing as a person while at Howard during a period where race relations have been a major topic since the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25.

“I’m sure, going to Howard, I’ll see for myself the types of things that people in this country have been dealing with and talking about,” Wood said. “There’s a problem in this country, and it sucks. This will be a learning experience for me, and I’m sure with better understanding I’ll come through this a better person.”

Kent commanded more than a few stares as he made his way around the Delaware State campus during the spring semester. But, even as one of the few white students on the HBCU campus, those glances never concerned him.

“I’m tall, so I’m used to people looking at me,” Kent said. “When I show up places, especially where people haven’t seen me before, people are going to stare.”

Kent has also seen college basketball played at its highest level. He spent parts of three seasons at Tennessee in which the Vols were the nation’s No. 1 team in the country during the 2018-19 season.

“To see firsthand what greatness looks like was pretty awesome,” Kent said. “I’ve gone to NBA games, but there’s nothing like a college arena that’s rocking. It’s pretty crazy.”

Zach Kent will be transferring to Delaware State from the University of Tennessee.

Zach Kent, transfer to Delaware State

So why would Kent, a sharpshooting stretch-4, leave a top SEC program for an HBCU?

“I just want to play,” Kent said. “I guess that’s the best way to put it.”

Kent played a total of four games at Tennessee: two during the 2017-18 season during which he eventually redshirted, and two games at the start of 2019-20. (Surgery on his left knee forced him to miss the 2018-19 season.)

After playing limited minutes in those first two games last season, Kent left the team in November and entered the NCAA transfer portal a month later. Several schools expressed interest in Kent, who was the first recruit from Delaware to earn a scholarship to play men’s basketball at Tennessee. Kent also reached out to the University of Delaware, but found the interest from the school lukewarm.

The final decision came down to Old Dominion and Delaware State. Both offered a chance to play, but only one offered an opportunity to be close to home.

“The chance for my family and friends to see me play was a big part of my decision,” Kent said. “This puts me in a better state of mind.”

Delaware State had a white player as recently as the 2015-16 season, when Scott Sill started six games in his final season. But Kent’s arrival comes with higher expectations.

“He was recruited by Notre Dame and Northwestern before he decided to go to Tennessee,” Skeeters said. “That’s the talent level he was recruited at. And that’s the talent level we need him to play at if we’re going to be a championship team.”

Skeeters expects Kent to bring the same level of competitiveness as the two NBA draft picks he played with at Tennessee: Washington Wizards forward Admiral Schofield, who was drafted in the second round by the Philadelphia 76ers in 2019, and Grant Williams, who was the Boston Celtics’ first-round pick in 2019.

“I believe he comes here with a chip on his shoulder, because he felt he was just as good as those guys,” Skeeters said. “I want him to use that as motivation.”

Kent is already letting his voice be heard. According to Skeeters, he has been one of the most vocal members of the team after Floyd’s murder.

“I’m a guy who isn’t really that outspoken and who is usually pretty modest,” Kent said. “But I just wanted to let people know through social media that when you say ‘all lives matter,’ you’re taking the opposing view of the Black Lives Matter movement that’s based on obtaining equality.”

Those posts have led to support from friends, and critiques from people claiming he’s straying too much into politics.

“I get frustrated with some of the remarks,” Kent said. “To me, it’s just love your brother, love your sister. Nothing more than that.”

Skeeters appreciates Kent embracing the current movement. He’ll appreciate Kent even more if his new player can help the Hornets compete for a MEAC championship.

“I’m 90% sure he’s the most talented MEAC player walking in the gym this season, even with Makur Maker coming into the league,” Skeeters said. “Now he has to live up to that.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at Andscape. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright and watching the Knicks play a MEANINGFUL NBA game in June.