Up Next

HBCU Basketball

NBA HBCU Classic puts Grambling State, Southern basketball rivalry in the spotlight

Bragging rights are at stake for SWAC teams during All-Star Weekend

When Donte’ Jackson became the head coach of the Grambling State University men’s basketball team in 2017, he inherited the rivalry between the Tigers and the Southern University Jaguars.

“When I had got here I [saw] a post that was like, Grambling hadn’t beaten Southern in 2,000-something days. So I was trying to rally the guys around the one thing you’re going to be remembered for is the rivalry game,” Jackson said. “People [will] ask you one question when you come back for homecoming, ‘Did you beat Southern?’ And you want that answer to be, like, yes.”

Southwestern Athletic Conference rivals Grambling State (17-8, 10-3 SWAC) and Southern (13-13, 9-4 SWAC) will face off in the NBA HBCU Classic at 4 p.m. ET Saturday at the University of Utah’s Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City as part of NBA All-Star Weekend. The classic is designed to provide national exposure for historically Black colleges and universities.

“Southern and Grambling have a storied rivalry going back decades that extends across sports and to everyone on campus,” said Greg Taylor, executive director of the NBA Foundation. “We felt that energy and competitive spirit from the bayou is a perfect fit for the HBCU Classic.”

In Jackson’s first season leading the Tigers, Grambling split the season series with Southern 1-1. Jackson’s first win over Southern, in February 2018, ended a nearly seven-year basketball losing streak to the Jaguars; in six seasons Jackson is 10-3 against them.

“This is bragging rights. We want to win, we want to beat Southern in everything, not just football and basketball,” he said. “If we play marbles, we’ll try to beat them in marbles.”

Grambling State coach Donte’ Jackson reacts from the bench during a game against the Dayton Flyers on Dec. 23, 2019, at the University of Dayton Arena. “People [will] ask you one question when you come back for homecoming. ‘Did you beat Southern?’ ” he said.

Aaron Doster/USA TODAY Sports

Southern guard Tyrone Lyons is excited about this year’s NBA HBCU Classic after watching last year’s inaugural matchup between Howard and Morgan State from his dorm.

“I have a few friends that I know on Howard’s team. So I watched the game just to see where they were and most of the NBA stars there,” Lyons told Andscape when the NBA announced the matchup in October 2022. “I’m really looking forward to, you know, the influence and the impact that comes behind it. The acknowledgement and the recognition is amazing. This is something that none of us are gonna forget, my teammates, coaches, the program in both schools.”

Lyons joined the Jaguars last season after transferring from North Carolina A&T and started in all 31 games. After being named to the Preseason All-SWAC first team, he is averaging 9.4 points this season and is third on the team in scoring. The Jaguars earned an 81-73 win over the Tigers in January and are currently seeded No. 3 in conference standings.

Southern University Jaguars guard Tyrone Lyons passes the ball during a game against the Kentucky Wildcats on Dec. 7, 2021, at Rupp Arena at Central Bank Center in Lexington, Kentucky. Lyons is averaging 9.4 points this season and is third on the team in scoring.

Jordan Prather/USA TODAY Sports

After jumping from the Big South to the SWAC, Lyons learned the true meaning of rivalry games. 

“My first actual home classic against Grambling, the environment was unmatched. So to see it at the All-Star Weekend, I believe that it’s going to be a crazy environment,” Lyons said. “I know both teams are gonna play their best. So it’s gonna be a good experience for a lot of people, especially if this is their first time seeing this rivalry.”

Besides the nationally televised competition, the NBA and AT&T will donate $100,000 to Grambling State and Southern to support academic resources, athletics and wellness services.

The Southern University Human Jukebox and the World Famed Grambling State University Tiger Marching Band will perform during a pep rally on Friday. To further the NBA’s commitment to historically Black colleges and universities, the league is offering an NBA G League scholarship for high school students, and players from both teams will have the opportunity to attend a career development panel to discuss pathways in sports after graduation.

“It’s important to us that the students’ All-Star experience isn’t limited to the game itself,” Taylor said. “There are a number of different career pathways within the business of basketball, and we want to ensure that access to developmental resources are also prioritized so when they leave Utah they are better equipped to begin their professional journey.” 

Despite the cachet of playing during All-Star Weekend, for Southern and Grambling it will be a conference game with the regular season title on the line. Currently both teams are competing with Alcorn State (14-11, 11-2 SWAC) for the top spot in the SWAC standings with less than five games remaining in conference play. Only the top eight teams will advance to the conference championship in Birmingham, Alabama, to compete for an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

“Second place versus third place, both of us are fighting for first place. The reality of the situation is no matter where we play Southern [it] is gonna be a dogfight,” Jackson said. “I don’t care if we were the worst team in the league, and they were the best team in the league or if it was vice versa. You could throw all the records out of that game because, you know, that game is more about bragging rights for the state, not just a regular basketball game.”

Liner Notes

NBA HBCU Classic 2023

When: 4 p.m. ET Saturday 
Where: Jon M. Huntsman Center at the University of Utah
Watch: ESPN2, TNT and NBA TV

Mia Berry is the senior HBCU writer for Andscape and covers everything from sports to student-led protests. She is a Detroit native (What up Doe!), long-suffering Detroit sports fan and Notre Dame alumna who randomly shouts, "Go Irish."