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‘The Long Game’ documentary goes inside Makur Maker’s brief tenure at Howard

The five-episode series on Apple TV+ doesn’t shy away from the tension of the basketball prospect’s only season with the Bison

At the time Makur Maker announced his decision nearly two years ago to play his college basketball at Howard University, his stock was soaring. He was blue-chip, one-and-done and can’t-miss all wrapped in a 6-foot-11 frame, and the expectations were that Maker would dominate his league and elevate the profile of historically Black college and university (HBCU) basketball on the way to becoming a lottery pick in the 2021 NBA draft.

That didn’t happen. Maker wasn’t a lottery pick in 2021 (he withdrew his name a week before the draft), and is currently a long shot to be selected in next month’s draft.

Exactly what happened with Maker both during his abbreviated stay at Howard and his attempts to realize his NBA dreams is chronicled in The Long Game: Bigger Than Basketball, a recently released five-part series on Apple TV+.

When the cameras first started rolling on Maker in 2020, the expectations were to capture the ascent to the NBA of a young man born in Kenya to South Sudanese parents and raised in Australia before moving to North America, where he honed his basketball skills at four different high schools in the United States and Canada.

Maker’s choice to play at an HBCU, an almost unheard-of decision for a highly ranked high school basketball player, created the potential to capture the life of a top athlete and his experiences at a school that lacked the resources of major predominantly white institutions. The decision to attend Howard was widely celebrated, even receiving acknowledgment from Vice President Kamala Harris, a Howard alum.

Maker’s announcement positioned a bright spotlight on Howard University and blue-chip basketball stars potentially choosing HBCUs. “If Maker doesn’t do well, if Howard doesn’t do well,” Maker’s guardian, Ed Smith, says in the second episode, “it’s a disaster.”

Maker didn’t do well, as he suffered an injury two games into the season and never played another college game. The Howard men’s basketball team didn’t do well, hampered by COVID-19 outbreaks that forced the program to shut down its season after just five games. 

All of which would leave viewers wondering how the series could possibly hold the interest over five 50-minute episodes. But there are enough side stories that help maintain intrigue — the plight of Maker’s cousin, Thon; the basketball emergence of Makur’s 15-year-old brother, Maper; and health challenges faced by the daughter of Maker’s handler, Smith.

Viewers can appreciate that a series Maker and his family greenlit (cousin Thon Maker is a consulting producer of the series that’s directed and produced by Seth Gordon) didn’t shy away from addressing the drama. So we see the tension between Maker and Howard coach Kenny Blakeney, evident in the highly anticipated opening game of the season during which Maker appears to go rogue on the offensive end during a one-sided Howard loss.

“What the f— are you doing?” Blakeney asks Maker during one timeout exchange. “You’re f—ing our s— up. Stay in your f—ing role.”

Maker’s response during an interview addresses that early tension.

“Are you going to be this guy that takes all the shots, or are you gonna be this guy who’s gonna play a role?” Maker asks. “And it’s different when you’re having that conversation because I work to be the guy who takes all the shots.”

Makur Maker shoots a free throw during the 2021 NBA draft combine.

Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images

Despite a body of work that spans two college games, Team Maker continues to believe that its guy is worthy of being selected in the 2021 draft lottery, comparing him to some of the NBA’s top talents.

“I’m not saying he is this, I’m not saying this at all,” Smith said. “But I see a [Nikola] Jokić and [Joel] Embiid-type player.”

Smith saw a star. NBA teams saw a guy not ready to be taken as a lottery pick (he failed to appear on most mock drafts), which forced Maker to withdraw his name from last year’s draft. Instead of returning to Howard or transferring to a major Division I school, Maker opted to play in Australia, averaging 7.8 points and 5.2 rebounds for the Sydney Kings, which recently won the NBL title.

Does the accumulation of game tape from Australia — the lack of tape at Howard was cited as a factor in Maker’s sliding draft stock last year — help him in the 2022 draft? That remains to be seen for Maker, now ranked 100th in the ESPN draft projections.

Is Makur Maker as good as his team touts him to be throughout The Long Game documentary? The basketball world will soon find out.

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.