By Mark F. Gray
AFRO Staff Writer
The intersection of sports and civil rights achievements came together for a uniquely ironic celebration on Dr. Martin Luther King’s federal holiday. At the end of Yale’s 89-75 win over Howard in Northwest, D.C., Bulldogs coach James Jones and Bison coach Kenny Blakeney shared a long, respectful embrace before the walk to the locker room, a symbol that stretches far and wide.
Jones, has been and remains one of the best coaches in the Ivy League. Though it is no longer a major story that Jones is Black and leads a school from his league to the hilltop for a game, the diversity on the Ivy League sidelines spoke to how far college basketball has progressed since the Jim Crow days of segregation.
Yale played Howard University on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, offering symbolism on and off the court. (Courtesy Photo)
College basketball remains a bastion of nepotism, which has seen a revolving door of coaches in major conference where most rehires are White. However, the Ivy League has been in front of giving Black coaches an opportunity to match their X’s and O’s, and it has created an athletic crowd pleasing brand of basketball throughout the league. No matter who wins the league this year, there won’t be any power-5 conference teams that will relish the notion of facing them during the NCAA Tournament in March.
Jones represents the progressive nature of the Ivy League’s hiring practices. He is the winningest coach in school history and joins arch rival Tommy Amaker at Harvard as the faces of the conference on the sidelines these days. In 21 years as leader of the program, he’s won over 300 games, which has earned the respect of his peers around the country who recognize his acumen and the ability to build and market a program to make it relevant. Yale and Harvard currently have the best records in their conference and look to be the favorites to compete down the stretch for the Ivy League championship this season. They also have visited Howard’s Burr Gymnasium and left with victories this year.
In 2014, the Ivy League was the vanguard of diversity with five of the conference’s 10 teams having Black coaches at the helm. Ironically, that coincided with the re-emergence of legitimacy by the league nationwide. During a guest appearance on the TSL Sports Talk podcast at the time, Jones admitted that despite the academic rigors, the advantages of playing college basketball in the Ivy League has lifelong ramifications away from the court.
“This place will set you up for the rest of your life if you want to grab it by the horns and do the work,” Jones said. “You can become anything you want to become after you walk out of the doors in four years.”
The strategy has worked as Jones and Amaker have come into the fertile recruiting area that is the DMV to recruit consummate student-athletes who have returned the conference to honorable status.
It was a historic day because Yale had never played at Howard before, and half of a nearly sold out building were fans of the Bulldogs, and many of them were White. When Dr. King spoke of his dream in 1963, approximately five miles south of where these elite academic institutions met, this game represented a sense of overcoming.
(Writer’s Note: This reporter was host of the TSL Sports Talk podcast at the time of the 2014 interview.)