This weekend, Duke and Howard will co-host the Mako Medical Duke Classic honoring Dr. Onye E. Akwari, the first African American surgeon on Duke’s faculty, who died in April 2019.
The Blue Devils will take on Bellarmine Friday at 7 p.m. to tip off the event, while Howard will also battle Bellarmine Sunday at 6 p.m. (Both teams were also scheduled to play Elon, but those matchups were recently postponed due to COVID-19 issues within the Phoenix program).
The Chronicle spoke with Howard head coach Kenny Blakeney—who played at Duke from 1991-95 for head coach Mike Krzyzewski and served as a team captain his senior year—over the phone in mid-November to discuss how the Mako Medical Duke Classic came to be, how Blakeney stays in touch with some of his former teammates, his reaction while on the bench during The Shot and more.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Chronicle: Could you talk a little bit about how the [Mako Medical Duke Classic] was set up between the two programs?
Kenny Blakeney: Well I knew Dr. Akwari when I was at Duke. He was certainly a presence around our program and a mentor and an influence with not only African American players but just players in general. He had an incredibly warm and genuine spirit about himself. Thinking about him right now, I'm looking at his face and just imagining his smile because it was so warm and it was just something that really connected you with who he is as a person and his spirit. So I reached out to Coach K when I heard that there was a possibility of him doing an MTE, or multi-team event, and wanted to be a part of it. At the time I did not know what it was. But quite honestly, anything that I can do to be a part of what's going on down at Duke and their men's basketball program or the university, I'm always trying to reach out….
I have [1993 Duke captain] Thomas Hill as my director of basketball operations and [2014 Duke captain] Tyler Thornton who is one of my assistant coaches [at Howard]. And my agent, Carmen Wallace, is a  Duke grad. So I am entrenched around me with The Brotherhood. I know those guys, I know the battles that they've gone through, I know the training and the lessons that they've learned. And I try to surround myself with like-minded people that I know would have my back. I know they understand the vision that we're trying to build here at Howard University.
TC: One question that naturally came up after the MTE was announced was why, even though you guys are co-hosting the event, Duke and Howard aren’t playing each other, especially since playing Duke could’ve been great exposure for Howard as well as for HBCUs in general.
So could you talk about the specifics into why you guys are involved but not playing each other?
KB: Yeah, I think at the end of the day, right now with COVID and the way that everything is shaping up, we wanted to try to really limit the footprints of a lot of teams in our gyms. And that's something that Coach K talked about and that's something that at Howard we talk about as well. We want to get our games, we want to try to be as safe as possible. First and foremost the thing that we are really looking for is our students’ health and well being. It's a very challenging time right now, and it’s incredibly tough on our student-athletes, and I think they have responded and done an incredible job.
Speaking for my program, we haven't had any positive [COVID-19] tests [as of Nov. 11]. Our athletic director, Mr. Kerry Davis, and our President, Dr. Wayne Frederick, have given us an opportunity to try to make the best of this season. And our young men have really accepted the challenge and the responsibility of doing everything in their power to make this season go to the best of their ability.
TC: Duke as a program has been very involved with social activism over the past couple of months and throughout the summer. What does it mean to you to see Duke so involved with all of that?
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KB: Yeah, it's really neat to see Coach K’s passion and his integrity for these issues that are currently plaguing our nation. Him being front and center, and wanting to lend his voice to the social injustice that is taking place is tremendous. Nolan [Smith’s] efforts, and I've worked with Nolan on a couple of things—he’s been really helpful and genuine and authentic with the social causes and the social justice mission that he's been spearheading along with Coach K at Duke. So it's been awesome to see.
TC: A big event that happened with your program over the summer was the commitment of Makur Maker. What does it mean to your program as well as HBCUs in general to have a guy of that caliber—a five-star recruit—commit to Howard?
KB: I think it's been tremendous because it's brought so much awareness to HBCUs [and] to Howard University. I don't know when the last time that, if ever, a young man in Makur Maker’s ranking has ever probably considered an HBCU and then actually had the shoulders wide enough, strong enough to follow up and follow through with it. So it really means a lot. If you look at some of the raw facts and data that surrounds his commitment and subsequently enrolling in school and being on campus—if you look at his social media numbers, he had over 1 billion social media impressions, and Howard University has been linked arm in arm with those social media impressions. And for him, that equates to about four to four and a half million dollars of marketing exposure along with the university.
One of the things I saw with the success of our program at Duke University in the early 90s, when we were being part of back-to-back national championships—with admissions, you get more people applying to your university. And with that, you get higher applicants in terms of people with higher GPAs and SAT or ACT scores, which in turn probably affects your national ranking a little bit. There's more energy around the university bookstore and the university's brand. So when you're talking about royalties, certainly the university begins to capitalize in situations like that, with T-Shirt sales or whatever those items are that are being sold at bookstores.
You get more TV exposure with a young man like Makur Maker. I think that most of our games, if not all, will be on some form of an ESPN channel. And then lastly, you have more sponsorships and partnerships that want to be associated with your program and your brand. So it is a tremendous opportunity that we have with Makur committing and signing with our university.
TC: Next, you’ve been a part of a lot of different coaching staffs over your career with fellow Duke alumni. Can you talk a little bit about that Coach K coaching tree, and what that shows about the program?
KB: Yeah, I've been very lucky. My first connection is with [former Duke assistant coach, former Delaware head coach and current Notre Dame head coach] Mike Brey. We go back to our days at DeMatha [High School] when he was a history teacher and I was a freshman at DeMatha and got to know him. And then he and [1997 Duke captain, former Duke assistant coach and current Harvard head coach Tommy] Amaker were the point people in my recruitment [to Duke]. I had Coach Brey and Coach Amaker both as assistant coaches during my time at Duke, and both of those guys were mentors to me and great guys for me to look up to just to understand what being a man is, quite honestly.
Having a chance to work with Coach Brey [at Delaware]—we were part of two championships there in the America East [Conference] and one runner-up, so two NCAA [tournament] berths and one NIT berth there. And I came back [to Delaware] a couple years later, worked with [1986 Duke captain and former Duke assistant coach/Delaware head coach] David Henderson. Dave is also a guy that I’m very close with and a mentor of mine…. And then fast forward, working with Tommy was probably one of the most unique and special opportunities in my life. For me to see a Black man conduct himself in the way that he did every day at a university like Harvard was inspiring, and it was something that I really cherished and valued.
TC: You left coaching in 2011 to work in Under Armour’s marketing division. Can you talk a little bit about that decision and what you learned in your seven years outside of coaching?
KB: Well I left in 2011 because I started a company called Sportin’ Styles, and that was actually before Under Armour. I started a sports fashion line of accessories. And we [worked with] the NHL, the NBA, Major League Soccer, NASCAR. We did stuff for the Dave Matthews Band, the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and Hockey Fights Cancer for the eight years that I was away from the game. I started working with Under Armour in —one of my childhood best friends Nick Blatchford was head of grassroots at Under Armour in their basketball sports marketing division, and he said, ‘Hey man, I know you're away from the game, but you have some incredible experience, you understand and know this, and will you come be a part of what we're trying to get done?’
I didn't have any ambition of getting back involved in basketball at that point in time, but being around the game, one of my main responsibilities was I was their talent evaluator. So I wrote over 1,000 evaluations of players every summer, which led to me kind of having an appetite to get back into the game a little bit. So being at Under Armour, and being part of their basketball and sports marketing wing, had a huge influence in me getting back into the game.
TC: Last thing—you were redshirting that year so you didn’t play, but one of the most special teams in Duke history is that 1991-92 team, and one of the most iconic moments in college basketball history is [Christian Laettner’s shot to beat Kentucky in the 1992 Elite Eight].
I’m assuming you were on the Duke bench during that play, so I was just curious what your reaction and feelings were during that moment?
KB: It was shock—it was complete shock at that moment because [Kentucky guard] Sean Woods had come down the possession before and made a floater that improbably went off the glass and went in. When you're playing in a game, and I don't remember how many possessions the game had gone back and forth—it was like a heavyweight fight where two guys are just standing in the middle of the ring and they're just throwing haymakers at one another. And for it to culminate with a shot—a pass that goes 70 feet, from one baseline to the other free-throw line, and for a guy to fake one way, put it on the deck, turn and shoot and score as time is expiring for a chance to go to the Final Four. I mean, what’s a better feeling than that? So it was complete joy and just complete bliss at that point in time.
TC: Actual last question—outside of the people that you’ve worked with, do you stay in touch with some of your former teammates? Are there any reunions, or how do you guys stay in touch from your playing years?
KB: It's normal, man. Like just last night, I’m texting with Grant Hill and all of a sudden he hops in his car, picks up the phone and gives me a call. I see Thomas Hill, he’s one of my best friends for the last 30 years, I see him every day. I talk to Laettner, I talk to all my teammates. I see Bobby Hurley a lot more during summer, but obviously with his season and everything like that we're not talking as much. I'm in constant contact with Jeff Capel. I did a lot of studying this summer with Antonio Lang. I speak periodically with Cherokee Parks and Marty Clark, guys that I love and adore. So we're all in touch in one way or another. I mean, Ron Burt was a walk-on on the 1992 team, he’s a guy that I stay in contact with as well. Todd Singleton, with some of the work that he's done behind the scenes [with] The Brotherhood, is a guy that has been in contact, he's another walk-on.
So we're all in touch in one form or another. Certainly with some guys that are in the business of basketball with [Steve Wojciechowski] and Chris Collins are guys that I constantly see on the road and guys that I may pick up the phone to ask their advice or just check on to see how they're doing. So, yeah man—The Brotherhood is real. And what makes it real is that guys that have gone through the Duke program and have similar experiences—when you look to your left and you look to your right, you got a guy that has been in the trenches with you, and it's authentic and real. Those things really stand the test of time.