Men's Basketball: Important that Notre Dame makes rare appearance at HBCU Howard

Tom Noie
ND Insider
Notre Dame guard Prentiss Hubb gets to play a college basketball game Monday close to home, but this one means more than just seeing family and friends in the arena stands.

The first time — the only time — Notre Dame senior guard/captain Prentiss Hubb returned home to Maryland for a college basketball game, it was all about a chance for his family and friends to see him play. 

That was in December 2019, Hubb’s sophomore season at Notre Dame when the Irish traveled to College Park, Md., a short haul around the Capital Beltway from Hubb’s home in Upper Marlboro, to face Maryland in a Big Ten/ACC challenge contest. Hubb scored 13 points with five rebounds, three assists and three blocks in a 72-51 loss. 

The second time — maybe the final time — Hubb returns to the area known by locals as the DMV (D.C., Maryland, Virginia), for a college basketball game, it will be about far more than family and friends. 

For Hubb, for members of the Irish men’s basketball team, Monday is about playing basketball, yes, but also about honoring someone they never knew, someone they never met, someone they only know about through history books and from what others who were around when the man was alive say about him. 

A basketball game is scheduled between Notre Dame and Howard at Burr Gymnasium. It will be nationally televised by Fox Sports. The teams will make shots and score points and play defense and grab rebounds. Play-by-play announcer Gus Johnson may lose his mind once or twice. At the end of 40 minutes, one team will feel good, another won’t. But this game, this day, isn’t so much about what team wins or what team loses or what team plays well or what team doesn’t.

It's about the day itself — Martin Luther King, Jr., Day — and the man who offered hope today for a better tomorrow. That’s why Notre Dame is in the nation’s capital on a national holiday. To play basketball? Sure. But to offer thanks on a special day. 

“It honors everything that Martin Luther King did for African-Americans,” said Hubb. “He’s an inspiration. He’s someone who allows you to believe that there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel.” 

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Notre Dame's Prentiss Hubb (3) during an NCAA college basketball game against Clemson on Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Robert Franklin)

On Monday, Hubb will wake in his downtown D.C. hotel room and do what he often does on this day — read a quote or two from Dr. King and let his message marinate. 

Let it inspire him. Let it humble him. 

► "Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that." 

► "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly." 

► "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy." 

Seeing those words, reading those words, allows Hubb to remember that if it wasn’t for Martin Luther King and his convictions, he might not have the chance to do what he does today. Where he does it today. How he does it today. 

“He did things,” Hubb said, “for generations to come that he never got to see.” 

Despite having played high school basketball in the city nearby at Gonzaga College High School, Hubb has never been to Burr Gymnasium. One of the few Irish that have — maybe the only Irish — is graduate student power forward Paul Atkinson, Jr. When he was at Yale, the Bulldogs played at Howard on Jan,. 20, 2020 — MLK Day. 

It was Atkinson’s first trip to Howard, and one of his first visits to Washington, but the power he felt being on that campus, being in that city, was way more meaningful than the 21 points he scored or the seven rebounds he grabbed or the 89-75 Yale win. 

This isn’t another basketball road trip of bus, hotel, gym, plane that Atkinson might otherwise take for granted. 

“It’s a really important moment, visiting an HBCU (historical black college/university) when you go to an historically white college,” Atkinson said. “It’s an opportunity to see a different environment. It feels comfortable and feels special.” 

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Notre Dame coach Mike Brey understands that Monday's non-conference game at Howard is bigger than basketball.

How did this game come to be?

It also feels right to do it on the day Notre Dame will do it. Given the saturated schedule — Notre Dame lost an Atlantic Coast Conference game 270 miles down the road Saturday to Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., — and the tight itinerary to prepare for Monday’s game, the Irish weren’t expected to get much free time to explore all Washington offers. 

You need a few full days there just to begin to comprehend what everything in the city means — the monuments, the museums, the history. The Irish might get an hour. But just being there on this day carries some weight. 

Atkinson will take a few moments Monday to reflect on being in the city, on playing on MLK Day, on Martin Luther King, Jr. 

“He was someone who spoke up for what we all thought,” Atkinson said. “He was helpful in the movement of African Americans at a time when we didn’t have a lot of right and a lot of power. He spoke for us in a way where we got out point across without being aggressive. 

“He was an awesome man.” 

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Monday’s matchup has been in the works since Howard played at Notre Dame early in the 2019-20 season. A rare return trip by the Irish was scheduled for January 2021 — and coincide with Inauguration Day two days later. That game was canceled because of coronavirus issues with the Howard program.

This game likely wouldn’t have ever happened had Notre Dame coach Mike Brey stayed with his previous scheduling belief of never stepping outside of conference play for any reason. 

Brey drew that line in the scheduling sand 13 seasons ago when Notre Dame was mired in a Big East losing streak that had hit five straight. Wedged into that league schedule was a trip to Los Angeles to play rival UCLA. Maybe, Brey thought, a chance to step out of league play would do his team good. Get them refreshed. Get them refocused. Get them back on track. 

Notre Dame then lost by 26 points at Pauley Pavilion. Afterward, in a high-anxiety/low-tolerance locker room, Brey pledged never again to stray from the league schedule in January or February. 

Kenny Blakeney then got the head coaching job at Howard. Like Brey, Blakeney played for legendary coach Morgan Wootten at nearby DeMatha (Md.) Catholic High School. Brey recruited Blakeney to play at Duke. Blakeney later served on Brey’s coaching staff at Delaware. Like many players he’s coached, Brey considers Blakeney a son. If he had another son who played basketball, he’d want him to play for Blakeney. 

Blakeney first floated the idea of playing a home-and-home with Notre Dame when he was hired in 2019. Brey helped facilitate the idea of playing this game on this day, in their city. 

Notre Dame is the first Power Five school to play at Burr Gymnasium (capacity 2,700) since Oregon State in 2010. 

“It’s an honor to be on an HBCU campus, a prestigious university and in that setting,” Brey said. “It’s an unbelievable message for our university to be there.” 

On a day honoring Martin Luther King, Jr., Notre Dame also will respect former Black players who have played for the program. The Irish — and Brey — will wear shooting shirts during warmups with numbers of former Black players on the back. 

Hubb has No. 34 for Irish legend and fellow D.C. native Austin Carr. Atkinson chose the No. 44 of another D.C. native, Adrian Dantley. Brey will don No. 53 in honor of the late Bob Whitmore, also a DeMatha grad and fellow D.C. guy. 

That’s the kind of day it is. It’s about more than basketball. 

“There’s some really good, powerful stuff,” Brey said. “I’m worried about the game (but) the overall message of the thing, there’s some really cool stuff for our kids and our university on a really special day.” 

Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI