HBCU All-Star Game shines spotlight on Black excellence during Final Four weekend

Bethune-Cookman’s Dhashon Dyson, center, was named MVP after scoring 19 points at the third annual HBCU All-Star Game in Phoenix. (Screen grab courtesy of Cameron Palmer/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Rick Mahorn, who played 18 seasons in the NBA and won a league championship with the 1988-89 Detroit Pistons, established his college basketball roots at Hampton University, a Historically Black College and University in Hampton, Virginia.

So Mahorn knows better than most about the progress of HBCU sports over decades, and he saw it on display from the sidelines Sunday when he was one of two NBA legends coaching some of the best HBCU basketball players in the country at the third annual HBCU All-Star Game at Grand Canyon University’s Global Credit Union Arena.

Ben Wallace – also a former Piston who played college basketball at another HBCU, Virginia Union University – coached the opposing All-Star team.

There was “nothing like this,” Mahorn said, when he starred at Hampton from 1976-1980. Thanks to the vision of Travis Williams, the CEO and founder of the HBCU All-Star Game, “this wouldn’t be possible,” Mahorn added.

A packed house at Global Credit Union Arena included HBCU alumni and fraternity members who came to see the best players from the four Historically Black Athletic Conferences (SWAC, MEAC, CIAA, SIAC) compete as part of the festivities surrounding the 2024 NCAA Men’s Final Four.

The seniors represented schools such as Hampton, Tennessee State and Albany State, among other HBCU schools, with key players Jordan Simpson (Albany State University), Fred Cleveland Jr. (North Carolina Central University) and Brandon Henry (Southern University) serving as the must-see names.

“It’s an event that brings our culture here … the vision that Travis has really given an opportunity to a lot of young men to play ball somewhere out of the country and shine a light on their school,” said Tommy Blackshear, a former coach of Williams who also helps contribute to the event’s success.

Often going unnoticed, HBCUs have been instrumental in providing education for African Americans. The southern part of the United States is home to most of these institutions, which have existed for more than a century. Currently, there are 107 HBCUs serving over 226,000 students in the United States.

The growth of HBCU sports gained momentum in recent years, picking up steam in September 2020 when NFL Hall of Famer and current University of Colorado coach Deion Sanders became the coach at Jackson State University. Since then, exposure of HBCUs in mainstream sports conversations has been on the rise.

(Video by Cameron Palmer/Cronkite News)

Williams founded the All-Star Game with a focus on mentorship and education for Black college athletes. Previously coaching at Tennessee State and Fort Valley State, he was inspired by the void for HBCU players to showcase their skills, as opposed to Black players at Division I schools who regularly receive national attention.

Williams founded the HBCU All-Stars, the company that runs the annual showcase, in 2020, and the first All-Star Game tipped off in 2022 in New Orleans during Final Four weekend. The trend continued last year in Houston. The Valley marked the latest location before Williams’ attention turns to planning for San Antonio next year.

“The goal is to keep going wherever the Final Four is going,” Williams said. “And you will see the HBCU All-Star Game presence event highlights Black excellence during the Final Four weekends. It has been a long time since we have been appreciated, and we will continue to bring notoriety to all HBCUs.”

The entire event was filled with excitement, with music playing and people dancing from start to finish. The event also served as a vehicle to educate sports fans on the western side of the country, which isn’t home to any HBCUs.

“This was superb for the culture, not only Phoenix but the nation got a chance to see Black Excellence on display,” said Vada Manager, a member of the Arizona State University Board of Trustees. “They saw cheerleaders and student-athletes playing at the highest level.”

The athletes from HBCUs understood the importance of Sunday’s event, diving for loose balls and throwing down highlight dunks to keep the energy high, with NBA scouts in attendance watching their every move.

“It means a lot to be here and having a chance to compete. It’s such an honor,” Simpson said.

Dhashon Dyson (Bethune-Cookman) finished with 19 points to steal the show and earn MVP honors. On top of his performance, cheerleaders battled back and forth, bands played their best renditions and fraternities and sororities were seen stepping throughout the afternoon.

“It means a lot to be called an HBCU athlete and to have a chance to represent and show off my skills in a place where there is no HBCU,” Dyson said. “It’s very important.”

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Jaden Batiest expects to graduate in August 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism.

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Cameron Palmer expects to graduate in December 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Palmer has written for AZPreps365.