NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — This weekend at the NCAA Final Four in New Orleans there will be another game that puts the spotlight on the nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The first-ever HBCU All-Star game will be held Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m. at the University of New Orleans’ Lakefront Arena.
“It was a God-driven vision,” said Travis Williams, founder and CEO of the HBCU All-Star Game. “He planted that seed and vision in my heart and look at us now. It is important for our culture for these young men to get the opportunity to be on this stage. And not only that, it’s important for our young folks to get an opportunity to see our guys and let folks know that our HBCUs are first-class organizations.”
The game is the culmination of three years of work for Williams. The All-Star game was originally scheduled to debut at the 2020 Final Four in Atlanta. But COVID-19 canceled the NCAA Tournament. Last year’s tournament in Indianapolis was held under strict protocols, further delaying what Williams and others hope will be an annual event showcasing the top HBCU talent, coaches and programs in the country,
“The goal is to play in the Final Four for NCAA athletes, but only four teams are going to make it,” Tennessee State head coach Brian “Penny” Collins said. “If you have a chance to make that HBCU All-Star game and you know you have a chance to go play at the same place the Final Four is being played, this is a dream come true for them.”
The game will feature two teams made up of the 24 best senior HBCU basketball players in the country. Williams and his staff created a watch list of 60 players and then handed out weekly awards throughout the course of the season. Those honors coupled with a scouting staff helped organizers whittle the list down to 24 for Sunday’s matchup.
One of the players selected is Tennessee State’s Kassim Nicholson. The 6-foot-7 forward averaged more than 11 points and 8 rebounds per game this season and was a seven-time HBCU All-Star of the Week.
“I came to TSU and trusted in Coach Penny and all things turned out for me in a good way,” said Nicholson Wednesday at his hotel in New Orleans. “So I’m blessed and excited to get our here and showcase my talent.”
After a five-year college basketball journey that started with two years at Holmes Community College before he transferred to play two more years at UAB. Nicholson then took advantage of the NCAA’s COVID exemption allowing players an extra year of eligibility to transfer again to play one final season at TSU.
He had a stellar campaign with Big Blue, helping TSU to a 10-win improvement over the 2020-21 season and earning All-OVC recognition. Now he gets one final college game on the Final Four stage.
“I’m really excited,” Nicholson said. “I’m blessed to be here and thankful for the opportunity. It’s special because they could’ve picked somebody else for my spot, but they ended up choosing me.”
The game is also an opportunity for Nicholson, who has signed with an agent and plans on hitting several talent evaluation camps after the game as he tries to pursue his professional basketball dreams, to show off for the hundreds of scouts that will be in New Orleans around the Final Four.
“I’m just going to play hard, run the court, do what I do best. I ain’t going to try to overly complicate it, get out there and do things I’m not comfortable doing. I’m just going to play my game," he said.
That was part of the goal for Williams and the event’s other organizers. To give these standout players a proper showcase to give them a leg up on the next step in life, whether that be on the court or off of it.
“It puts them in a position to pursue some of their professional goals, dreams and aspirations that they wouldn’t otherwise get,” Williams said. “We’re actually having a Pro Day combine ahead of the All-Star Game, and not only that there’s a lot of community outreach, missions, financial literacy, and we’ve got Reveal Suits making them custom suits to help them in their career transition.”
Like Nicholson, Williams also has a tie to TSU. He coached for the Tigers, first as an assistant and then as the head coach from 2012-14. In an effort to pay homage to the great history of HBCU basketball, Sunday’s teams are named after two Black basketball pioneers in McClendon and Clarence “Big House” Gaines.
McClendon was a legendary coach that had a stop at what was then known as Tennessee A&I, where he won three consecutive NAIA national championships in the late 1950s. His trailblazing teams were known for their faster tempo, a trait that helped change the way the game is played even today.
“John McClendon is a pioneer of basketball,” Collins said. “He learned the game from the inventor of the game, James Naismith. The history breaking records that he set. He’s just a special coach. White, Black, Latino – no matter what color you are – we all strive to be like John McClendon. For his name to be a part of this HBCU All-Star game this weekend, it’s great for the game of basketball, it’s great for Tennessee State and it’s great for Nashville.”
For Collins, who just finished his third season on the bench at TSU, having HBCU basketball highlighted at the Final Four with one of his star players in the game and the name of the school’s most accomplished head coach on one team’s jerseys is an enormous opportunity to raise the awareness of the history and potential of the Tigers’ program.
Collins points to the bump in recruiting TSU got after former Tigers’ star Robert Covington was selected to the NBA All-Star Game as evidence of what the added exposure can provide.
“We literally had players tell me that they wanted to come visit Tennessee State after seeing Rob in the All-Star Game, wearing his Tennessee State jersey,” Collins said. “So this All-Star game is going to do that once again, creating that sparkle, and letting kids know you don’t have to do it at a Power five school. You can do it at an HBCU, too.”
That’s the type of growth the organizers hope this first All-Star Game can facilitate, by highlighting the excellence of HBCU basketball past and present during college basketball’s biggest weekend.
“Any time we can be talking about the rich history and tradition of our HBCUs like we’re doing now, that is a win,” Williams said.