How Mike Brey, Notre Dame Basketball And Howard Plan To Make 2021 Martin Luther King Jr. Day Game Go Beyond Basketball
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How Notre Dame, Howard Plan To Make 2021 MLK Day Game Go Beyond Basketball

The idea originated years ago as a simple favor Mike Brey does for his former assistants and players who become head coaches.

Hire them, Brey tells athletics directors considering hiring members of his coaching tree, and Notre Dame will give you a home-and-home basketball series. Notre Dame, then, was all but officially going to play a road game at Howard University when it hired former Brey assistant at Delaware and former Brey player at Duke Kenny Blakeney on May 6, 2019.

What started as Brey throwing Blakeney and a bone, though, has turned into much more in the 13 months since.

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Notre Dame men’s basketball coach Mike Brey
Mike Brey and former assistant Kenny Blakeney are teaming up to make their teams’ January meeting more than a one-day deal. (Associated Press)

Notre Dame will play at Howard’s Burr Gymnasium in Washington, D.C., as part of the agreement, but this game now carries heightened meaning beyond a gesture of goodwill for a mid-major school. The teams will meet on Jan. 18, 2021 — Martin Luther King Jr. Day — in a game where both teams hope the impact goes beyond one day. Both coaches hope the two hours spent on the court are not the only lasting memory.

Brey even broke a long-standing personal scheduling quirk to make it possible. Normally, his policy is to schedule zero out-of-conference games after December. Then the last few weeks happened, and he decided a long-standing personal preference would not stamp out a chance to do something impactful.

“I’m not sure I want to play a game in the middle of a grueling ACC from January 1 through March 10 on the road against a non-league opponent,” Brey said Monday on the College Hoops Today Podcast. “After watching our country the last three weeks and what has happened, listening to our players, I called Kenny and said we need to play that game on MLK day. I think we can do some powerful things around it.”

The first off-court part is imminent. Both teams are partnering with the non-profit When We All Vote, founded by former First Lady Michelle Obama with the help of NBA point guard Chris Paul, in an effort to get more people to vote on Election Day.

“Starting this week on social media, our players and the Howard players are going to get out and really work on — especially young people — making sure they’re registered for our Nov. 3 election,” Brey said. “There are a lot of things we can do around this day other than basketball.

“Don’t talk a big game and then not show up at the polls on Nov. 3. We felt we had to put our money where our mouth is and take some steps. … We really have to get behind that. if it wasn’t for this damn pandemic, we’d all be on campus and could get into the community a little bit more. But we’re going to have to do it on social media right now with our players and staff. I’m hoping when we get back, we can do some front-lines stuff here in South Bend.”

The election ends more than two months before the game, but Brey and Blakeney are not planning for their communal contributions to end Nov. 3. If Notre Dame comes to the D.C. area for the weekend, opportunities to do something before the game with both teams would be plentiful. The ideas are already spinning.

“I think we need to turn the next initiative into some kind of outreach to the police, to see if we can be some kind of peacemaker or communicator in between the police and the community,” Brey said. “Kenny thought that would be the next good initiative to work on and think about with the D.C. police by the time Jan. 18 comes up. This is bigger than both of us. We need to be there and do the game.”

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Notre Dame will be the first high-major team play at Howard since Oregon State in November 2010 and the first ever ACC opponent to play the Bison in a road game. Brey said it’s possible Fox Sports 1 broadcasts the game, with Howard alum Gus Johnson on the call.

Brey held a Zoom call with all his players a few days after the death of George Floyd. He was admittedly anxious, not sure what to expect his players to say or how they might feel. Six of Notre Dame’s 12 players are white. Six are black. Brey was ready for anything, but unsure of how he might respond to varying emotions and topics that came out during the call.

“I didn’t know what they wanted to talk about, what they wanted to express, if it would be anger,” Brey said. “We got a little bit of everything, from both the black players and white players. Cormac Ryan was really powerful in saying, ‘I’m embarrassed. I don’t know what to say to my black teammates in all of this.’ The one thing I wanted to reiterate was to express yourself.”

With the initiatives the come from this game, they’ll get a chance.

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