NEW YORK — “I never thought I’d be in this building” murmured Mackai Hill, a student from Morgan State University as he rode in the elevator at the NBA’s league office in Manhattan. So just how did he get here?
In October, the NBA and NBA Foundation announced new programs designed to create greater opportunity for undergraduate and graduate students from Historically Black College and Universities (HBCU). Hill was one of 60 applicants to be selected for the inaugural HBCU Fellowship program.
Those accepted grabbed those spots in a very competitive process that included more than 2,700 applicants. Those in the program would be placed into a paid, 10-week summer internship dealing with the business side of basketball. The students will go on to work in different positions within the league office or directly with an NBA or WNBA franchise. Each of the selected students will also be matched with a league or team employee mentor.
The students went through a two-day orientation that included a message from NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, team-bonding exercises, panel discussions from current and former NBA players, getting professional headshots done and so much more.
Amongst the students, an air of jubilation and the sight of many ear-to-ear smiles showed the excitement in the air was magical. Young, eager and ready for the challenges ahead, these students are now in the league — a dream many kids have when they first dribble a basketball at a young age.
This feeling of excitement was shared by the NBA x HBCU Fellowship directors. While it took hard work to get to this point, it was also just the beginning of their professional experiences.
When speaking to the students, Greg Taylor, Executive Director of the NBA Foundation, reminded them of that.
“In a room full of excellence, how do you separate yourself? You made it out of 2,700 applications, congratulate yourself, celebrate, but it’s time to work hard,” he said. “Now is just the beginning of your journey.”
The students also heard from Oris Stuart, the NBA’s Chief People & Inclusion Officer, who said:
“I’m proud to welcome the first HBCU Fellowship class, thousands of applicants, a truly competitive process, but you made it,” Stuart said. “We found the best talent we could help us grow our game, grow our business, and help us be a different organization in the future.”
The excitement throughout the day continued and featured a star-studded panel discussion. The panel, led by the NBA Foundation’s Lauren Sills, consisted of Dr. Valerie Daniels-Carter, Dr. Harry Williams, former NBA player Kyle O’Quinn (HBCU grad), current LA Clippers forward Robert Covington (HBCU grad) and NBPA President/Pelicans guard CJ McCollum. They spoke to the students on everything from personal experiences, how to navigate life in NBA circles, the importance of remembering their unique HBCU background while also fielding questions from those who were once in their shoes.
NBA.com spoke with CJ McCollum and Kyle O’Quinn about being at the NBA X HBCU Fellowship orientation.
(Editor’s note: The following conversation has been condensed and edited.)
NBA.com: As the National Basketball Players Association President, how important was it for you to be here today and speak to this inaugural HBCU Fellowship class?
CJ McCollum: It was very important for me to come speak and see some of the youth – to get an understanding of what they want to accomplish. I’m thankful for the partnership the NBA has with the HBCUs and how we can inspire, but also provide them with internship opportunities. One of our goals is to be extending resources they normally may not have.
You mentioned during the panel discussion that breakthroughs come from uncomfortable situations, how can these students navigate these new and unfamiliar situations?
It’s very important for these young men and women to be put in rooms that they wouldn’t normally be put in, to be uncomfortable — that creates more opportunities to grow. To go to different markets they haven’t been to before — it better positions them for success down the road, it better equips them to take these skills back to their HBCUs and have a résumé builder they can use and lean on going forward.
Kyle, as a Norfolk State graduate who played nine seasons in the NBA, how did you see yourself amongst the students in the crowd today?
Kyle O’Quinn: Seeing those kids today, it made me really flashback to 11, 12 years ago. It was like, man, I don’t know what my future is going to look like — but I just want to put myself in a good situation to have the best chance to get a good opportunity. It was nice seeing these young men and women take that first step today into the professional world.
You spoke to the students today about how you knew you’d be successful regardless of basketball, how did your HBCU set you up with that confidence?
Being able to find my independence at an HBCU, it just prepares you for so much more than just being a student. The community supports you very well … I knew it was no way I couldn’t make these people proud in whatever I decided to do after my time at Norfolk State.
NBA.com also spoke to some of the students about being selected for the HBCU Fellowship Program and what they hope to gain from their experience.
NBA.com: Tell me how it felt to be one of the sixty applicants selected?
Mackai Hill (Morgan State University): I couldn’t believe it, I’ve never been picked for something like this before. I was working at a supermarket a year ago thinking I’ll be there until I’m 55, this is a dream I had, it turned from imagination to tangible, I’m here. (Hill will be interning with the Indiana Pacers and rotating through various departments.)
How has the experience been so far & what do you hope to gain from your 10-week internship?
Jevone Barrett (Central State University): My experience today was awesome, it feels surreal right now. From the internship I want to learn more about the NBA and its opportunities, I want to gain the most by connecting with my relationships in Cleveland. (Barrett will be interning with the Cavaliers in their Information & Technology department.)
These 60 students are representing the NBA, their universities, the organizations they work for and, most importantly, themselves. The inaugural class of the NBA X HBCU Fellowship Program are trailblazers who will be known for setting the standard for future classes to follow.