A conversation with Howard basketballer Jelani Williams

Courtesy of Sareyah Rudd, MJFC major, c/o ‘2, Howard University

Howard University Department of Athletics rolls on with another senior spotlight grad edition with rising senior journalism major Sareyah Rudd chatting with Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) Champion Jelani Williams (Washington) from the men’s basketball team.

Q: When did you first become interested in basketball?
A: I have had a love for basketball as long as I can remember, but one of my favorite pictures I have from my childhood is of my Uncle David putting a nerf basketball in my hand and teaching me how to shoot. He always brags about being the first person to put a basketball in my hand (lol). In terms of actually playing, I started playing organized basketball for the first time when I was seven years old.

Q: How has playing basketball impacted your life?
A: Basketball saved my life, that is how much the sport impacted my life. Growing up in the DMV, I have so many friends who did not have the opportunities I had. It has opened doors and created relationships for me that I never would have imagined. I am so grateful for the sport, what it has taught me and how it has shaped the person that I am today.

Q: How did you go about balancing training, academic and social life?
A: Time management is the toughest adjustment for a student-athlete because, for most students, college is the first time you are on your own and you have to manage your own schedule.

My parents, specifically my mom, gave me great advice on how to separate your responsibilities into “buckets,” each of which are aspects of your life that you need. When I start a semester, or a busy week of school, I would lay out everything I need to accomplish and separate them into different categories like sports, school, social and other buckets that I needed to fill. That strategy helped me get through Penn and Howard.

Q: What made you choose Howard for your final years of playing basketball?
A: I chose Howard for my last two years of my college basketball because it felt like home. I went to high school at Sidwell Friends and did my undergraduate degree at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn), two prestigious, predominantly white institutions. While I loved my time there, I wanted to have a different experience for graduate school.

Howard, Kery Davis (Howard Director of Athletics) and Coach Kenneth Blakeney (Howard men’s basketball head coach) welcomed me with open arms and provided exactly what I was looking for.  For me getting an opportunity to revitalize Howard’s basketball program and bring championships to a program that had a 30-plus year drought while being in DC with family was an opportunity that I just couldn’t pass up.

Q: How did playing at Penn differ from playing at Howard?
A: There were a lot of differences between playing at Howard and Penn.

First was the style of play because Howard plays a much faster and freer that allowed me to showcase my full skillset. I would say, however, that the biggest difference for me was the playing environment.

HBCU basketball is one of the most special things I have ever been a part of because playing in a packed Burr Gymnasium, or on the road at Hampton, Morgan State, Norfolk State or North Carolina Central were some of my favorite playing experiences. The school spirit, alumni, bands, cheerleaders and dancers create a unique, exciting atmosphere to play in and always gave me some added motivation, especially on the road.

Q: Who is your favorite athlete and why?
A: My favorite athlete of all-time is the late Kobe Bryant (NBA Hall of Famer) because I grew up watching him. Aside from his all-time skillset and basketball resume, I really admired his work ethic and his resilience.

When I was going through my injuries over the years, I would watch his Muse documentary and studied his approach to rehab, countless injuries and challenges he faced. It made me feel like I was not alone in my process and others that I looked up could relate to my struggle.

Kobe is also just my favorite player ever to watch play the game, so there is that too.

Q: Looking back, what is your fondest memory of playing basketball?
A: Looking back at my time at Howard, my fondest memory was being able to win a championship in my first season and end the 32-year drought. I made the game-winning free throws in the MEAC (Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference) Championship game.

Also, going to March Madness is an experience that I will never forget and will always cherish.

This year was just as special, if not more. Although I was injured the second half of the season, being able to lead the team from the sidelines and accomplish our goal again to return to March Madness was extremely special, especially since I was able to play on the same team as my brother, Elijah Williams(Washington), for the first time in our lives.

Q: What is one important lesson you have learned from your coach?
A: Coach Blakeney taught me so many things, but one of my favorite lessons was how to be relentless. Or even better, accomplishing your goals at the highest level requires a relentless pursuit. Regardless of ups and downs, challenges, successes or failure, the next thing is always coming and you have to respond with a drive that will overpower any outside forces.

Q: Using one word, how do you think your teammates would have described you?
A: There are so many that I am sure they would use, but I would say fiery.

Q: What are your plans post-graduation?
A: My end goal is to be an NBA General Manager, so I am working through finding a way into the league now.

In the meantime, I am working this summer for Blitz Sports Media Group, a subsidiary company of Highland Poe that focuses on sports consulting, brand development and brand partnerships. I am helping develop strategies for the basketball side of the company over the course of the summer.

Q: If you could give a piece of advice to a fellow student-athlete or future Bison, what would it be?
A: My advice would be to explore the campus and create and sustain meaningful relationships because Howard is such a special place to be as a student, let alone a student-athlete. You are surrounded by some of the best and brightest people in the world on The Hilltop, so take advantage, learn and give to others because you never know who you are next to.

About Williams:

  • Personal:
    • Hometown: Washington, D.C.
    • Major: Finance
  • Athletic Achievements at Howard:
    • Team Captain for both of the first ever back-to-back NCAA tournament appearance teams in Howard Basketball history (2022-23 and 2023-24)
    • 2022-23 All-MEAC Third Team
    • 2023-24 Preseason All-MEAC First Team
    • 2022-23 Howard Athletics Perseverance Award
    • All-Access Net HBCU Player of the Week- Feb. 14, 2023

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