PHOENIX — The Arizona State women’s basketball team was scheduled to play Grambling State in 2020 before travel restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic forced the game to be canceled, according to GSU coach Freddie Murray.
Two years later the schools had the opportunity to play against each other. This time, however, it came out of a unique partnership between the Pac-12 conference and the Southwestern Athletic Conference, a league of historically black colleges and universities built on educational experiences for athletes.
The collaboration led to the formation of the Pac-12/SWAC Legacy Series. Announced in September 2021, the series aims to provide athletes with information on social justice issues and provide a platform for competition between the two conferences.
Each men’s and women’s basketball program at the Pac-12 will compete in a home-and-home series as part of the four-year partnership, beginning this season. The men’s and women’s basketball programs at ASU and Arizona were all selected to participate in the series’ first biennial cycle.
The ASU women’s basketball team hosted Grambling State last Friday as part of the series, defeating the Tigers 62-49. Although the Pac-12 has yet to officially announce the timing, the Sun Devils will eventually travel to Grambling State to complete the home-and-home series.
Murray, who graduated from Jackson State in 1990, said it’s important to understand the historical context of HBCUs.
“What a lot of people don’t know is that HBCU was actually derived from African Americans who weren’t able to actually go to American schools, where they practically had to start their own schools,” he told Cronkite News.
Murray, who has risen through the coaching ranks at several HBCUs, added that HBCUs “have always been ahead of many of the social issues that plague our society, and we’ve dealt with them for over 100 years. ”
For many SWAC programs, the Legacy Series offers either rare or first-time opportunities to host schools of a power conference. The originally scheduled 2020 meeting between ASU and GSU was set up as a guarantee game, Murray said.
Guarantee games give less affluent programs an opportunity to make money while traveling to play against bigger schools, usually from a Power Five conference like the Pac-12.
This game felt very different than a typical guarantee game, beginning with both teams having dinner together Wednesday night after the Tigers arrived in Arizona.
“Most teams usually show up the next day, practice and compete,” Murray said of a typical road trip. “It was great to have a day off to do something and a day in between to play the game.”
Murray appreciated the opportunity to educate ASU players and officials about HBCUs.
“At the end of the day we’re all in this together, whether we’re black, whether we’re white, whether we’re Chinese or whatever race it is, we’re all in this together,” Murray said. “But HBCUs have always been at the forefront of many social justice or social issues that have plagued this society.”
The dinner was also an opportunity for him to meet with ASU women’s coach Natasha Adair, as the two had become friends over the years training against each other.
Adair, whose son attended HBCU Johnson C. Smith University, said before the game she was excited to “merge just two teams, two experiences. It’s just a great opportunity for us to learn, grow and then just grow together as a unit.”
Adair has long advocated for social justice issues. Ahead of the Nov. 8 election, she posted on social media, encouraging everyone to get out and vote.
— Natasha Adair (@CoachAdair) November 8, 2022
“These are rights that we haven’t been able to have (have) for so long and our young people … have such a strong voice,” Adair said. “(I) just really encourage our players to use their voice and their platform because what laws that are being passed now will affect them more than anything else.
“And so we want to make sure that we’re educating them, empowering them and giving them the opportunity to exercise their voice and just make an impact and make a difference.”
In the summer of 2020, while Adair was training in Delaware, she spoke to her team and together they decided to send letters to mayors across the state to advocate for change. They “produced a document calling for, among other things, more thorough psychological assessments in hiring police officers, a ban on chokeholds and the type of restraint that killed (George) Floyd, and funding for body cameras for officers,” according to a team release.
The entire team signed the letter and Adair forwarded it to Chrissi Rawak, Director of Intercollegiate Athletics and Recreation Services, who tasked Gino Gradkowski, Assistant Director for Student Services Leadership, with ensuring the letter was received by the Government and community of UD arrived team.”
The women’s basketball team then joined forces with Delaware soccer, volleyball and swimmers and divers and advocated their cause in a face-to-face meeting with Delaware Attorney General Kathy Jennings and was joined via Zoom by Gov. John Carney from Delaware.
“The next day, Carney signed Executive Order No. 41, which bans the use of chokeholds by Delaware law enforcement agencies, increases community engagement, requires additional de-escalation and implicit bias training, and increases the availability of crisis intervention services to law enforcement officers. The Delaware General Assembly passed legislation banning strangleholds on the same day,” the release said.
Adair, looking back on her earlier advocacy, recognized the importance of the Legacy series after the November 11 matchup.
“It represents more than just basketball, (coaches) have a responsibility, especially on this big stage, to make sure we don’t just coach them on the court,” Adair said. “We coach them and prepare them for life and they will be able to grow as women and be empowered to advocate for things they are passionate about and things that bring about change in society affect society. So, I think it’s really needed and (I’m) just grateful to be part of the conference that (also) thought like that.”
ASU Junior Guard Tyi Skinner added, “Obviously we don’t go to an HBCU, we go to a PWI (predominantly white institution), (but) we’re still young black women, and it’s important to know those things in life . That’s why I think the cooperation is great because it’s about more than just on the pitch, off the pitch.”
Before Arizona men’s basketball hosted Southern for its Legacy Series game on Nov. 11, Southern alumnus Brandi James spoke to the Wildcats to educate them about HBCUs.
“It was really special because I didn’t even know it existed,” said Kerr Kriisa, a junior point guard from Estonia. “I got smarter, our team got a lot smarter. It’s pretty impressive and super cool. It was fun to be part of this game and I will remember this game for sure.”
We were honored to have Brandi James speak to our team after practice yesterday.
— Arizona Basketball (@ArizonaMBB) November 12, 2022
Arizona men’s coach Tommy Lloyd expressed appreciation and respect for the SWAC schools after the Wildcats defeated the Jaguars.
“These programs have long faced adversities in the business landscape of the Division I basketball business,” Lloyd said. “I mean, obviously they’re probably not as well funded as programs like ours, and they have to go out and play all these street games. … But the cool thing for them is, next year they’re taking us back there in the second game of the year. So, I think it’s probably going to have a little bit more meaning and impact if we can go back there and have that full experience. And we look forward to it.”
When Arizona travels to Southern next season, it will be Southern’s first home basketball game against a Pac-12 school.
“I was lucky enough to have a home game on this deal this year,” Lloyd said. “But next year the shoe is on the other foot, so we have to respond (and) respond to the bell.”
Arizona women’s basketball will play their Legacy Series game at home against Texas Southern on December 14th.
The Arizona State men’s team, meanwhile, has played away this season. ASU lost to Texas Southern in overtime on November 13. The game marked the first time Texas Southern had hosted a Pac-12 school in 29 years.
Murray hopes that partnerships similar to the Pac-12 and current SWAC will be formed in the future.
“To be able to bring two major conferences together, I think it was a monumental opportunity to be the first to do so and hopefully others will follow,” Murray said.