URBANA (WCIA) — The Urbana High School basketball team is changing the narrative. This is the first time every senior on the basketball team is going to college, and all of them are African American. While former Tigers Chris Cross and Bryson Tatum will continue their basketball careers at the Division I level, they’re redefining what it means to be a young black athlete.
“Black men are more than what they say we are, we won’t be limited to just playing basketball, and we won’t be limited to being in the streets, we can be other things too,” says Cross.
“It means a lot for us to graduate as young black men, and it shows that academics are just as important as being on the court,” says Tatum.
Cross will head to Southern Illinois in the fall, Tatum will play for Miami of Ohio. They led the Tigers to back-to-back regional championships this year, but are celebrating more off the court. They’re among the five college-bound seniors who combined for a 4.5 GPA. Mykel Neal will also attend SIU while Makhai Smith is heading to Morehouse College, a historically black university.
“We set the standpoint for other black men because in the world we’re looked at upon a different way, like were criminals and stuff like that,” says Smith. “We have to prove ourselves more in the world, and we can encourage the other black kids to do the same.”
“We’re the future, and we’re really going to make a mark on the world, and anybody can do this, it isn’t impossible,” says Neal. “We just wanted to show that it is possible, that African American men can maintain these grades, stay in school, and stay off the streets and just stay really focused an locked in.”
Smith and Neal know it will take more than just academic success to change the way black men are perceived in our country. Head coach Verdell Jones Jr. wants his athletes to take a stand in the community. That’s why Trey Walker, who is bound for Illinois State, is fighting for change. He marched for 7 miles around Champaign-Urbana in a protest this summer.
“With all the stuff that’s been going around the nation I went out and protested myself,” says Walker. “I feel like that was important for me to do, that and me being a young black African American male, and it represents me and my family.”
“This here lies the potential of of what our young men are,” says Jones Jr. “The ability to do things they never thought could be done before, and be able to have an impact.”
It’s clear that impact is happening right in Urbana.