The District’s Best Backcourt Resides On The Hilltop

For Howard’s RJ Cole and Charles Williams, it all started at the Kenner League.

For those not in the know, the Kenner League was the brainchild of a group of local college coaches, led by legendary Georgetown coach John Thompson. In 1982, Thompson sought an opportunity to keep his players busy working on their games in the summertime, and for nearly four decades since, college and high school players like Patrick Ewing, Allen Iverson, Steve Francis, and Kevin Durant have used Kenner as a proving ground to establish their status in the game.

In the case of Cole and Williams, they needed to establish status with each other.

“It started in the Kenner League. Coach encouraged us to go play to get a feel for each other, and we started off slow,” Cole said to The Sports Fan Journal during the MEAC tournament. “It was new for us to play with each other, we had to figure out what each other liked and didn’t like. Once we established that, we started each ripping off 20-point games in the league. We realized that we had a chance to be special.”

Being special at the Kenner can create its own type of legacy in The District. The stories of Iverson, fresh out of jail and pre-Georgetown, showing up in ‘94 hitting pull-up three-pointers from 30 feet and no-look passes on the break are the stuff of a legend. Same for Francis, who lit Kenner for 62 points in ‘98 before garnering first-team All-ACC honors at Maryland. Putting on epic performances at the Kenner creates footnotes in D.C. basketball history, and Howard’s dynamic duo already have their memorable moments.

“It helped when I learned when CJ (Charles) wanted to jump for an alley-oop,” Cole says with a chuckle. “I started to see CJ dunk on people. CJ started building a highlight reel, it was special.”

“RJ started putting people in the blender, make two people fall at the same time. Putting people on skates.” Williams said, almost taken aback recalling some of their favorite highlights.“ It was special to watch RJ do that, to have defenses coordinate their strategy around him and he can still make them look crazy.”

Those electric moments at the Kenner made Howard head coach Kevin Nickelberry’s phone vibrate and ring. A lot.

“When I started getting texts like ‘Who is RJ and CJ?’ and seeing tweets saying ‘Cole and Williams could be the best backcourt in DC?’ I knew we had something,” praised Nickelberry over the phone. “I think they can be one of the best backcourts in college basketball. Their numbers stack up with anybody, and they’ve put in the work. From the Kenner League to bonding off the court and meshing with the rest of the team. They’ve learned how to play with each other, and they’ve learned how to win.”

Learning to win at Howard means improving their standing in the MEAC from a 7th place finish in the conference last season to a 3rd place finish this year. It means improving the Bison’s win total by 7 and to being invited to play in the postseason. (Howard faces Coastal Carolina in the CBI, March 20)

Learning to win also means adapting and improving. For Cole and Williams, that means leading the MEAC 1-2 in scoring in consecutive years, something that has never happened in the conference’s history. That type of achievement only happens if the two trust each other.

“That’s the one word that sticks out to me,” Nickelberry says with a pause. “Trust. CJ watched RJ play during summer league and understood that if he’s running a stagger, running the break, getting to the corner, that RJ will hit him. Conversely, CJ’s willing to screen for RJ, and let RJ operate one-on-one when the matchup calls for it. There’s no ego on this team.”

“It doesn’t matter who the top guy is,” Cole elaborates. “As long as we win, nothing else matters.”

Their growth on the basketball court has paralleled their growth as young men on The Hilltop. Cole, a sophomore from New Jersey, made the trek to The District after being molded by legendary high school coach Bob Hurley at St. Anthony’s. Cole’s demeanor can be both steely and silent, only opening up to those he trusts. It’s something that Williams, a native of Richmond, Virginia, noticed an evolution of over time.

“Everyone thinks he’s laid back and quiet, but when he’s around the players he’s definitely cracking jokes and cool.”

On cue, Cole cracks a quick quip on his backcourt mate when asked about Williams off the court.

“He spends most of his time making sure his afro is perfect. He’s always making sure it’s round.”

“He’s just hating because my afro is better than his beard,” Williams cracks back.

Cole and Williams as a duo have elevated the Bison back into the upper crust of conversation when it comes to basketball in D.C. It means that getting a ticket at Burr Gymnasium is just a bit tougher. It makes for inevitable comparisons to the Washington Wizards backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal all the more common. It’s a challenge that both are ready to take on and prove they’re worthy of.

“I do feel like we’re the best backcourt in D.C., with respect to Wall and Beal who we look up to as players, but we just have that confidence,” says Williams. “We’ve proven that on the collegiate level, we are the best in the area. We’ve proven it over the last two years.”

For Nickelberry, it’s also created a new buzz at Howard that hasn’t been seen since Larry Spriggs was the big man on campus back in the early ‘80s.

“They’ve brought a certain type of respect back to this campus, both from students and from the opposition. Before I got here, I can remember the thought that people didn’t fear Howard,” states Nickelberry, the former head coach at Hampton from 2006-09. “Now they do, and it’s because of our backcourt, they can put 50 on you in a given night. I appreciate them because they’ve made my job as head coach a lot easier.”

The backcourt that can put 50 on an opposing team on any night will be back at McDonough Gym playing in the Kenner League this summer, and by the sound of things, they’re ready to take on all challengers to maintain their status as “Best Backcourt in D.C.”

“I stand with CJ on being the best backcourt in D.C.,” Cole states. “And we plan on continuing being that going forward.”

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