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He’s a college basketball player — and a law student on a mission


Joshua Strong works out alone before a Howard men’s basketball practice. (Simon Bruty for The Washington Post)

Joshua Strong has a drill he wants to finish when he hears his name called. He has already been in Burr Gymnasium — wearing a blue No. 30 jersey, white sweatband on his left forearm, with his ’locs pulled up — since an hour before the start of the Howard men’s basketball team’s practice. When the sky is still unsettled in twilight and the campus has yet to tremble itself awake, he’s alone and working on his jumper. But it’s now 8:35 a.m., practice is in full swing, and the coaching staff knows he has to leave soon, as does a team manager who has been keeping the countdown.

“Josh,” she says, “it’s time.”

Strong nods but remains on the court. They say he can be a little stubborn. Always been that way. Paul and Lori Strong’s third son, the one they learned sometimes to just let have his way. So after getting in a few more reps, Strong gingerly jogs toward the locker room. His thigh’s on fire because a teammate banged into it earlier — he should’ve been wearing thigh pads as he had been told, but again, stubborn, that one.

He needs to shower and change, get into his blue Howard Law sweatshirt. His torts class will be starting soon, and today they’ll be reviewing comparative and contributory negligence. It’s a first semester type of class, but Strong knows it’ll aid him in his life’s mission.

Strong, 21, is the starting point guard for the defending Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference champion Bison as well as a first-year law student. It may help to pause, then read that sentence again. When considering the average workload for Division I basketball players, with their pre-dawn workouts, pressure-cooker practices and schedules that stretch from fall to spring, what many view as a privilege can truly feel like a full-time job.

Now, compound that with a law student’s reality — voluminous textbooks, no-nonsense professors and performing to earn a first-year summer job. Strong has chosen to do all that while also trying to help his new team return to the NCAA tournament.

“It’s a beast,” says Braeden Anderson, who is believed to be the first Division I men’s basketball player to simultaneously attend law school, which he did at Seton Hall during the 2015-16 season. “There is a widely known picture that’s painted of law school and how difficult it is and how stressful it is, and it certainly lives up to all that and more.”

This pursuit, this balancing act, this … this beast is so rare that only a handful of student-athletes have been known to take it on. Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk, a redshirt senior for South Carolina, is in his second year of law school. Strong remembers being in middle school and reading about Anderson. The seed of possibility was planted, and that’s all he needed. Anyone who would dare say otherwise, they just didn’t understand this young man who never liked hearing “no.”

“Someone told him you can’t do law school and play basketball,” his father remembers. “And Josh was like, ‘I’m different.’ ”

THEY MEAN WELL, BUT AROUND BURR GYMNASIUM they call him by the wrong name. On a basketball court, monosyllabic titles or identifying jersey numbers tend to work best. So during a recent exhibition game against American, while Strong was wearing someone else’s old jersey, the name “BROWN” stripped off the back but still visible, he went to the free throw line and one of the snare drummers in the pep band tried to be encouraging: “We believe in you, 15!”

And during practice, coaches and teammates get his attention by just saying “Josh.” Technically, that’s accurate. But that’s not his name. He prefers Joshua.

“This is going to give me chills,” Strong says, smiling and leaning forward inside an Ethiopian coffee shop. He’s about to tell me the story of his name.

Paul, a Black man from Florida who got recruited by Lou Holtz to play football at the University of Minnesota, became a high school coach while also working with children of incarcerated parents. Lori, a White woman from Illinois who was a single mom, helped women in treatment for chemical dependency regain their parental rights. They married, created a nonprofit called Parenting with Purpose and started a family in the suburbs of Minneapolis. They have five children in all, four sons in a row, all with powerful names.

Like Josiah, a graduate student playing basketball at Colorado State in his sixth year of eligibility.

And Micaiah, the baby boy and a freshman in the Carlson School of Management at Minnesota.

With each pregnancy, they prayed to learn their child’s name. For the third son, Lori asked God and heard “Joshua.”

They read in the Book of Numbers how Moses sent 12 spies to explore a good and fertile land. Ten of the spies returned with clusters of grapes and a bunch of bad news: The land might flow with milk and honey, they said, but there were giants who live there. They were too big, too powerful. It couldn’t be done. Only two spies believed they could overcome those giants. One was named Joshua. In the Bible, Joshua became the one who led his people into the promised land.

The Strongs would impress upon their four boys to study their names, to find out who they are. But a child like Joshua Strong who never backs down from a giant isn’t always a breeze to raise. A child like that can be stubborn.

“Strong-willed, not stubborn,” Joshua corrects me and, again, melts into the kind of smile I’m sure he perfected as a little pot stirrer in the Strong household.

A child like that asks the kinds of questions that don’t have easy answers. Strong remembers riding back from a summer camp in a big blue van with his friends. Many of the other kids came from families caught up in the system, who didn’t live in neighborhoods like the Strongs’. When the van pulled up to his modest five-bedroom home, their eyes grew big, thinking Strong lived in a palatial estate. He didn’t have the words then, but he felt something wasn’t right.

“Even as a young boy, you’re like, ‘If God is real, and if Jesus is real and if all these things I’m learning about in the Bible is real … if all that is real, there shouldn’t be this injustice that I’m seeing,’ ” Strong says. “Racism and division is really real and that’s coming from a place and that’s coming from something, and whether you’re religious or not, there is a root of evil.

“If God is real like I believe He is, and there’s injustice,” Strong concludes, “that means there is something else at play.”

Over time, the third Strong boy wanted to lead as his name suggested. When he was 16, he got bored with high school, so he enrolled in a program to earn college credit while attending classes on the Minnesota campus. By his senior year, he urged his friend group not to listen to the school counselors who warned the boys that they weren’t ready for college. He convinced them — they were mostly Black — to take the courses, too. His friends graduated high school with college credit. Strong graduated with 58 college credits.

“He just truly believes in not only himself but what he believes in,” Lori says. “There’s no persuading it, and that comes from when he was younger: ‘This is what I believe is right, and this is what I’m going to stand on, and you’re not going to persuade me.’ ”

After two years attending and playing at Division II Minnesota Duluth, Strong graduated summa cum laude while receiving his bachelor’s degree in entrepreneurship. For six weeks last summer, he lived in Morocco for an independent research study and learned about the cooperatives for widowed and divorced women who attempted to make a living as artisans.

In Morocco, Strong let his hair knot up and grew it long, learned a little Darija, avoided the tourist traps and instead connected with the people living there. But he also witnessed exploitation of women. Strong was raised in a biracial home, but he identified as a Black boy. He saw himself in the artisans.

The summer camp kids in awe of a house. The high school boys discouraged from a challenging academic program. The Moroccan women taken advantage of by middlemen. They were flickers in his life, which kept bending toward a career with a purpose. Law might be finite, but Strong sees it as a vehicle to help people. His people.

“I always had a passion for social justice. I guess early I kind of conceptualized law as the way to attack that,” Strong says. “I was always smart, and people would say, ‘Oh, you’re going to be a doctor, engineer.’ Well, how am I going to help Black people?”

And besides, Strong, says, “My parents named me Joshua for a reason.”

AT FIRST, KENNY BLAKENEY ignored his inbox. In the spring, he received emails from some former D-II player who had recently been admitted to the Howard School of Law. The Bison team that went dancing for the first time since 1992 had lost Elijah Hawkins, who led the team in assists, to the transfer portal, and Blakeney needed a point guard. But nothing in those messages convinced him that Strong was the one.

“Initially, I was unsure,” Blakeney admits, “and just kind of blew it off a little bit until he got here.”

But this time, Strong didn’t have to be stubborn — thanks to his landlord in D.C., whom he calls Uncle Fats. When Fats found out Strong could hoop and wanted to play at Howard, he told his friend, who happened to be Blakeney’s brother. Blakeney relented and let the kid show up for summer pickup games, and Strong kept showing up. Bison players reported back, “Yo, Coach, he can play.” Finally, Blakeney was convinced that he had found a new leader. He just had to share him with the law school.

“Aye yo!” Blakeney calls out during a morning session. “He’s only got 15 minutes left in practice, so let’s try to get a lot in these 15 minutes.”

Strong, with the starters on the blue team, blocks out the sting in his thigh as he moves through the final 15 minutes. Then it’s time to go to class.

At 9:30, he’ll take his usual seat in torts, third row on the far right edge, where he’ll learn from Professor e. christi cunningham — “The GOAT,” Strong says of cunningham, who does not capitalize her name. Later, it’s contracts with Professor Keeva Terry — “She’s like the auntie you don’t want to play with,” he says.

It’s different here, in the classrooms with stadium seating. On the basketball court, Strong juices up every team stretch, run and drill with his constant chatter. He’s always on. In torts, he fiddles with his dreadlocks and listens. Students speak up only after raising a hand, and at times the professor cold-calls on someone by saying their last name. When one student can’t answer a question, cunningham says that person has moved up her list. Students don’t want to be on that list.

“They just pepper you with questions with the [300] to 400 pages of reading, and if you don’t do that reading, the social pressure that you’re under and that you belong to be there … is already enormous, and now add that you’re unique in some way,” Anderson says, speaking from experience as an athlete who studied law. “There’s a lot of folks, whether directly or indirectly, [who think]: ‘Hey, you’re in my domain! You’re a jock! What are you doing in law school?’ ”

Strong knows he belongs. And he’s grateful that in an environment like Howard, a historically Black university, faculty and peers want him to succeed. In torts, students applaud their peers who answer cunningham correctly.

The class reviews an old case about a rape survivor who sued the owners of the Chicago motel where her assault occurred. The jury awarded damages but found the woman, who was White, largely responsible for her own attack, in which she opened the door at night to a stranger, a Black man. Strong doesn’t like what he hears and thinks the jury constructed a false narrative about race to justify the rape. He scrunches his face and raises his hand.

“Strong,” the professor calls on him.

On the other side of earning his juris doctor degree, Strong can see the fruit of his life’s goals. Fighting injustice. Empowering others to help themselves. Opening doors to economic freedom.

“I just think that, like, you have to be strong-willed. As a Black man, they’re going to try to break your will. … I’ve got to know what I believe,” Strong says. “I need to be a lawyer so I can help my people.”

His vision can only be seen through a fog of obstacles that might be too big, too powerful. It can’t be done, they’ll say. But the young scholar with the jump shot never cared much for giants. His name is Joshua.


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