Basketball alumni have nurtured bonds for four decades.
It’s the tale of an extraordinary friendship. Brian Colbert x’78, Emir Hardy x’78, and Jerry Howard x’77 — all former members of the UW basketball team — formed bonds as friends and fellow athletes that have lasted more than 40 years. The three return to campus for a reunion at least once a year, most recently for Multicultural Homecoming in October.
Hardy and Colbert were roommates in Chamberlin Hall in 1974 when they met Howard, who lived in Sullivan. Since then, the three have supported each other through major life events. “When I was coaching basketball, they would come to my games,” Colbert says. “Emir came to watch me get my doctorate from Edgewood College. They’ve shared with me through my pain when my family members passed — my mother and father and my brothers.”
Colbert and Hardy were both recruited to the UW by basketball Coach John Powless on basketball scholarships, while Howard later became a walk-on.
“Coach [John] Powless was the reason I came to Wisconsin,” says Colbert. “He came and met my mother in our living room and promised her that he would always look out for my best interests. He was a positive role model in my life.” When Colbert received his doctorate from Edgewood College decades later, Powless was the first to shake his hand. “He stayed in my life beyond basketball,” says Colbert, who started for the team for most of his freshman and sophomore years, but then transferred when Powless left the university. “It kind of took away my desire,” he says, “because I didn’t have that relationship [any longer].”
Hardy also came to Wisconsin because of a recruiting visit from Powless. “My parents are very protective,” he says. “My mom was okay with Coach Powless, and she encouraged me to go to Wisconsin because of the warmth and friendly nature that he brought into our home.”
The friends’ visits back to campus fall into a familiar routine. The first thing they do is head to the Natatorium to play basketball, “and we’ll reminisce about different shots that we used to make,” says Colbert. Then usually we’ll go to the Shed [which later became Frank’s Place, and is now known as Four Lakes Market], and get a bite to eat, because that’s where we used to eat a lot in college.” Next they might walk along the Lakeshore Path or visit other places that were there when they were students. “Then we get into a nice serious conversation about the world, and then we have an amusing conversation,” Colbert says. “Usually, we get stomach cramps from laughing so hard. And then the trip always ends that we’re hoarse and we can’t talk for two or three days after we get home.”
“We’ve had so many conversations about every topic that you could imagine,” adds Hardy. “I’ve learned so much from these young men, and I call them young because with the energy that these men have, they remind me of teenagers.” Hardy says that they’re not afraid to provide constructive criticism of each other. “The things that have kept us together — it’s the trust; it’s the honesty. We have never had an argument.”
Their values are reflected in their life paths. Howard transferred to the University of Michigan and earned a degree in engineering. While working as an engineer near New York City, he spent nights and weekends at the Black Students Union at NYU, tutoring students in math and science. He then got his master’s in computer science and worked as a software engineer with Lockheed, among other positions. He followed that by doing substitute teaching in elementary school and is now retired in San Jose, California.
Colbert taught elementary and high school and became a directing principal and area superintendent in the Racine Unified School District and head basketball coach in Waukegan, lllinois. He then earned his doctorate, doing his dissertation on instructional practices that contribute to academic success for African American males in elementary schools. “I’m very concerned,” he says, about “how do we reach those kids that are having challenges?”
Hardy got a degree in education from East Washington University and then directed before- and after-school programs at a YMCA near Seattle. Moving back to the Chicago suburbs, he co-founded a nonprofit called F.U.T.U.R.E. Foundation Youth Services in Ford Heights, Illinois, and now serves as executive director. The organization provides mentoring and enrichment programs for low-income youth.
Even though the former hoops stars all eventually received their degrees from other schools, they say Wisconsin feels like their true alma mater because it’s where they formed strong relationships. “No other school has given me the experience of … lifelong friendships to cherish,” says Hardy.
“Being able to play at that campus was a dream come true,” says Colbert. “There was something special about Bucky. Every time I see a ‘W,’ I think of Emir and Jerry, and I get a smile on my face.”