DeCock: N.C. Central adding to rich basketball history

ldecock@newsobserver.comFebruary 15, 2013 

— Every time LeVelle Moton steps through the doors that lead onto the basketball court at McLendon-McDougald Gymnasium, he can feel a real and tangible connection to the history and tradition of N.C. Central basketball, from the honored names that hang on the wall, his own included, to the championship banners, to the pioneer who once held the job he now holds, John McLendon.

Through his own playing career, through McLendon, Moton can reach back all the way to James Naismith. If there were ghosts among the steel beams that arch overhead, Moton would know them on a first-name basis.

“Each time I’ve walked in, it’s just a different energy knowing you share that blood, sweat and tears out there on that floor,” Moton said. “And now you’re responsible for coaching young men to go out there and give that same effort.”

The challenge he has assumed, in his fourth year at Central, is helping his players make that connection as well. He’s serious about it.

Murals on the wall of the players’ lounge and along the hallway to the court honor the great names of Central basketball, the teams that won CIAA championships during segregation when it was still called North Carolina College, the team that won the Division II title two decades ago. On a recent road trip to Florida, he invited Sam Jones, the Boston Celtics legend and Central’s most famous basketball product, to speak to the team.

“All the stuff that they brought here, we just try to keep it up,” said Jeremy Ingram, the team’s leading scorer. “We try to play with the passion that they played with.”

Even though he’s among the faces on the murals, Moton has never had traction like he has this season. You can bring in all the famous alumni you want and tell the stories of the “Secret Game” against Duke’s medical school in 1944 or McLendon learning the game from Naismith and inventing the fast break until you’re out of breath, but nothing wakes up the echoes like winning. And that’s exactly what the Eagles are doing now.

Since a nine-point loss at Marquette on Dec. 29, the Eagles have won 11 straight, including all 10 of their MEAC games. They face what might be their stiffest challenge Saturday night, when they visit Savannah State, the preseason favorite and defending regular-season champion. Both N.C. Central and Norfolk State are undefeated, and through a quirk of the schedule, do not meet in the regular season. That means a share of the conference title might be on the line.

How far the Eagles have come under Moton, who graduated in 1996 as the school’s third all-time leading scorer? They spent two years getting beat up in guarantee games as an independent while making the jump from Division II, then one year as a provisional member of the MEAC. They already have matched last year’s total of 17 wins, and stats guru Ken Pomeroy gives them a 30.5 percent chance of going undefeated in the MEAC.

Last year’s team might have been better, in terms of talent, than this one. Moton wondered, worried even, how this team would fare, but has been blown away by the sense of teamwork and togetherness, all of which really started to click about the time of a narrow loss at Drake in December. The Eagles have even started drawing curious visitors from across town, with Duke guard Quinn Cook attending two games this season.

“It’s just good basketball to go watch,” Cook said.

With three returning starters – including Ingram, Oklahoma transfer Ray Willis and point guard Emanuel “Poobie” Chapman, an Enloe product who already is second all-time in assists at Central as a junior – and the addition of Ball State transfer Jay Copeland and junior-college transfer Stanton Kidd, who won a JUCO national title last year playing with Ole Miss phenomenon Marshall Henderson, all the pieces have fallen into place.

Kidd, who is from Baltimore, turned down offers from Missouri, Texas A&M and UCLA among others to be an impact player at Central. He admits not knowing much about the history of the school, which has only made him more amazed as he’s started to absorb it.

“It’s crazy, just seeing the walls when I walk in here – Sam Jones, one of the great Celtics,” Kidd said. “I could be in that position someday, and to see them do it from a level like this instead of going somewhere like Carolina or Duke, it was like, ‘Wow, I could do that, too.’ ”

That same tradition can be a challenge at times. Moton’s recent comments to the Durham Herald-Sun about Central being the “black Duke” were largely misinterpreted, but his point was that because of Central’s history of success in basketball, and football, and track under the late Dr. LeRoy Walker, it is a target of other HBCUs – everyone’s rival, just like Duke.

Generations of fans have grown up hating N.C. Central, and the better the Eagles get, the more hostile the environments they face. Moton won’t let his wife and kids come on the road.

“The only team I could compare that to was Duke,” Moton said. “There’s a generation of folks who instilled the hatred in their kids to hate Central. More so than A&T. Even in the CIAA, we were hated. You could go somewhere and feel the tension in the gym.”

Still, for all that history, for all Moton preaches and honors, this team has a chance to do something that has never been done before at Central: compete at this level, in Division I with a legitimate shot to make the NCAA tournament if all goes well.

It’s one thing to appreciate N.C. Central’s rich basketball history. It’s another to make it. As it once was, it may yet be again.

DeCock:, @LukeDeCock, (919) 829-8947

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