Saunders: NC Central’s dream season is worthy of cheers – and a few happy tears

bsaunders@newsobserver.comMarch 17, 2014 

NCCU Coach LeVelle Moton contemplates the Eagles’ MEAC championship run as his players cut down the nets in Norfolk’s Scope Arena.


Remember about 45 years ago, when UCLA and Lew Alcindor beat the stuffing out of the Tar Heels for the NCAA championship and Alcindor abused my favorite player, Rusty Clark?

That was the last time I cried over a basketball game.

Until Saturday.

That’s when the N.C. Central University Eagles beat Morgan State to secure a bid to the NCAA tournament. The Eagles will play Iowa State University on Friday in San Antonio.

Even if you, like me, had no emotional stake in the game, it was hard not to shed a happy tear when NCCU Coach LeVelle Moton – realizing victory was assured and his team was about to reach the tournament for the first time ever – started tearing up.

An NCCU great

Moton was no doubt emotional. He was one of the school’s best players ever, and when the team’s highlights are shown on TV news, you can see his jersey hanging from the wall in the gym.

For the Eagles’ basketball program, happy days are here again. A few years ago, it appeared they’d never come.

In 2005, when former Chancellor James Ammons announced plans to take the school out of the CIAA and into Division I, NCCU endured a few years where the players were sacrificed on the altar of greed. It was a cynical money grab that gave no consideration to what was happening to the psyches of the overmatched players, who were forced to travel to Fargo, N.D., and Akron, Ohio, to get beat by 50 points or more.

The team began playing in the MEAC in 2010, but before that, it and then-Coach Henry Dickerson were forced to travel far and wide, I wrote in 2008, “to play a much larger, wealthier school that needs a cupcake to pad its schedule, and the school in turn agrees to pad NCCU’s bank account.”

Couldn’t they at least have scheduled games in Hawaii or San Diego, where absorbing a throttling would be much easier?

Enjoy the trip

Billy Lee, who guided Campbell College – now University – to the tournament in 1992, offered this advice to Moton and his team. “Don’t miss the trip worrying about the destination, because the trip itself – dealing with all of the people, the universities you’re going to come into contact with – will be fun and enlightening.”

Campbell’s NCAA trip gave the school a big boost.

“The school gained great visibility because of it,” Lee said. “They gave us a million to one shot (to win), but I felt it was important that we be prepared to play, but also that we enjoy the trip.”

Unfortunately for his Camels, Lee said, his team’s trip was only to Greensboro – “We got a bus ride,” he quipped. The opponent was Duke University with Laettner, Hill and Hurley. Oy.

Duke was the defending national champion that year and won again, and Lee joked that playing his team in the first round propelled Duke to another title.

Lee, now an assistant coach for the women’s basketball team at UNC-Chapel Hill, said he knows Moton from when he used to work at Lee’s Campbell summer basketball camps. “I’m really happy for Central,” Lee said. “I’ve seen them play, and I think they’ve earned this right. They’ve got a good team.”

Moton, addressing that team in the locker room after the bid-clinching win, joked that he wasn’t crying. His allergies, he claimed unconvincingly, were merely acting up.

Must’ve been a lot of those allergies going around, because they struck Chancellor Debra Saunders-White and many NCCU fans who traveled to Norfolk, Va., for the MEAC tournament.

They struck me, too.

Saunders: 919-836-2811 or

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