DURHAM — Most years during March Madness, that team from Durham likely means just one group Duke University, a perennial player in the NCAA basketball tournament.
But not this year.
The Eagles of N.C. Central University are giving the Blue Devils intense competition as that team from Durham that everyone is talking about.
N.C. Central will make history Friday night with its first appearance in the NCAAs Division I tournament. Its a big coup for the school, its fans and many Durham residents. From the campus to the barbershops and clothing stores along Fayetteville Street, seemingly everyone is talking about the Eagles.
They have as much of a chance as anyone does, Derrick Green, owner of Deluxe Barbershop on Fayetteville Street, told a customer Thursday afternoon. Im pulling for them.
Green, 43, a Durham native, said NCCU is giving the community something new to be proud of.
Central making the tournament is almost a championship in itself, he said. It gives us a whole new perspective on what Durham has to offer. To the people around here, just getting there, they already won.
Cars bearing Eagle banners honked at each other as they passed on Fayetteville Street on Thursday.
At Eagle Land, a clothing store that sells NCCU paraphernalia on the corner of Fayetteville Street and Burlington Avenue, January through March often is the slowest time of the year, owner Marvin Bass said. But because of N.C. Centrals success, business has been booming this year.
You can see the excitement running up and down Fayetteville Street, Bass said. Its good to see the team doing such an exceptionally good job.
N.C. Central began its transition to Division I sports in 2007-08, playing in Division II as a member of the CIAA. The mens basketball team even won a Division II national championship.
But Bass, a 1971 alumnus and owner of the shop for 20 years, said the excitement surrounding that Division II championship could not compare to the hoopla of the school playing in the 68-field Division I tournament.
The Eagles, a No. 14 seed, will face off against the No. 3-seed Iowa State Cyclones in a game from San Antonio scheduled for 9:45 p.m. Friday. It will air on TNT.
Should NCCU win and UNC prevail in its Friday game against Providence, the Eagles and their Tar Heel neighbors would square off Sunday for a spot in the NCAAs Sweet 16.
The better the Eagles do, the better the business at Eagle Land. Bass has a one-word message for the team: Win.
During lunchtime Thursday, customers came in to purchase NCCU gear. Vivian Spencer drove from Raleigh to Durham to buy a shirt she can wear to an N.C. Central watch party Friday night.
This is school history, so I want to take it in, said Spencer, a 2002 alumnae. Its awesome, and Im so glad the team feels supported.
University spokeswoman Ayana Hernandez said the school hopes the national exposure generates interest from people who may not be familiar with N.C. Central.
Hopefully, students will explore attending the university for its academics, she said. This is an excellent way to not only celebrate the basketball team but to raise the profile for the university.
Thursdays Wall Street Journal spotlighted famous alumni from each school in the tournament. N.C. Centrals list included Andre Leon Talley, the former Vogue editor; Maynard Jackson, the first African-American mayor of Atlanta; and actor Ivan Dixon, who starred on Hogans Heroes.
As the Eagles prepared to leave for San Antonio on Wednesday, community members and students gathered around the gym to wish them well. A live DJ played music, and a musical group, We are Toonz, danced.
Fans chanted Eagle Pride, Amplified! as the players lined up to get on the bus. Some players took selfies with fans.
Head coach LeVelle Moton has shown his appreciation for the fan and community support all season. He said the team wouldnt be here without it.
I think this is a moment in N.C. Central history that everyone will cherish and remember, he said. To have our fans join us at the hip and wait along with us, its pretty much parallel to how we are as a university. And that is a unit and one family.
Alexander: 919-932-2008; Twitter: @jonmalexander1