A decade ago, before he became basketball coach at his alma mater at the age of 34, long before he took N.C. Central to a MEAC regular-season title, 17-game winning streak and the verge of its first NCAA tournament bid, LeVelle Moton did a very LeVelle Moton thing.
Moton, only a few years removed from a pro career that took him to Israel, Germany, Cyprus and Indonesia, was little more than a middle-school basketball coach and summer-camp director when he ran into Oprah Winfrey outside Justin’s Restaurant in New York.
“It was just a big mob,” Moton said of the crowd outside the restaurant once owned by rapper Sean Combs. “I saw her, we were walking past and they were trying to get her in the car because it was raining. I said, ‘I’m really going to be on your show one day.’ She was like, ‘OK,’ and got in the car.”
Moton mentioned the chance encounter on Twitter recently, where Oprah was merely one name among the celebrities and athletes he frequently mentions. It’s not idle talk. Moton, in addition to being a pretty good basketball coach, knows just about everyone. And it seems like just about everyone knows him.
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He has served as a mentor to an entire generation of basketball stars from the Triangle, including John Wall, Rodney Purvis and Dez Wells. He’s a close friend (and former N.C. Central classmate) of 9th Wonder, the Grammy-winning producer who has worked with everyone from Jay-Z to Mary J. Blige. Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski often reference Moton’s success at N.C. Central, unprompted.
His Twitter feed is a combination of personal history, devotional messages and celebrity sightings, which makes it not all that different from an actual conversation with Moton, who has most of the good movie lines from the past 20 years on instant recall. In attesting to the wisdom of his players, Moton once said, “they’re not going to fall for the banana in the tailpipe,” referring to a scene from “Beverly Hills Cop.” He’s also a world-class name-dropper.
Among those who have made appearances recently: Bel Biv Devoe, Donald Williams, Oscar Robertson, P.J. Tucker, Jim Harbaugh, Jerry Stackhouse, Buzz Williams, Reggie Bullock, Warren Sapp, Rodney Rogers, Grant Hill, Mike Tomlin, Ivory Latta and John Lucas.
“He knows everybody,” N.C. Central point guard Poobie Chapman said. “His personality is infectious. You can’t be around him and not smile. You wonder, ‘Why is he so happy?’ He’s a genuine guy. When he says something, you hang onto it.”
In his book, “The Tipping Point,” the author Malcolm Gladwell has a name for these kinds of people: Connectors. They spread ideas and trends through wide networks of disparate people through sheer force of personality, “with a truly extraordinary knack of making friends and acquaintances.” In the basketball world within and beyond the Triangle, Moton is a Connector.
When N.C. Central beat N.C. State this season, Moton said he received 436 text messages. That number actually seemed low. It’s hard to imagine how many he’ll get if N.C. Central wins this week’s MEAC tournament in Norfolk and goes to the NCAA tournament for the first time.
“I grew up with a lot of guys, and when I grew up with them, or mentored them, whatever, they were just those people,” Moton said. “Then they became famous, and now they’re superstars. People are like, ‘How you know Jerry Stackhouse?’ I’m like, ‘Man, me and Jerry Stackhouse played together since we was 12 years old,’ you know? ‘Ask Jerry Stackhouse how he know me,’ that’s what I’m thinking. I was the star on the team.”
Return to N.C. Central
None of this is accidental. Moton grew up in tough neighborhoods in Boston and Raleigh before starring at Enloe High and N.C. Central. He made it out, made a career for himself in basketball, but not without help from people who shepherded him along, opened doors, showed the way. And he’ll never forget that. Everything he does is about paying that back.
Which is how he ended up advising big-time players like Wall, who attended Moton’s “Poetry N’ Moton” basketball camps; Purvis, whose mother was a basketball player at N.C. Central when Moton was there; and Wells, whose mother ran a store in the Southeast Raleigh neighborhood where Moton grew up.
Wall and Purvis repaid the favor by including N.C. Central among their college options, no small gesture given the national attention paid to their decisions.
“It’s not because of how good he was as a basketball player or a basketball coach,” said Wells, a sophomore at Maryland who played at Word of God. “It’s because he’s a great person and great people are drawn to other great people.”
Moton returned to N.C. Central – where he was CIAA Player of the Year in 1996, graduated as the school’s third-leading scorer and had his jersey retired in 2005 – as an assistant coach in 2007 after three years as head coach at Sanderson High. Two years later, he was in charge.
Slowly and painstakingly, he has overseen the program’s transition to Division I, exceeding expectations last season when the Eagles lost the MEAC regular-season title (and automatic National Invitation Tournament bid) on a fluky tiebreaker before flaming out in their first game at the conference tournament
This year, they have left as little doubt as possible. After narrow losses at Wichita State and Cincinnati and the win at N.C. State, the Eagles (25-5) have won 17 straight heading into the MEAC tournament. Led by Chapman, like Moton an Enloe product, the Eagles have benefited from the same advice and mentorship Moton has provided the Triangle’s NBA-bound stars.
Chapman went to Moton’s basketball camp for six years. “Because it was free,” Moton said. “I could have used the $200.” Chapman attended gratis because his father played basketball with Moton growing up. Another favor repaid.
“He’ll chew you out, but he’ll be telling a joke that’s so funny, but you’re getting chewed out, so you can’t laugh,” Chapman said. “He gets his message across. It’s never mistaken. It may be funny, but he gets his message across. Everything he does has a purpose. As a young freshman and sophomore, I used to kill myself trying to figure out, ‘What is this for?’ But he knew. And he knew I’d figure it out eventually. It’s all coming together right now.”
Before the season, 9th Wonder was one of several outsiders Moton invited to speak to the team about issues beyond basketball. His message, about mastering their craft, about persistence, about how many thousand beats he crafted before someone decided one had the makings of a hit, still resonates with the players. His talk had no small impact on the way the Eagles approached the season, especially after the way the last one ended.
Moton remains unsatisfied. He gestures to the wall at McDougald-McLendon Gym, the one where the 1989 Division II championship banner hangs not far from the one honoring Moton’s own No. 15. There’s a lot of history on that wall. It’s not enough.
“I need a banner,” Moton said. “That’s just me. I don’t care about coach-of-the-years and regular seasons and all that stuff. I want the ultimate prize and right now the ultimate prize is the NCAA tournament.”
As for Oprah, Moton is still waiting, but with every step N.C. Central takes, he’s one step closer to that promise, among so many others.
“We’re still working on that,” he said. “I mean, if she’s listening, I’m ready.”