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Wake Tech tries to craft a championship out of empty dreams and wallets — and second chances

Wake Tech team prepares for shot at national championship

Wake Tech is one of 16 teams that earned the chance to compete in the 2018-19 NJCAA Division II Men's Basketball Championship in Danville, Illinois.
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Wake Tech is one of 16 teams that earned the chance to compete in the 2018-19 NJCAA Division II Men's Basketball Championship in Danville, Illinois.

One by one, they trickled into the gym on the edge of the Wake Tech campus, the junior college basketball players who’d always hoped to go somewhere else but wound up here instead, chasing a second chance or maybe their last.

There was the point guard who was raised by his grandmother, the poverty and perhaps his rural high school’s isolation the two things that stood in the way of greater opportunity. There was the forward who arrived on campus for Wake Tech’s HVAC program before somehow finding his way onto the basketball team.

There was another player with two young sons and the third-shift job at the grocery store, the one the coaches once sent home because he looked too tired to practice.

It was Wednesday of last week, and one of the final on-campus practices of the season. Adam Wainwright, the Wake Tech head coach, the one with another full-time job that paid his bills and allowed him to pursue a dream of his own, waited for his players to arrive. Practice was scheduled to begin at 5 p.m., but now time was passing by – five minutes behind schedule, 10 minutes, 20.

One of his players was still in class. Another at work. Another stuck in traffic.

“Let me call him,” Evan Edwards, Wainwright’s assistant, said of one of the missing, and he pulled out his phone.

The stakes get higher

At one of college basketball’s lowest levels, where just about everyone involved hopes that the experience will somehow lead to something more, it was a normal scene, Wainwright waiting for enough players to arrive so that he could begin practice. Only now the stakes were higher: The Wake Tech Eagles, a team once 20 strong that was now whittled to the 11 who were still eligible, were preparing for their national tournament, which begins on Tuesday in Danville, Ill.

Finally, more began to file through the doors: the freshman who’d bounced around area high schools, running from trouble; another player whose dunk at a Garner High pep rally was once featured on ESPN’s SportsCenter; still others who came here, to junior college, to rebuild their reputations or academic transcripts, or both. No one ever necessarily aspires to play basketball at a community college.

“About half of them,” Wainwright said, “are probably second-chance kids that have screwed up somewhere else, or didn’t have grades in high school, or done something that they regretted that they needed someone to help them out. And that’s what I try to do.”

There was a television camera out here moments ago, recording video for a story about the team’s trip to nationals. For the players, the sight of of a camera created a spectacle. Some of them crowded around it, gesturing and smiling and embracing a small sign of attention.

The National Junior College Athletic Association Division II tournament, where Wake Tech is the No. 8 seed out of 16 teams, exists mostly in obscurity. It is not the subject of office pools, it is not a billion-dollar business and it is not luxurious. Wake Tech rode a bus for 11 hours to reach the tournament, where on Tuesday it will play against Niagara County, a team from New York.

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Wake Tech’s Volante Carroll drive for the basket during one of the last practices of the season Friday, March 15, 2019 at Wake Tech Community College’s Southern Campus. Wake Tech is one of 16 teams that earned the chance to compete in the 2018-19 NJCAA Division II Men’s Basketball Championship in Danville, Illinois. TRAVIS LONG tlong@newsobserver.com

And yet, still, for Wake Tech and the other two-year schools that have gathered this week in Danville, Ill., it is March, and it is college basketball and, most of all, it is another chance to play and prove yourself. That’s what Koraan Clemonts, the point guard raised by his grandmother, sought when he arrived at Wake Tech.

During his junior and senior seasons at Weldon High, in rural northeastern North Carolina, Clemonts led the state in assists. His college opportunities, though, were scant. He said he had a chance to play at Shaw University in Raleigh, but paperwork problems precluded him from doing so. He said he tried to go to Winston-Salem State, but that the coach there told him he wasn’t good enough.

Lots of talent, few chances

So now he’s here, where in his second and final season at Wake Tech he has averaged nearly 20 points per game and earned all-region honors. Clemonts said his story is typical of those from his part of the state, where opportunity can be hard to come by.

“We had a lot of very talented people, but a lot of people ain’t get the chances,” he said of his Weldon High classmates. “I was blessed I got an opportunity to get a second chance. A lot of people couldn’t get a second chance. So it was like, out of high school you either make it, or now it’s time for the world.

“Either they’re selling drugs, working or doing whatever it takes to survive.”

Survival hasn’t always been easy for him at Wake Tech, either. Last semester, Clemonts said, his financial aid check was late to arrive. By December, he lacked money for food, gas or anything else. His meals consisted of bread and Hot Pockets, he said, and whatever a friend could prepare for him. He couldn’t afford Internet access, and so he stayed on campus, after practice, to do schoolwork. All the while he tried to lead his team as its point guard.

“It really made a man out of me,” he said. “It showed me that stuff is real.”

In some ways, the stories at Wake Tech are like a mix of those from “Hoop Dreams,” the popular 1994 documentary, and “Last Chance U,” the Netflix documentary series that chronicles life inside junior college football, where for many the primary aspiration is to “go D-I” – or play at a Division I university.

That’s what everyone here hopes to achieve one day: to play, or coach, at a Division I school. For most, the odds of it happening are not great. Some players might be able to transfer to a Division II school. Others might have Division I talent, but perhaps not the temperament or the transcript.

Wainwright began the season with 20 players but, after the grades arrived from the fall semester, the roster was cut in half. It went down to nine before the team added two more players.

“And that’s part of the stereotype of why these guys are at JUCO in the first place,” said Edwards, the assistant coach. “They couldn’t handle their business. So unfortunately some of that is true, and legit. We had one guy who was D-I potential, was already getting recruited, and couldn’t pass yoga class.”

Basketball on a budget

Others show up, Edwards said, and quickly realize that playing college basketball at Wake Tech isn’t at all glamorous: the small gym and the smaller crowds, with everything from meals to transportation done on a budget.

“We set the expectation as low as we can,” Edwards said, “but they kind of expect something that’s not junior college once they get here.”

Which is why Wainwright and Edwards appreciate even more the ones who stick around, and stick it out both in the classroom and on the court. One of those players, Jaren Ellerbe, leads the region in scoring among freshmen. He played at Garner High and once found himself on SportsCenter’s top plays for a dunk at a pep rally, but he said in high school he “just didn’t apply myself” academically. He also moved out of his family’s home amid personal problems he didn’t want to detail.

“But I’m doing better now,” he said, “to change my future.”

Another player, Christian Anumihe, was a standout football player at Garner who once hoped to play major college football. He played alongside Nyheim Hines, who went onto to stardom at N.C. State and then the NFL. But Anumihe lacked the grades and, after a knee injury, gave up his athletic aspirations before enrolling at Wake Tech to study heating, ventilation and air conditioning.

Early in his high school years, he said he didn’t “really care about grades.” He thought his athletic talent would be enough. Now, Anumihe said, “Responsibility is doing what you need to do, when you need to do it, no matter whether you want to do it or not.” He has been playing organized basketball for three years, the past two at Wake Tech.

Perhaps no one on Wake Tech’s roster has done more to defy circumstances than Tireek Wilder, a 21-year-old freshman and a father of two sons, aged 5 and 4. Born in Philadelphia, Wilder said he relocated to North Carolina, near Salisbury, after his mother twice narrowly avoided being struck by gunfire.

In high school, Wilder said he lived in a two-bedroom house with 12 other relatives: his mom, brother, sister, two uncles, an aunt, her four kids, a grandmother, and the grandmother’s sister. Wilder became a father at 16 and, when he graduated from high school, began working.

He moved to Raleigh and worked at a Hardees, and then a movie theater, and then a construction job when, one day, a basketball coach with a connection to Wake Tech saw him playing a pick-up game at an apartment complex near N.C. State. That’s how Wilder wound up here.

His two sons don’t live with him, he said, but they live in the area with their mother. He said his daily schedule is as follows: class at 8 a.m., followed by practice at 5 p.m., followed by his 11 p.m. shift at Harris Teeter, where he said he stocks the shelves.

“Some days, he can barely afford gas money to get here,” Edwards said, “but he always gets here. He’s had to bring his kids in for team celebration meals and stuff like that. We take his kids in with open arms.

“But yeah, you hear people talk about being a student-athlete and how there’s no time … imagine being a student-athlete, having to go to classes and stay eligible but also having to work a full-time job or a job to support two children.”

On the court, Wilder has become one of the Eagles’ most dependable players. After next year, if his grades are right and if he impresses the right coaches somewhere, he might have a chance to play at a Division I school. During practice last week, he spoke of his hectic schedule as if it was normal – class all day, followed by practice, followed by working the night shift until 6 a.m. before doing it all over.

“I watched my mom struggle when I was young,” he said. “I watched her do so many different things so that I can have an opportunity like this. So it’s like, how can I complain?”

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Wake Tech’s head basketball coach Adam Wainwright coaches his team during one of the last practices of the season Friday, March 15, 2019 at Wake Tech Community College’s Southern Campus. Wake Tech is one of 16 teams that earned the chance to compete in the 2018-19 NJCAA Division II Men’s Basketball Championship in Danville, Illinois. TRAVIS LONG tlong@newsobserver.com

Perhaps that’s what most bonds the Wake Tech Eagles: the belief that playing on this level – despite the challenges and despite the long road ahead to turn it into something greater – really does represent opportunity. It’s that way for the coaches, too.

Wainwright, the head coach, graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill. On top of his Twitter page he has pinned a video of himself at the Smith Center, at a 1998 UNC-Clemson game. Wainwright that night wore a blue-and-white pom-pom on his head, under a toboggan, so that it looked like he had long, blue and white hair surrounding his face.

During the game, the camera panned the crowd, showing Wainwright as a student, and Dick Vitale took a moment to comment: “Look at that wacko there with that hairdo! Look at that wacko!”

Coach has aspirations, too

After graduation, Wainwright aspired to work in basketball, and to become a coach somewhere. He chased various opportunities at almost every level: Division I, II and junior college. He became a head coach at community college in Sumter, S.C., but the school cut the basketball program after one year. Now, he commutes to Wake Tech from Wilson, where he has a day job as a mental health counselor for at-risk kids.

Like some of his players, Wainwright has aspirations; but unlike some of his players, he has come to terms with the fact that some dreams just remain dreams. Sometimes there is no grand achievement, no storybook ending – there is just the journey, and finding purpose and contentment along the way.

“You really don’t do it for money,” Wainwright, who receives compensation in the “four figures,” said of his coaching aspirations. “Everybody dreams of being Coach K or Roy Williams but, you know, reality is that 99 percent of people ain’t getting to that level. And (I’m) just going to try to be happy where I am.”

For most of the players and even Edwards, the young assistant coach, this is enough of a destination for now. About two years ago, Edwards was watching NCAA tournament games with a friend at the Ale House in Raleigh’s Glenwood South district, feeling somewhat adrift in life. He received a jolting phone call alerting him to the news that his apartment building was on fire. He lost his clothes and his furniture and spent more than a month living in a hotel.

A former high school basketball player with a passion for the sport, Edwards, who graduated from Green Hope High and then UNC-Wilmington, said he did a lot of “soul-searching” after the fire. He was working in computer software at Dude Solutions, and he felt a lack of purpose.

That’s what led him to coaching and, eventually, to Wainwright, who gave him a job. Edwards’ pay: $100 a month.

“People are all the time, like, thank you for working with the junior college kids, these kids need somebody like you,” said Edwards, who kept his day job in software. “And I’m dead serious when I tell them – I need them just as much as they need me. It works both ways.

“Because they’ve totally given me purpose. After the fire, after everything.”

During the practice last week, Edwards sat on the first row of bleachers and watched the team scrimmage. Most of the players on the court received scholarships amounting to a few hundred dollars. Most, Wainwright said, received federal Pell grants. More than half of them worked jobs, in addition to going to school and playing basketball, and more than half of them had been late to practice, which began when enough of them showed up.

Now it was nearing the end. Some players had to leave early. The court began to empty. A few remained. Edwards helped rebound missed shots and Wainwright watched from the sideline while players that life had left behind, in some ways, worked to catch up.

There was a trip to nationals to prepare for, and a college basketball tournament in March and, most of all, another chance.

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