Editor's note: Coach LeVelle Moton will take his N.C. Central University Eagles back to the NCAA men's basketball tournament this week. As executive editor of The N&O, John Drescher wrote this column about Moton in the summer of 2014.
LeVelle Moton returned to his old neighborhood one morning this week and traveled back in time to the former center of his universe: the basketball courts at Lane Street Mini Park, just east of Raleigh’s Oakwood neighborhood in what was once a tough part of town.
Within three minutes, a car pulled over. The driver rolled down the passenger-side window and yelled at Moton, 40, the men’s basketball coach at N.C. Central University in Durham.
Moton walked over, leaned in the window and shook hands hard with the man, who is 15 to 20 years older than Moton and once ran a nearby pool hall.
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“When you going to come see me?” Moton said.
They shook hands again, hard again, the sound of their slapping hands echoing across the court.
“Good seeing you!” the older man yelled out the window as he drove away.
This area once was Moton’s neighborhood – and, in some ways, it still is and always will be, even though he now lives in Durham. He left years ago but returns from time to time as The Pride of Lane Street, drawn by powerful forces that made him a successful man and a contented husband and father.
The area is burgeoning now with dozens of new and renovated houses and sweet cars in the driveways. But when Moton was growing up there 25 years ago, it had rough, sharp and dangerous edges that cut down many a young man.
The neighborhood and its people are central characters in Moton’s new book, “The Worst Times Are The Best Times,” which Moton co-wrote with former News & Observer reporter Edward G. Robinson III. They will talk about the book Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh.
“I am that rose that grew from concrete,” Moton writes, paraphrasing the late rapper Tupac Shakur. “If you think in terms of statistics and news reports, I was not supposed to make it in society, but I did. With love and support – water that helped me grow – I inched through the cracks and now stand tall like that rose.”
Moton was a star basketball player at Daniels Middle, Enloe High and NCCU. He played professionally overseas and then taught and coached in Wake public schools. He joined NCCU as an assistant coach in 2007 and became head coach in 2009. Last year, he earned his master’s degree in special education.
Moton credits his mother, Hattie McDougald, and his late grandmother, Mattie McDougald, for their love, values and wisdom. Moton’s grandmother lived across Lane Street from the basketball courts. Moton, his mother and brother lived a few blocks away on Jones Street.
Moton desperately wanted each woman to be proud of him.
Moton also credits many other adults who helped him along the way, including some people you might not expect.
The Lane Street Mini Park was the social center of the neighborhood – and usually not in a good way. It was the place neighborhood people went to drink alcohol and buy, sell and use drugs, including crack cocaine. It’s where men went to hire prostitutes.
About once a week, Moton told me, there was a fight or a shooting. He remembered a jilted woman with a long knife slicing her boyfriend near the armpit, the tremendous gush of blood and the man staggering and falling in Lane Street.
All of this, Moton noted, was just a few blocks from the governor’s mansion, a contrast that puzzled him as a teenager.
A powerful void
The neighborhood operated under its own set of unwritten rules, enforced by the OGs – the Original Gangsters.
The OGs respected Moton’s mother and grandmother. And they respected Moton’s dream of having a life different from theirs.
“They tried to protect me,” Moton said. “They were really great guys. That (illegal activity) was just their line of business. They saw something in me.”
Moton grew up without his father, who left the family when he was 4. He writes powerfully about the pain and void caused by his father’s absence. There weren’t many fathers living with their kids on Lane and Jones streets. “For the most part, we went on with our lives without dads, playing tough, secretly desiring their presence,” he writes.
Robinson, Moton’s co-author, reported for The N&O from 2004 to 2012. He met Moton when he was coaching at Sanderson High. “Every time I saw him, he had a story about something,” Robinson told me this week.
Robinson liked that Moton was an old school, straight-arrow kind of guy. He thought Moton’s stories could be compiled into a book that would get young people and their parents talking. Moton resisted for several years, believing he didn’t have anything special to say. But in spring of 2013, Moton finally said OK.
Later that year, NCCU embarked on its best season ever. Moton’s disciplined, senior-led team went on a magical run. Central beat N.C. State in Raleigh, won its conference championship and went to the NCAA Division I tournament for the first time. Moton is a rising star.
“I won’t lie to you: It’s wonderful timing,” Robinson chuckled about the book.
At a book party in Raleigh last week, Moton was covered with love by several hundred old friends and mentors. The boy who grew up at the Lane Street Mini Park had grown into the man they knew he could become.
“In their eyes,” he said, speaking of the friends and adults from his childhood, “I think there’s a sense of pride. I’m representing them.”
Standing on his old court, he paused slightly and said, “I’m proud to hold that honor.”