For a brief moment, LeVelle Moton thought he was back in 1996.
Maybe it was because in a few days he would be returning to Enloe High School to have his jersey retired. Or maybe it had something to do with knowing March was around the corner, and his team seems to thrive on the hardwood when the weather changes outside.
Whatever the case, the N.C. Central basketball coach decided to challenge his team to a friendly shooting game after practice one day.
This time of year, practices are shorter. Moton’s mindset is if the players don’t have it by now, they’ll never get it. In the final stretch of the season, Moton’s practices are so short that even his wife was surprised at how quickly he returned home recently. The basketball grind from preseason workouts in the fall to two games a week through the winter can catch up with players, even ones in their late teens with fresh legs.
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So Moton wanted to have a little fun. He teamed up with assistant coaches Reggie Sharp and Eric Wilson and they played 3-on-3 shooting games against trios of teams made up of NCCU players. First group to hit 10 three-pointers won.
Nice competitive shooting game to end a long week, right?
Well, it didn’t go in favor of the players and the results weren’t exactly what Moton wanted. The team only won one game. The coaches won six.
When Moton left McDougald-McLendon Arena that day, he was concerned about the confidence of his team after losing multiple shooting games to a group of men who hadn’t played basketball since the late 90s.
“I left thinking, ‘Man what did I do?’” Moton recalled. “By the time I left, the gym was completely quiet, and it scared me.”
It wasn’t that the combination of Moton, Sharp and Wilson beat his team in a shooting game. It was how they responded to not only the coaches winning, but the barrage of trash talk that came from Moton.
“Every time I made one I’m talking junk,” Moton said. “I’m going back to 1996 on them. I’m just talking so much I can see them mentally breaking down.”
In 1996, Moton averaged 21.3 points per game (second in the CIAA) for the Eagles and was one of the top 3-point shooters in the conference. This season NCCU shoots 31 percent from 3, eighth in the MEAC. Moton out-shooting his team is no stretch. But he left concerned about the mental toughness of his players.
“You can’t let a 44 year-old man come out here and talk stone-cold smack to the point you just hang your head and just walk away,” Moton said. “I was worried. When something doesn’t go our way, how do we respond?”
That happened before a two-game swing to Norfolk State and Howard. The Eagles lost to the Spartans, who won the regular-season title, by five in overtime, then scored a MEAC-high 98 points in a win over Howard two days later.
All-MEAC center Raasean Davis said the Norfolk State game was the turning point of the season.
“We were really supposed to win that game, but I feel like that game we turned the corner,” Davis said. “We went to Howard with a little bit of motivation and a little confidence because we know we gave the Norfolk game away. We went into Howard knowing that we were supposed to win.”
Confidence is something Moton was afraid his team wouldn’t have after he went full Michael Jordan on his team with the next-level trash talk. Some of which isn’t suitable for sensitive ears.
“I remember what he said, but I can’t share it,” Davis said with a laugh. “It was all out of fun and love. It’s good sometimes to get some coach/player bonding.”
Love? Did it feel like much love during the shooting game?
“Yeah man, it was so bad,” Moton said about the trash talk. “None of it is ever rehearsed, I just went back to 1996 and told them that’s the difference between you and I, and I realized that was a little too much. I told them to not get mad, I’ve been doing this for 39 years to everybody, not just you.”
Larry McKnight is quick to point out he was on the one team that beat the coaches. He also remembers Moton pointing to his retired jersey, hanging on the wall at NCCU, every time he hit a shot.
“He has a lot of confidence in him,” McKnight said. “That’s great energy, we all need that around. Seeing your coach like that, it just builds you up that you can do the same thing. I love that type of stuff and I think the guys do too.”
Other than the jersey point and calling himself a Hall of Famer who out-shot a group of players in their 20s, Moton’s friendly trash talk went a lot deeper.
“I told them y’all terrible, you call yourself basketball players and you shoot everyday and you can’t outshoot your 44 year-old coach, you stink,” Moton recalled. “I told them not to bring their girlfriends to the game because they come to watch me. It gets ugly in there. I left it alone because it was so quiet. It was crazy.”
Somehow, the players built off of that.
“It gives all of us energy, makes us all feel better,” Davis said. “He’s the head of the snake. We lean on him the most.”