To this day, LeVelle Moton doesn’t consider himself the head basketball coach at North Carolina Central. Moton calls himself a caretaker of a program that was established by the late John McLendon.
When it comes to basketball – not just North Carolina Central basketball – McLendon’s name is legendary.
McLendon, who passed away in 1999 at the age of 84, is recognized as the first African-American coach at a predominately white school (Cleveland State) and the first African-American head coach in any professional sport. McLendon coached at N.C. Central, then known as North Carolina College for Negros, leading the Eagles to eight CIAA titles, and his teams were credited with modernizing the game.
McLendon is in the Dr. James Naismith coaching tree, and has a shrine honoring him at the University of Kansas. He’s been inducted into the Naismith National Basketball Hall of Fame twice – once, in 1979 as a contributor, and again in 2007 as a coach – but it didn’t sit well with Moton that there wasn’t more done to honor McLendon at N.C. Central, where the basketball arena is named after McLendon, along with civic leader Richard McDougald.
“It’s almost like following in the footsteps of Dean Smith,” Moton said. “You’re not truly the coach there, just hold this as long as you can.”
Honors and idols
Moton has been holding the position for nine years at his alma mater and soon he will share a space in Eagles’ history with McLendon.
Along with former player Charles “Tex” Harrison and former women’s star Amba Kongolo, Moton and McLendon’s jersey’s will be retired this month in separate ceremonies. Moton will be honored Monday during halftime of the Eagles’ game against Hampton University (7 pm, ESPNU). Kongolo, who was drafted by the WNBA in 2002, had her jersey retired on Saturday after the women’s home game against Delaware State. Harrison’s and McLendon’s jerseys will be retired on March 1.
Moton, who scored 1,714 points during his playing days at N.C. Central, has had his No. 15 jersey honored before – it has been on a wall inside McDougald-McLendon Arena – but after Monday no other player will wear his number again.
Moton, the third leading scorer in school history remembers stepping foot on campus and meeting one of his idols, former NCCU and Boston Celtics guard Sam Jones. Growing up in Boston, Moton followed Jones’ career closely. Jones played 12 years for the Celtics and has the second most NBA Championships (10) of any player, trailing his former Boston teammate Bill Russell (11). Jones played for McLendon at NCCU from 1951-1954, and 1956-57.
Dreaming of records
After being introduced to Jones by his former coach, Greg Jackson, Moton ran down to the Sports Information Director’s office and asked him how many points he would have to score to break Jones’ record. Jones is still second all-time in school history with 1,745 points.
“I hadn’t scored a bucket, but I wanted to know his record because I was about to go and get all of them,” Moton said. “He showed me all the records and I made a conscious effort to go and (break) all of his records because that’s greatness right there, and if I even came close I did my job. I think I missed him by like 30 points.”
Moton didn’t catch Jones on the court, but if he sticks around Durham long enough, he could surpass McLendon, who won 239 games from 1940-1952. After Saturday’s win over Delaware State, Moton has 124 wins, third all-time in school history, tying him with Jackson, his former coach.
More important to Moton is making sure his school properly honors one of the true pioneers of the game.
“It really bugged me that here’s a man, the way the game is played, he’s the inventor of that,” Moton said. “There is a shrine to John McLendon at Kansas, how we can we have a shrine at Kansas but not at North Carolina Central where he laid down his foundation? That never sat well with me and hopefully it will.”
‘A beautiful thing’
Moton talked a lot about McLendon, and rightfully so, but at the end of the day his jersey, and a banner with his image, will hang right next to the coach he idolizes. Moton said all players set out to have their jerseys hanging from the rafters from the first time they pick up a basketball. For Moton, it’s all about leaving a legacy, something his daughter Brooke and his son LeVelle, Jr. can uphold and be proud of. Moton told a story about walking into the arena one day and his son pointing to the No. 15 hanging on the wall and saying “look, my name is up there.”
He was right, but Moton had to explain that particular jersey didn’t belong to him, but that’s something he could shoot for.
“I told him that’ not how it goes,” Moton said with a laugh. “I sat him down and said ‘that’s not you up there, that’s daddy.’ But now his goal is to get up there and he’s five, and it’s already struck a chord in him.”
While it was more important for Moton to make sure McLendon was properly honored, he is grateful to see his jersey honored while he is still around.
“It’s a beautiful thing. It’s everything,” Moton said. “It’s an honor to just being able to smell your roses while you’re still here.”
During the ceremony, there was a video tribute to Moton before his banner was unveiled. With his son, VJ, squeezing his hand, Moton became emotional. He said the emotions came from the thoughts of everything that flashed before his eyes from his life.
“People look at me now and see a finished product,” Moton said. “But there are so many people out there who supported me when I was a kid and I was in the streets and one bad decision away from ending up in prison or in the cemetery. I was fortunate to have some mentors, people who saw things in me and demanded greatness from me.”