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Behind every good team is an even better coach. Look at all the legendary teams that have won titles, championships, and set records. Now, think about who coached those teams. There’s a mastermind behind the buckets, a conductor orchestrating a symphony of plays and tactics to get the ball through the net. A coach knows the game within the game—but a good one knows that the lessons learned from the game go far beyond the hardwood.
To coach a great team is one thing, but to have led a powerhouse program as both its standout player, and then its head coach is a whole different type of swagger. LeVelle Moton, head coach of the North Carolina Central men’s basketball team, is as captivating of a person as his story is. The three-time MEAC champion is one of NCCU’s all-time career leaders, and ranks in the top ten in almost every offensive category: he’s first in 3-point field goals made, third in scoring, fourth in free throws, fifth in assists, eighth in field goals made and his scoring average, 16.6, is ranked tenth all-time (he’s also ranked 11th in steals). After playing pro ball overseas in Indonesia, he returned back to his alma mater and became the head coach in 2009—under his leadership, the program has won MEAC regular season and tournament championships nearly every year since 2014. Last season, the Eagles made history and won the MEAC tournament for the third-straight year, clinching their third-consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance.
LeVelle went from “Poetry N’Moton” during his playing days to putting NCCU on the map, and has won Coach of the Year so many times, it might as well become his newest nickname. Still, accolades and winning titles aside, it’s the impact that LeVelle has had on his players that is spotlighted in the eight-part docu-series, Why Not Us: North Carolina Central Basketball, Executive Produced by Chris Paul and Stephen A. Smith and produced by Roadside Entertainment, Chris Paul’s Ohh Dip!!! Productions, Stephen A. Smith’s Mr. SAS Inc., and ESPN+.
When social unrest swept the country as Black lives were lost at the hands of police brutality, the Pauls knew how important it was to step up and amplify Black voices. Having worked with Roadside Entertainment on the film Crossroads, which follows a group of at-risk Black kids in the Charlotte area, they felt that now was the time to showcase HBCUs and how they prepare their athletes to fight through adversity on, and off the court.
Outside of the hallowed halls of collegiate institutions, life will by far prove to be their hardest teacher. LeVelle is not only preparing his players as athletes but the reality of what it’s like being Black in America.
In one scene, LeVelle and his staff demonstrate what it’s like to get pulled over by the police, and arrested while driving in a car.
Both Chris, and his brother CJ, wanted to produce a series that showcased just how important, and empowering HBCUs are. The Pauls, who grew up in North Carolina, personally know how special Historically Black Colleges and Universities are, as they come from a long-line of HBCU alums: both of their parents attended Winston Salem State, and other family members have attended both Winston-Salem, as well as North Carolina A&T. While Wake Forest was ten minutes closer to their home in Winston-Salem, the family would drive the extra twenty just to go to a Winston Salem State football game.
If you ask CJ, there was nothing like the atmosphere at an HBCU football game.
“It’s crazy like, it’s almost like that’s all we knew,” CJ told SLAM. “That’s what college sports was for us. Growing up in our community we were kind of like middle class but, you know my mom and dad went to Winston Salem State for short stints. We didn’t go to Wake Forest football and basketball games growing up even though Wake Forest was closer to us than Winston-Salem State was. But we would go to Winston Salem State football games after our pop warner games.”
While Paul would go on to suit up for Wake Forest, CJ took his talents to Hampton—where he learned not only what it was like to play for an illustrious HBCU institution but to be around so many different types of people. While fraternities and sororities can be seen on the quad, CJ felt like his basketball team was its own brotherhood.
“It’s funny and you guys will probably laugh at this, at HBCU’s fraternities and sororities are a big thing. Like a huge thing. One of my teammates his name was David Johnson and he’s the one who’s known for picking coach Merfeld up and they show every NCAA tournament now when they beat Iowa St. He made up a fraternity, like our fraternity when we were at the school was called Hoop Phi Hoop. So, outside the cafeteria in Hampton, everybody had their plots I guess you could say. Like he knew that Alphas was going to stand over here, and we was Hoop Phi Hoop. If one so if one of the fraternities would come eout and start strolling or doing all that he would always be like “Hoop Phi Hoop!” Like I’ll never forget that. It’s crazy I was at Hampton almost twenty years ago and I’ll never forget that.”
Both of the Paul brothers have continued to use their platform to bring awareness to Black institutions and HBCUs. After deciding to work on a docu-series with Roadside, they spoke to numerous coaches from different HBCU programs about the opportunity. Yet, there was one person who immediately caught the eye of both the Pauls and John and Ron at Roadside Entertainment.
“LeVelle is just such a captivating, motivating, engaging person who can really speak to all the issues that are going on around both from a basketball standpoint and a social justice standpoint,” says John Hirsch at Roadside. “We knew he was the guy from the first 2 minutes of talking.”
CJ, who has had a close relationship with LeVelle for nearly fifteen years, knew that he, and his powerhouse program at NCCU, was a story that should be shared.
“LeVelle is what something people call the black Duke,” CJ says. “He’s one so many championships in the MEAC, he’s just a winning coach and he gets great players, and they compete. And he coaches his butt off, so we wanted to show coach and his program and some of the challenges they’ve had with only having two baskets. They got one court and that court gets shared for practices, games for men’s and women’s basketball as well as volleyball. These PWI’s or these big institutions they got a practice facility and their game facility, it’s just different.”
What HBCUs can provide is a rich history and legacy that continues to impact the game. Basketball, whether it’s played in the pros or in college, isn’t great without the influence, accomplishments and inspiration of Black people. And if we’re talkin’ hoops, just look at all that John McLendon and LeVelle Molton have done while coaching at NCCU:
“John McLendon is one of the pioneers of basketball as we know it,” Ron Yassen points out. “And Coach Molton gets into it a little bit in the opening episode, but Mclendon is largely responsible for fast-break kind of basketball for the pace, the game that you see today can be traced back to his teachings as a coach. And I think one of the things that are fascinating is that history depends on who’s writing it. And so much of the history in America is created and has been created by African Americans, but yet the history was so often written by white Americans so what happens is so much gets lost in the telling. I think this program in basketball, there are obviously other HBCU programs in basketball, but this program has the legacy and also happens to have a coach who went to an HBCU, the same school that he’s coaching now, and come back to that school and is trying to share his own personal experience in life beyond basketball with the players in the program.”
If history depends on who is writing it, than a program’s legacy starts with a good coach, and it continues with the impact they’ve had on every player that walks into their gym. To truly understand how monumental HBCU basketball is, look no further than Why Not Us: North Carolina Central Basketball.
Why Not Us: North Carolina Central Basketball – A docu-series on ESPN+
Follow the NCCU basketball program over the course of the season, examining how it builds character and purpose in their players, and what it means to be a student-athlete at an HBCU. Stream now on ESPN+.