UPDATE (10:20 a.m.): North Carolina Central University lost to Iowa State University 93-75 late Friday night. The Eagles matched Iowa State basket-for-basket for a while and were down just 40-39 with one minute left in the first half. But Iowa State never looked back, dominating the second half.
RALEIGH, N.C.—N.C. Central Eagles basketball coach LeVelle Moton will face the Iowa State Cyclones tonight in the NCAA tournament without his family. A freak coffee accident sent his infant son to the hospital with burns. But Moton and N.C. Central have faced adversity before, and they’ll take on the East Regional No. 3 seed Cyclones at about 10 p.m.
N.C. Central, a historically black college, is in just its third year of Division I basketball and its fifth year with Moton as coach. Champions of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, the Eagles are a No. 14 seed and riding a 20-game winning streak. Moton, 39, might not be the best-known coach in the area—the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill metropolitan area sent four teams to the Big Dance—but he’s quite possibly the most respected.
In 1944, N.C. Central played a secret basketball game against an intramural team from Duke Medical School that had arguably the best players in town (even better than the ones on Duke University’s squad). The Eagles won 88-44. Then, in further violation of Jim Crow laws, the two teams mixed players and played a game with integrated teams. Today, school’s Atlantic Coast Conference neighbors—Duke, the University of North Carolina, and North Carolina State University—still often overshadow it.
The Eagles had not played postseason basketball at any level since 1997. But Moton, an N.C. Central alumnus with a brief National Basketball Association career, brought new life to the program. Moton himself grew up in Raleigh in a now-defunct housing project. “When I look in these kids’ eyes on my basketball team, half of my team does not have fathers,” he told me. “I know what that does to you. I know what it feels like to be a kid longing for your daddy to come home.”
His coaching strategy then, above basketball, is to build men. He has mentored not only his own players, but also NBA names such as Chris Paul. “I want these young men to understand that there’s life after basketball,” he said.
Moton’s life after basketball is his “Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” he said, and his wife and two kids. They’re his motivation. His 5-year-old daughter, Brooke, and he have a ritual. “Before the game starts, I look up in the stands and I find her,” he said. “We make a heart-shaped sign with our hands, we close one eye and peek through it and blow each other a kiss.”
Saturday night, though, when N.C. Central won its conference tournament, Moton looked to see his daughter sleeping. In the game’s final moments, as the Eagles salted away the NCAA berth-clinching 71-62 win, he caught a glimpse of her across the arena and broke down. “She’s waving her hand trying to get my attention, and I peep and I see it,” he said.
He’ll have to take on Iowa State without her, though. The family didn’t travel with the team after his son’s accident Tuesday, Raleigh’s News & Observer reported. Moton almost stayed home until doctors said his son, LeVelle Jr., would be fine. “You work your entire life to get to this moment,” Moton said, “and one thing I learned is success is nothing without someone to share it with.”
Moton and N.C. Central face a tough task. Iowa State averaged 86 points in winning the Big 12 Conference championship, beating No. 10 Kansas in the process. “I was like, ‘Yay!’ Then I’m like, ‘Hold on…,’” he told a radio audience. “It hurts my stomach to talk about them. That’s how good they are,” he said Tuesday. “You pull your hair out thinking, ‘How do I guard these guys?’”
Moton is confident in the hearts of the players he recruited, though. “I’m going to demand greatness from you every single day,” he said. “A lot of guys don’t want to hear that.”