The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the basketball seasons of every college team in the U.S. But to North Carolina Central University men’s basketball coach LeVelle Moton, some schools have gotten hit harder than others. In a recent feature published in The News & Observer, Moton shares how the pandemic is highlighting financial inequities among colleges, and how HBCU students are powering through regardless. Find the full piece written by Andrew Carter below.
LeVelle Moton coaches basketball with an urgency and energy that suggests he doesn’t have much use for his chair on the N.C. Central bench. He does not pace beside the court so much as he sprints along it in short, frenetic bursts. When the action is on the other side of the floor, the sideline seems but a suggestion, what with Moton stepping over it to yell or to encourage.
Sometimes, he strains to contain himself from running out and calling for next, as he might have during a pickup game in his younger years at a playground off of Lane Street in Southeast Raleigh. It has never been easy for Moton, 45 and a bit heavier but still as animated and competitive as during playing days at N.C. Central, to be a bystander.
It wasn’t so long ago, then, that someone who has grown close to Moton during this season, the longest and most difficult of his coaching career, offered him praise for the most basic of acts. For a moment during a recent game, Moton took a seat. He stopped moving. He allowed himself to be and offered a brief impersonation of a man who for once felt like he could finally rest.
“My therapist the other day said, ‘I’m so proud of you,’ ” Moton said during a recent interview, recounting the back-and-forth from one of the sessions that has helped keep him going. “ ‘Like, you just sat on the bench and just weren’t running up and down the sidelines like you normally do.’ ”
Moton’s response: “Why would I?”
“When you’ve practiced 11 times, like what am I demanding?” he asked. “We haven’t formulated any habits. My mom called me and said, ‘That don’t look like a team that you’ve ever coached, going back to middle school.’ And I said, ‘Ma,’ I said, ‘You don’t know a lot of the back stories to a lot of these guys. They’ve been through so much.’”
His players’ pain has had Moton trying to cast aside his own.
Perhaps nowhere in the country better illustrates the divide between the haves and have-nots of college athletics than Durham. On the west side of town, where acres of manicured grounds and stone buildings have replaced part of a forest of old pines, is the campus of Duke University.
Its basketball arena, Cameron Indoor Stadium, is one of the sport’s cathedrals; next to it is a high-security, multi-story fortress that encompasses the basketball offices. Duke men’s basketball team, long among the nation’s premier programs, generated $35.5 million in revenue in 2018, the most recent year for which U.S. Department of Education college athletics financial data is available.
Few college basketball programs anywhere exceed the resources of Duke, which can afford to provide its athletes luxuries other schools cannot. Though the pandemic has disrupted college athletics everywhere, to varying degrees, Duke’s basketball team this season has existed in a makeshift bubble at the Washington Duke Inn, a luxury hotel within walking distance of campus. The cheapest room there Saturday night was $288.
About 4.5 miles away, just south of downtown Durham, is the campus of N.C. Central. Duke and Central are both Division I basketball programs, yet the similarities between the two largely end there. In 2018, Central’s men’s basketball program generated roughly 5% of Duke’s revenue — or about $1.7 million, according to the most recently available Department of Education data.
Unlike Duke, Central has not been able to relocate athletes to a hotel. Central’s coach, LeVelle Moton, attributes some of his team’s woes with the coronavirus to its living arrangements, with four players sharing a suite in a dormitory. While Duke, North Carolina and most ACC schools have played at least 20 games this season, N.C. Central, a charter member of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, has played just 13, winning only five.
And though he empathized with what athletes everywhere have endured this season, Moton wondered about the arrangements just across town.
“Can you imagine the meals they eat in there?” he asked of Duke’s pandemic hotel. “What guy wouldn’t like to stay at the Washington Duke Inn? So those are adjustments that those programs can make that we just can’t make. We don’t have the funding to be able to continuously pump that into just a hotel stay.
“But that’s what separates the big dogs from the little dog.”
The college basketball season has reached its holy month, and it has been an extended odyssey for all schools, at all levels. Teams in the so-called Power Five conferences have not been immune to the realities of the pandemic, and the challenges of attempting to forge on through four months of unpredictability.
Throughout the sport, games have been scheduled and called off and rescheduled. Players have been forced into quarantines following positive tests. Teams have endured long stretches without competition, with some marquee programs — North Carolina included — soliciting opponents through social media, as if arranging an after-school run at the neighborhood Y.
And yet perhaps no league has faced a longer road to March than the MEAC, which in men’s basketball includes N.C. Central and 10 other Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The MEAC tournament will begin later this week in Norfolk, Va., and it will be unlike any in recent memory.
For one thing, the Eagles of N.C. Central, who for years have set the standard in their league, are not among the favorites to win. For another, the tournament will include only eight of the league’s 11 teams. Bethune-Cookman and Maryland Eastern Shore opted out of the season before it began. Another MEAC school, Howard, decided to stop playing in February, after its virus-plagued attempt to play ended after only five games.
North Carolina A&T enters the MEAC tournament as perhaps the team to beat, yet it’s not been easy for the Aggies, either. An emphasis on playing as many games as early as possible, A&T coach Will Jones said, led to nagging injuries that have plagued his team. He’s thankful, at least, to have played 21 games.
“I’m pretty sure some HBCUs, like in the MEAC, they decided not to play maybe for having to pay for testing – the testing cost. Is it worth it? Is it better for us just to wait til next year?” Jones said. “Wasn’t able to play those guarantee games to get that extra budget so that you could travel from school to school. So all of those things may have been a piece of it in terms of the HBCU side.”
The opt-outs are one part of a story that has underscored the inequities that define college athletics, and reinforced the dividing line between those schools with the resources — or financial pressure, depending on perspective — to play through a pandemic, and those that thought better of trying. N.C. Central’s start-and-stop-and-start season represents another part of that story.
“Out of 350 Division I teams in the nation, I don’t think anyone’s been hit by this COVID the way we have, and still continued,” Moton said. “I think the teams that got hit remotely close to what we had, or a fraction of what we were going through, they canceled their season.”
But then he asked himself: Is a bad, strange, disrupted season better than none at all?
“We have guys that’s going to graduate,” Moton said. “So if you take basketball away from them, are they incentivized to get through school?”
Late last week, Ingrid Wicker McCree, the N.C. Central athletic director since 2008, spent part of an afternoon writing thank you letters to the school’s men’s and women’s basketball players. She said she wanted them to know that it had taken “a lot of courage” to continue playing this season, despite the circumstances.
The men’s team had been forced to quarantine more than any other at Central, where the cost of the pandemic has been especially high. The university recently announced that it would discontinue its baseball program after this season, due to COVID-mandated budget cuts. Central’s football team opted out of a spring season, which the MEAC then canceled.
The teams that have gone on, like men’s and women’s basketball, have made sacrifices, perhaps none greater than the prospect of isolation. At Central, athletes in need of quarantining move into a separate dorm where, as McCree described it, “they’re not even allowed to go outside for fresh air, for those 10 to 14 days.”
“So if you could only imagine just the mental aspect of what they’ve gone through,” she said. “So I really take my hat off to them and to the coaches, to our athletic training staff that’s tried their best to keep them as healthy as possible, because it has been difficult to come off of a 14-day quarantine and then go right back into playing.”
In November, Moton sought advice from an old friend about how the quarantine might affect his players. The friend was serving a prison sentence, and had been incarcerated then for 14 years. The men shared a phone conversation, Moton listening while his friend described the torment of confinement:
“If you want to break this guy down, put him in isolation.”
Months later Moton could still recite parts of the conversation, how his friend said he’d “seen grown men cry and break to their knees when their mama couldn’t come visit them on their birthday.” And now, throughout this long season, it was Moton’s team, a group of barely-adult college basketball players, isolating themselves to play.
“I hate to use the penitentiary reference to Black men — like I hate that part of it,” Moton said. “But it was real. Like, our guys broke. They broke.”
In December, his team had played one game in about two weeks time when North Carolina offered a chance to play at the Smith Center. At the time, Moton said, he had players coming off of quarantines who’d barely practiced.
“I’m like, ‘Dude what do you know?’ ” he said, recounting his speech before the UNC game. “What plays do you know? Because you ain’t been here. What do you know? We’re drawing up plays in the dirt.”
The Eagles lost by only six. They didn’t play again for 49 days.
From his seat on the Central bench, if he ever used it, Moton could look to his right, at the wall on one side of McDougald-McLendon Arena, and see himself on a large banner. He remains one of the best players in school history, and his No. 15 has been retired. In the rafters, other banners commemorate the conference championships and NCAA tournament appearances.
This is Moton’s 12th season as Central’s head coach, and when he began in 2009 he inherited a program that had won eight games the previous two seasons, ones part of the transition from Division II dominance in the CIAA to Division I. By Moton’s third season, and Central’s first back in the MEAC since 1979, the Eagles finished with a winning record.
By his fifth, they made the NCAA tournament as a No. 14 seed. Three other NCAA tournament appearances have followed, all of them in consecutive seasons from 2017 through 2019.
The success has made the travails of the past several months especially more painful.
“I just want to get them the best possible experience that they can possibly have,” Moton said of his players, and especially of his seniors. “And the downfall is the embarrassment. The downfall is the disappointment. The downfall is that we’re not very good, nor should we be very good.”
More than once, Moton has dismissed his team early from practice because of a lack of energy, engagement or both. More than once, he has overheard his players expressing apathy about their circumstances — which is the one thing, perhaps above all, that Moton is trying to combat.
In the locker room one day, after the Eagles had already endured a couple of quarantines, Moton casually listened to his players discussing the possibility of a canceled season. He said his senior point guard, Jordan Perkins, reacted with a shrug: “It don’t even matter to me,” Moton heard him say.
“He’s won three consecutive (MEAC) championships as a point guard, and he’s uttering, like, I don’t care if they cancel,” Moton said. “That’s wild. He’s known as a fierce competitor. But he’s saying that because he’s breaking, or broken.”
It has been difficult enough for Moton to keep it together, himself. As much as the pandemic has exacerbated inequities in college athletics, he has observed the same dynamic in his own life. He’s watched how the virus has decimated members of his home community, predominately Black, outside of downtown Raleigh.
In Wake County, 31% of those who’ve died from the virus have been Black. In the past year, Moton said he’s lost five friends to the virus — some of whom he’d known since childhood. They’d grown up together, most of them, and they’d once been kids “who would walk in my home without knocking,” Moton said. One of the friends he lost taught Moton and his older brother how to play basketball.
Another was his childhood best friend, Pat Pulley. He was 47. Moton served as a pallbearer.
“I’ve never been a pallbearer,” he said. “And releasing your friend into the ground — I don’t even have words. It killed me and it crushed me. It still crushes me.”
It bothers Moton that he can’t be as hands-on as he normally would be with his team. That he can’t be as close without fear of catching something and bringing it back to his 73-year-old mother, whom he cares for. For months, he’s walked through her door, set her groceries on a table and walked out without so much as a hug.
“These are the backstories,” Moton said, “that people don’t get an opportunity to see, hear or care about because in basketball our pain has become their entertainment. All they care about is just getting away from their reality and watching us for two hours and having bragging rights.
“That’s all people care about.”
He was talking on the phone, driving, unleashing thoughts he’d been thinking for a while. They weigh on him. A couple days later, he led his team out onto the court before the first of two home games against Florida A&M. As usual, Moton did not take his seat for a good while.
He moved up and down the sideline as his team built a lead. He yanked at his mask to yell at his players. He tried to lead, to give his guys something good in this awful year. Moton only took a seat during timeouts, and after about 10 minutes of game time, but then he was back up again.
He couldn’t help it. Halftime came and went, and so did Central’s lead, and another game ended in defeat. The longest season continued on.