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Why Not Us

LeVelle Moton is becoming a legend while chasing one at North Carolina Central

‘Why Not Us’ docuseries reveals the pride, work ethic and character of HBCU basketball

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In the midst of tumultuous times, NCCU’s outspoken leader finds peace.

North Carolina Central University men’s basketball coach LeVelle Moton has been on the move his entire life. Whether it was his mother’s decision to move him and his brother from Boston to Raleigh, North Carolina, or his accomplished college and pro career, the goal was always better.

Better meant to push the pace, which led to Moton’s dash into the university’s record books. By the time he returned to coach at his alma mater in 2009, he had more than lived up to his last name. And maybe there’s no “I” in Moton because he was always giving — to the players, to the program. Pushing to titles, pushing through road trips, pushing himself, push, push, push.

So what happens when the “grind” grinds to a halt?

“As humans, I think we were all moving way too fast,” Moton said when asked about the pandemic and how it’s affected our lives. “I think we were all taking a lot of things for granted.”

You can tell that Moton is a man of spirituality. “There’s a lesson and a blessing that occurs with everything in life,” he said. His attitude and approach to adversity invoke a biblical passage: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

When most people talk about spirituality, they speak about a higher power. Moton is strong enough to talk about the weakness.

“I’ve been an advocate on mental health. I think it’s needed. I think it should be required for everyone,” Moton said. “My therapist told me something the other day, and it was the light bulb [going off].

“She said, ‘You’re not an emotional dumpster for everyone to drop their trash off.’ That told me you can’t be everything to everyone. You can’t pour from an empty cup.”

That realization was eye-opening for Moton, who said that the rigors of basketball life and leadership affected his personal life.

“Now, we need our opportunities. Now, we need our equality. We’re no longer shutting up and dribbling. We need our 40 acres and a mule that we’ve been promised for so long. And I think that captures the essence of Why Not Us.”

“I’m in a position where so many people rely on me. The amount of calls and text messages within a day is crazy. Sometimes they bring their burdens and problems, and it’s natural for me to accept their problems and burdens and carry that if it was mine, and it bogs me down,” he said. “It doesn’t allow me to be the best person I can be. If I can’t be the best person I can be, I’m no longer the best husband, father, son, brother that I can be.”

His therapist made a suggestion — when you get home, detach. To quote North Carolina native and rapper Phonte, one half of The Foreign Exchange, leave it all behind.

“We all live by a job in a sense. And I tell people all the time, basketball is what I do, it’s not who I am,” Moton said. “Now, I’ve learned to compartmentalize my life. When I get home now, I cut my phone off. That was at the request of my therapist.

“It’s been [one] of the best things that has happened to me. I’ve been able to spend time with my children, because with the profession that I’m in, I spend more time with other people’s kids than I do my own.”

Sometimes outspoken, always focused

By Black folks’ standards, Moton is fine. You know how we do. We can have the weight of the world on our shoulders, but if you ask how we doing: “We good.”

Moton’s more honest, though. Eternally outspoken.

In one breath, he’s demanding more from white Power 5 coaches in the face of police brutality. In the next, he’s deadpanning on Twitter about men’s shopping habits. His commentary is remarkable because it’s always relevant — and revealing. Quite naturally, he’s candid about the effects of COVID-19 on his basketball team.

“We quarantined for 51 days. We’ve only practiced as a team seven days this season. Mentally, it jacks you up,” he said. “Factor in some of the soft tissue injuries that we’re going through, and we haven’t had an entire team in practice or in the game.”

After the NCCU Eagles swept South Carolina State in a back-to-back doubleheader, including a one-point win in the second game, they lost back-to-back games the following week to Florida A&M.

For a man who was given the nickname “Poetry” in college, the inability to develop any sort of rhythm has to be maddening. It was only a few days ago that he reiterated a comment from a friend who said the season feels like a “bad AAU tournament.”

Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul (left) with LeVelle Moton (right) at North Carolina Central. Paul is executive producer of the docuseries.

"Why Not Us: North Carolina Central Basketball" / ESPN+

Everything hits differently underneath those NCCU banners. The lineage, the legacy. It is a high calling. It’s what makes the historically Black university in Durham, North Carolina, the perfect candidate for the upcoming docuseries, Why Not Us: North Carolina Central University Men’s Basketball, which debuts Friday on ESPN+.

The eight-part docuseries is not just a partnership between Moton, Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul and ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith. It’s undoubtedly homegrown and it’s so North Carolina.

“This past summer, there were a couple of production companies that reached out to me, and they said we’re interested in a doing a documentary on me, and I was like, ‘Huh?’ ” he said with a laugh. “I eventually chose Chris because of the relationship, and I trusted him, and it was a North Carolina thing. Once I signed with his production company, a week later, ESPN and Disney picked it up.”

Moton takes pride in the “authenticity” of the series, both in terms of his coaching style and the nature of sports at historically Black universities.

“I coach how I coach. … I’m very demanding. It’s OK to be demanding, just not demeaning. We gonna try to get the best out of everything, because we gotta fight for everything,” he said. “You’re not just gonna walk in here and see chefs and training tables and all of these luxurious resources. Nah, we gotta grind, man. We gotta have a certain mentality. Everything we’ve achieved has been earned, not given. That’s the story of the doc.”

In the footsteps of a legend

Even with an accomplished playing and coaching career at NCCU, Moton still considers himself a “caretaker” of the program built by legendary coach John McLendon.

“My job is to bring the car back with no scratches and a full tank of gas, and keep it clean,” Moton said. “Back in those days, when he migrated from Kansas, after learning the game from James Naismith, McLendon took what he knew and then applied his spin on it. Basketball as we know it, the fast-break offense, the motion offense, the four corners, all that was John McLendon, and that’s how we’re playing the game right now.”

McLendon, the first Black head coach in professional sports, holds a special place in Moton’s heart.

“I will always pay homage to him. I had the chance to meet him and speak to him as a player at North Carolina Central, and it gives me chills and goose bumps to speak about him right now,” Moton said. “The reality is, I’m coaching at a place in the game of basketball, when you connect the dots, it goes back to the creation [of the game of basketball]. I’m proud to be at North Carolina Central because of him, and because he was the one who initiated this program and innovated this program, and the game as we know it.”

The current coach at NCCU also acknowledges that the former coach — the “best to ever do it,” in Moton’s eyes — hasn’t received nearly enough of the credit he deserves.

North Carolina Central men’s basketball coach LeVelle Moton at practice.

"Why Not Us: North Carolina Central Basketball" / ESPN+

“It’s kind of like what Little Richard and Chuck Berry feel about rock ’n’ roll in relation to Elvis. No disrespect to Elvis, but ‘Tutti Frutti’ and all those songs, that’s Little Richard,” Moton said. “No disrespect to Arnold Palmer, but he was not the first to pour lemonade and tea in a cup and mix it. Grandma been doing that forever. Grandma ain’t get no credit. Back in those days, we didn’t get the proper credit for our inventions and creations.

“I think this documentary can shine a strong light on John McLendon,” he added. “For him to uphold the program with limited resources and driving across the country. Not receiving the credit for his inventions, but yet still holding basketball clinics to share his knowledge and wisdom with everyone else. It’s kind of like the equivalent of what Black people always went through.”

The Black experience, in and of itself, answers the question of Why Not Us. Moton hopes that viewers, particularly African American viewers, will embrace that cultural pride.

“I think that’s superimportant. Shine a light on who we are. Let’s not change who we are because a camera’s here,” he said. “We are the culture. We always been the culture. What we say, what we do, how we dress, becomes the culture. Everything about us is just dope, and we have to realize that. We can’t water that down or sanitize that because there’s some cameras in here.”

That sense of honesty — not just Moton’s outspokenness and introspective nature, but an honest look at Black life, promises to make this docuseries a triumph.

“Black people, in particular, have been discriminated against. We’ve been wronged. Acts of sin have been committed against us. Everything possible and then some that can happen to a human in its rawest and most degrading form, has happened to us,” Moton said.

“Now, we need our opportunities. Now, we need our equality. We’re no longer shutting up and dribbling. We need our 40 acres and a mule that we’ve been promised for so long. And I think that captures the essence of Why Not Us.”

Ken J. Makin is a freelance writer and the host of the Makin’ A Difference podcast. Before and after commentating, he’s thinking about his wife and his son.