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Chris Paul HBCU Tip-off

Virginia Union’s defensive focus is part of Ben Wallace’s legacy for the Panthers

Wallace, now a Basketball Hall of Famer, and VUU coach Jay Butler played together from 1994 to 1996

UNCASVILLE, Conn. — Historically Black West Virginia State and Virginia Union aren’t strangers to making history.

In the 1950 NBA draft, former West Virginia State players Charles “Chuck” Cooper and Earl Lloyd were the first Black players drafted into the league when the Boston Celtics selected Cooper 13th overall and Lloyd went 101st to the Washington Capitols. On Oct. 31, 1950, Lloyd was the first Black player to play in an NBA game, and in 1955, he became one of the first Black players on an NBA championship team with the Syracuse Nationals.

Virginia Union alumnus Ben Wallace earned four NBA Defensive Player of the Year awards, won the 2004 NBA championship with the Detroit Pistons and this year became the first undrafted player inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

So it was only fitting that both teams channeled their storied histories while participating in the first game of the inaugural Chris Paul HBCU Tip-Off at the Mohegan Sun Arena. Participating teams West Virginia State, Virginia Union, Morehouse and Winston-Salem State are all Division II programs and historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) from the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA), Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference and Mountain East Conference.

West Virginia State head coach Bryan Poore took the opportunity to dive deeper into the rich history of HBCU basketball with his team and honor the players who came before them.

“One of the things that I told the guys is we’re playing for Earl Lloyd. That’s why we got chosen because of Lloyd’s legacy, and that’s what I told them before the game was played for Earl. Not only was Mr. Lloyd the first Black player to ever play an NBA game. He went on to be one of the first two Black NBA champions, the first Black NBA assistant coach and the first Black NBA full-time head coach, and not very many people know his story,” Poore said.

“Ever since I met Earl back in 2003-04, when I brought him back and retired his jersey, we became very, very close,” Poore continued. “He’s a special person [and] individual. He’s got a dear place in my heart. So for us to be chosen because of him is really special.”

With the Basketball Hall of Fame less than an hour away, it provided the Virginia Union team the opportunity to see Wallace’s Pistons jersey hang for the first time. Virginia Union head coach Jay Butler also spoke about Charles Oakley, who was named the National Association of Basketball Coaches Division II Player of the Year in 1985 before going on to have a 19-year NBA career.

The Virginia Union basketball team stand in front of Ben Wallace’s Hall of Fame exhibit in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Virginia Union University Athletic Department

“Ben Wallace was going into the Hall of Fame that same year, so when I saw the email, it kind of put it together. We had the opportunity to go to the Hall of Fame to see his jersey put up in the Hall of Fame,” Butler said. “Virginia Union basketball [has] a rich history of winning championships in the CIAA. We [have] three national championships on the men’s side. Then you talk about NBA players Charles Oakley, A.J. English, Terry Davis, Ben Wallace.”

Butler played with Wallace at Virginia Union from 1994 to 1996 and describes his return to coach his alma mater as a dream come true. Butler remembers the first time he saw Wallace, then a junior college transfer, attend an open practice. He knew Wallace was going to be the difference-maker for the team.

“In 1994, the CIAA thought we [were] going to fall off. So we [were] coming off winning the CIAA but we lost a lot of things. Then Ben came to campus in the summer, and we played the open gym. I knew from day one we will be No. 1 in the country again. Ben was aggressive on the boards, he ran the floor like a god. He could handle the basketball then. He was such a smart basketball player. He was just a force for Division II basketball in his two years at Union.”

Wallace’s presence is still felt around the Virginia Union program. Players have had opportunities to meet Wallace during practices and surprise pop-up visits to the university. The Panthers connected to their defensive roots and prowess on Monday, winning their opening-round matchup of the tournament against West Virginia State 75-49 to advance to the championship against reigning CIAA champion Winston-Salem State, which beat Morehouse 58-45 in the second game.

The Virginia Union Panthers held the Winston-State Yellow Jackets to 27.6% shooting from the field, including a dominant second half when the Panthers didn’t relinquish a 3-pointer and held the Yellow Jackets to 20% shooting. Butler has worked hard to instill the defensive pride in his players that he and Wallace established nearly two decades earlier.

“That’s the one thing we took pride in on that team that we played on from ’94-’95. I was a small, quick point guard. I used to put pressure on the guards. But I knew when those guards or anybody ran through, there was Ben. Ben was going to block a lot of the shots because we took pride on the defense and we’ve always been No. 1 defensively,” Butler said. “I tell the guys, defense wins championships. So they started to buy into playing great defense and we saw in the second half holding West Virginia to 14 points, which was a great defensive performance.”

Mia Berry is a 2020 graduate of Notre Dame University with a B.A. degree in film, TV and theatre. She is the HBCU reporter for The Undefeated.