In March 2019, the Durham community rallied behind its lesser-known Division I hoops squad, the North Carolina Central University Men’s Basketball Team, as the school set its sights on its first-ever win in the NCAA Tournament. While their 78-74 loss to North Dakota State University was an upset, it opened up a larger conversation about why a historically black university’s chances of succeeding on the biggest stage in college basketball have traditionally been so slim.
This question and more are being addressed in a new eight-part ESPN+ docuseries entitled Why Not Us: North Carolina Central University Men’s Basketball. Co-executive produced by NBA star Chris Paul and ESPN personality Stephen A. Smith, Why Not Us shines a light on the unique challenges and joys of playing for a legacy HBCU basketball team like the NCCU Eagles. At the center of this docuseries, and team, is advisor, mentor, father figure, spiritual guide, and NCCU men’s basketball head coach, LeVelle Moton.
Recently, Moton spoke with the INDY about how this docuseries came to fruition, how the pandemic has affected his team, and the possibilities of all HBCU athletic programs doing “more with more.”
INDY Week: Before you were approached about the idea for Why Not Us, had you ever thought that there needed to be an in-depth look at the culture of HBCU athletics?
Coach LeVelle Moton: Yeah. In my opinion, we’ve always been overlooked. I saw the University of Kentucky have it. They are more than deserving of it. I saw Duke have it. They are more than deserving of it. And I saw Penny [Anfernee Hardaway] have one done about his career at the University of Memphis. I just didn’t know who would do ours, because of familiarity.
The truth of the matter is that these people that run these companies and these media outlets don’t normally look like us. All of us are genuinely attracted to people in situations that look like us. Especially if we’re telling a story. No one was really thinking about HBCUs in this country during the summer. We were no longer talking about Black Lives Matter; it was no longer about “shutting up and dribbling.” It was just a culmination of all of the things being paid attention to more than ever, because we were all in the house. I thought it created momentum for a story to be told.
So now that you’ve seen the finished product, what are some of the things you feel this docuseries accomplishes as far as educating viewers?
Well, it’s going to be eight episodes, and I’ve only seen the first two. The world gets to see the second one on February 24th. My job was really easy. I just wanted to be myself. That’s all I told them. This isn’t Love & Hip Hop. This isn’t a reality show. There’s nothing scripted. They’re putting a mic on me, and I’m doing what I do and saying what I say every single day, regardless of who is around. I have a bigger mission. I wanted our team to be represented in that same way.
Are we different? Yes. Do we act and communicate differently? Yes. Our differences are what make us dope, and for so long, the world has always gravitated towards our differences. When we created rock & roll, they loved it. When we created hip-hop, they loved it. This world has always gravitated toward our creativity and authenticity. One thing I do know is that when we do things from our hearts, it will touch the hearts of others.
You’ve said that “needing our opportunities’’ is part of the essence captured in the title “Why Not Us.” Does the title also speak to the ongoing conversation around why highly recruited black athletes choose to play for blue blood, predominately white institutions, rather than HBCUs like NCCU?
It 100 percent speaks to that. The title can be perceived from multiple perspectives. Five-star recruits are going to this blue blood school. Why not us? A docuseries like this has never been made about an HBCU. Why not? This-and-that school has accomplished so much over the past five or ten years. So have we. Why hasn’t that light been shown on us? It’s more of a definitive statement than a question.
Last year, when five-star recruit Makur Maker chose Howard University over other top college hoops programs, it was said to be a “game-changer.” As someone who has tried to recruit these kinds of players, how much of that narrative did you buy into?
I thought that would be the tip of the iceberg. Even though that young man chose a school within our conference, I was excited. In a sense, this generation needs its own Jackie Robinson. They’re not necessarily developed into leaders in the manner that we were. They need to see someone make that impact. They need to see that they don’t have to go to these blue blood programs to achieve their dreams, which is ultimately the NBA. You can come here. All you have to do is put up numbers, right? It doesn’t matter where you go; you have to perform. But it had to start with someone having the options and choosing an HBCU.
Recently, NCCU announced that it would be cutting its baseball program at the end of the 2021 season. How does a decision like that tie-in to some of the challenges that come with running a successful athletic program at an HBCU?
It’s all tied-in. Honestly, we didn’t want this docuseries to be the “NCCU brochure” documentary. We wanted it to highlight who we really are. We neither wanted to hide nor mask our difficulties and challenges as a program. In some of the upcoming episodes, you’re going to start to see how we are able to achieve some things in spite of certain things. We’re not ashamed to highlight our challenges. That’s been the beauty of HBCUs—we’ve always done more with less. Now, the cry is, “Let us be able to do more with more.” We just have to bring it to the attention of the nation. Then, hopefully, we can receive more federal and state funding. Hopefully, this docuseries can address some of those things, and all of these brilliant minds that we have in this nation can develop a game plan to help all HBCUs.
Is there’s a connection between the community and the NCCU basketball program just as there is for the football team and the interest that the larger community shows during, say, homecoming.
It comes and it goes. That would probably be a question that the community would have to answer. When I played, there was a big connection. But let’s be honest—traditionally, no one’s basketball program is going to compete against their football team on an HBCU campus during homecoming.
When you combine the COVID-19 pandemic with other ongoing issues, these last college basketball seasons have been strange. Can this docuseries be a part of a larger “reset” button for the sport?
It feels that way. I don’t know if there’s been a college basketball program that’s been hit with COVID in the way that we have. We were out for 52 days. Including this morning, we’ve only practiced nine times as a basketball team, with 10 people or more. It’s really difficult. This documentary really highlights the atrocities associated with this pandemic.
Our guys were in quarantine for over 50 days. Then we were asked to go out there and play basketball on national television. It was hard. The mental anguish that is associated with this pandemic is tough.
I told the guys several times, “If y’all don’t want to do this, let’s stop. I’m with you either way.” So, yes, it is a chance for the country to peel back the layers and realize that these young men aren’t just your entertainment; they’re someone’s kids. No one has bothered to care about what’s going on in the minds of these young men. Why? Because it’s a business. That’s the message that I try to invoke in our young men. I’m the last coach that’s going to care about you.
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