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Tom Archdeacon: Back in tournament, NC Central coach finds perspective

It was a moment just like this one that LeVelle Moton had dreamed about for three years.

The coach of the North Carolina Central University Eagles sat down on the UD Arena court Tuesday afternoon — right next to the big, blue First Four logo on the center of the floor — and began going through pre-practice stretching exercises with his team.

Immediately, he had a shadow.

His 4-year-old son LeVelle Jr., known as V.J., scooted up next to him and tried to mimic his every move. When the little boy struggled to pull one foot over the top of his other knee, his dad reached down and helped him.

And as they both began to laugh, Moton pulled out his cellphone and took their selfie.

He knew the whole day was picture perfect.

He was surrounded by his players. His wife Bridget and daughter Brooke were sitting on the nearby team bench and that searing memory of his last NCAA Tournament experience was continuing to fade like hot coffee grown cold.

Moton led North Carolina Central — the HBCU in Durham, N.C., that is his alma mater and plays UC Davis tonight in the First Four — to its first NCAA Tournament in 2014 in San Antonio.

Tuesday he said he remembers almost nothing of the game except that he felt “very guilty.”

Three days before his team was to meet Iowa State, V.J. — then 1 — pulled a container of hot coffee off a counter, down onto his head and face.

“It was the worst thing ever,” Moton said quietly. “All the skin peeled back. He had second-degree burns all over.”

The boy was rushed to the hospital and that night, as he maintained a vigil at the boy’s bedside, Moton made a decision.

“It was a weird situation because professionally I was at the height of my career, but personally I was at the lowest point,” he said. “I called my chancellor and said I’m not going (to the tournament).

“But my wife was out there and I saw the disappointment in her face. She grabbed my hand and said, ‘You teach those kids to be tough and resilient. So now it’s your turn to walk the walk that you always talk.’ ”

At the time the Eagles were 28-5, but when Moton got to San Antonio nothing felt right. He’s big on family and his family wasn’t there.

His wife had been at every game since he was at bottom of the profession, coaching a middle school team a decade or so earlier.

And he and his daughter had a special ritual they went through at his games. When he would come onto the court, he’d look for her and they each would make a heart-shaped sign with their hands, peek through it and then blow each other a kiss.

With his son hurt and his wife and daughter back home, Moton’s mind was elsewhere.

“I don’t remember no plays from the game,” he said.

North Carolina Central lost, 93-75, and he went back home where he drew on the lessons of his wife and another strong woman with whom he had developed a unique bond.

Getting involved

Back in 2011, Moton said he had read a newspaper report about a prom — called “Dance Like No One is Watching” — for young adults who had been unable to go to their own high school proms, often because of serious illnesses or disabilities.

A man of compassion and social concern, Moton decided he wanted to get involved.

“Besides, I had never had the opportunity to go to my own prom,” he said with a shrug and a smile. “I didn’t have a lot of money and quite honestly I couldn’t get a date.”

He called the organizers of the affair and said he was told he could be a chaperone: “I said, ‘No. I want a date. Give me your hottest date!’ And they told me they thought they had the perfect match for me. They connected me with Leah.”

Leah Ward was a 32-year-old woman dealing with Williams Syndrome, a genetic condition with a wide range of medical issues including heart disease, developmental delays and learning disabilities. But it also often comes with highly social personalities and an ease with strangers.

Moton learned a little about Leah beforehand — specifically that she favored the color pink, liked the music of Pink Floyd and the basketball of the Duke Blue Devils, whose campus is 3.6 miles from North Carolina Central’s.

He showed up at Leah’s home for their “date” in a pink limousine. He wore a pink tie, carried a bag of chocolates, a bouquet of flowers and a double CD of Pink Floyd. He also came with a poster signed by the Duke team and a basketball autographed by Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski. In the limo he gave Leah a pendent with pink-hued stones.

When it came to the music and dancing, LeVelle was no shrinking violet.

He spent his early years in the same tough housing project in Boston’s Roxbury section as the guys who would form the popular boy band New Edition and at one time he envisioned himself following in their footsteps. As a kid he had practiced his dance moves in front of the mirror.

But he soon found his future lay with another all-guy group — a basketball team.

He moved to Raleigh, became a prep star and then went to North Carolina Central, where he became the program’s third all-time scorer — 1,714 career points — and ended up in the school’s Hall of Fame. After playing professionally overseas for a few years, he began a coaching career in middle school and finally ended up back at North Carolina Central, where he took over the program in 2009 and two years later guided it from NCAA Division II to Division I.

Yet not the demands of his job, the dedication to his family or any issues of race — he is black and Leah is white — kept him from fully embracing his prom commitment.

“We had a great time,” he recalled. “And when the night was over I told her, ‘You got to promise me this is not a one-and-done. You can’t just dump me after this.’ ”

She did not and now six years later they still are pals.

Leah began to follow the Eagles and even gave the team a few pregame pep talks.

“LeVelle is a very, very sweet person,” Katherine Ward, Leah’s mom, told a reporter a few years back. She said he never forgets her daughter’s birthday or holidays. “It’s been very good for her.”

Tuesday, Moton said he thinks it’s been better for him:

“To see someone in that position who never complains is something we all should learn. We’re healthy and full of life and yet we complain. So actually I’ve learned a lot from the friendship she’s shared with me.”

Although Leah has now moved down to the Carolina coast, they still text each other every Sunday.

“She just messaged me just the other day about the tournament,” he said warmly. “I can’t wait until I see her again.”

Making amends

The North Carolina Central team is stocked almost primarily with transfers this year.

“When you really look at the profile of everyone, including myself, we’re all have-nots and misfits or guys who come from humble beginnings,” Moton said. “Many of us weren’t given this opportunity or that opportunity. I mean my coaching started out at a middle school. But I told our guys, ‘We went through the pain, let’s at least get some rewards from it.’ ”

The 25-8 Eagles won the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament to advance to the NCAA Tournament as a No. 16 seed.

In the process Moton said he’s making amends for 2014:

“In a large part I wanted to get back here for a bit of a selfish reason, just to bring (my family) and have them experience it.”

With that he started to laugh: “But then I’m laying in the hotel last night and (V.J.) is running around a thousand miles an hour and I can’t get no sleep and I’m like, ‘Man, why did I bring you out?’ ”

He smiled and admitted he learned that answer long ago:

“I’ve come to understand life is bigger than me. I think what I can offer people is far more than just Xs and Os and a layup on the basketball floor.”

Leah Ward has taught him that time and again over the past six years and little V.J. did it again Tuesday.

That’s why Moton took the selfie out there on the middle of the UD Arena floor.

He finally had the perfect picture.

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