“These athletes…they pay them all of this money, and then they have the nerve to want to make political statements. Just play ball. We never asked you to have an opinion”
This was the narrative I overheard from a middle aged nurse in Eastern NC. In that moment, I was a little surprised, and definitely at a loss for words. But in the grand scheme of things, this is often the norm for many Americans. In their minds, once you agree to hold a ball, you relinquish all rights to an opinion on what goes on in our country. But for Levelle Moton, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. The NCCU Coach and father of two is never at a loss for words when it comes to character, morals, and human dignity.
At first glance, Levelle Moton is what you would expect from any former collegiate athlete. His height commands the room, but it’s his intellect and genuine conversation that keeps you intrigued. He is not the coach that will coddle you or sugarcoat things; he’s the one who will always keep it real no matter what. As a Coach, mentor, husband, and father, he is adamant about making sure that he is creating something more than just points on a scoreboard. Moton is determined to leave behind a world that thrives off of community support, economic development, and equity for young black men and women.
“I Was Only 10″…Grandma’s Words of Wisdom
In 2019 the NCCU Eagles basketball team made headlines as they won their third consecutive NCAA tournament. The Eagles successfully dominated and won the MEAC tournament for the third year in row. This was a first in the school’s history. But Moton doesn’t wallow in the accolades very long. For him, coaching is about making an impact. It’s a small part of what he does to give back to the world. That mindset was instilled in him at a very young age. He recalls his grandmother imparting strong words of wisdom when the two of them sat alone to talk. In one instance he remembers his grandmother telling him about the importance of legacy building and how people perceive you. Moton says he thought to himself “But Grandma, I’m only 10…I don’t even have a job yet”. But it’s moments like those that shaped his life and led him to remember that his life was about more than just basketball.
Having lived through “less than desirable” conditions where food was scarce, and neighbors were fighting to keep their kids off the streets, Moton learned by example that being your own cheerleader and staying true to your values and morals is the only thing that will take you through life successfully. Although very young, he quickly learned how to take lessons from those around him. He recalls a popular athlete from his neighborhood who taught him not to place value in the hype surrounding being an athlete. “I learned that when that ball stops bouncing, nobody cares. People will use you for their own personal gain, and then nobody cares”. It’s a harsh lesson that’s helped him keep his eye on the prize over the years as both a player and a coach.
On Relationships in Sports
“I didn’t choose coaching. Coaching kinda chose me”.
Born in Roxbury Massachusetts, Moton migrated to the South as a youth and ended up becoming that kid you would see at the Boys Club all the time. It kept him out of trouble and allowed to create long lasting relationships that would carry him throughout his career. After college, Moton flirted with several different options within the sports industry, and eventually ended up taking a job at a Raleigh middle school. But he had no idea that this position would lead to him being a coach at his Alma Mater.
Having grown tired of playing overseas and living such a hectic travel schedule, Moton felt like basketball was becoming more of a “business” than it was fun. When Moton decided to coach at a local school, he ended up working for one of his favorite educators. That same educator was the one who convinced him to take a leap of faith and throw his hat in the ring for the coaching position at Central. Moton insists on making decisions with loyalty in mind. Because of his relationship with his then Principal (now Superintendent) Kathy Moore, Moton felt the obligation to stay and continue to work on molding the students who agreed to coach. But Moore strongly insisted that he go for it, and make the shift to coaching on the collegiate level.
The Coaching Complexities of Covid
Like most people in a leadership position, Covid has definitely changed how we interact with others on a daily basis. The sports world was turned upside down when Covid hit, as physical gatherings were immediately limited. Not only were people unable to attend games in person, but athletes couldn’t practice. Some students didn’t even know if they would be able to return to school, let alone practice. And unfortunately for some students, sports is their only way out of their neighborhoods. Playing a sport is not only a physical outlet for them, but for some it is their hope for how their lives will change. Basketball is not just a trip up and down the court for them, it is a sense of emotional empowerment that shows them that more is most definitely possible. Moton recalls being in that same position, and living a completely different life once school was over. “For three months, we go back home, and now we’re marginalized. And we’re followed by the police”. He continues, “When this is all over with, there’s a real world that exists out there. It’s important to nurture them and develop the totality of them as men, so they can be great husbands and great fathers and great people one day”.
Moton says he makes a point of providing guidance for his team, but also allowing them to make their own mistakes. He doesn’t hound them or pressure them when it comes to getting them to walk a straight path, simply because he wants them to be prepared when they enter the real world after college. “When you go out into the world and you get hired by a company and they tell you to be there at 9:00, but you get there at 9:15, you don’t have to worry about them calling you asking where you are. It’s over”. There is no hand holding in the real world, so in essence there is no hand holding in Coach Moton’s world either.
On Being Yourself
Always speak the truth, even when it’s uncomfortable.
“Since the beginning of time, Black people have always been dope”, says Moton. The problem is that not everyone realizes that Black people are truly dope. When the NCCU Eagles won their third consecutive NCAA title, there came this buzz about HBCUs and the talent at schools that have always been revered in the black community. “I tell people all the time that all of our heroes back in the day went to HBCUs. We have to understand our talent, we have to understand our leverage, we have to understand our power. And once we understand, that trickles down to the next generation, and now we can keep our talents there within our own schools, in our own communities. For so long, the world has profited from Black talent, Black labor, and Black entertainment. I think we need to understand our value and our talent, and monetize off of our own abilities”.
Moton has also been very vocal about the lack of support from coaches and athletes outside of the minority community. He unapologetically expresses his frustration for the lack of vocal support on issues of racial injustice from those with large platforms and lots of influence on the mainstream media. He makes no qualms about telling other coaches to step up and show support for black athletes who are directly impacted by racial inequality. He wants young athletes to know that they are valued for more than just entertainment.
When speaking with ESPN, Moton said that he was irked by the silence of white coaches from Power 5 schools when it pertains to showing support for the African American community. “Everyone is silent. And I have a major issue with that. And for years I’ve never really said anything, but now I think enough is enough”. “The reality is that a lot of these coaches have been able to create generational wealth because athletes who were the complexion of George Floyd were able to run a football, throw a football, shoot a basketball, or whatever have you. So they have benefited greatly from athletes that look like George Floyd, and many more”. He goes on to say “But whenever people the complexion of George Floyd are killed, assassinated, murdered in the street in broad daylight they’re silent”. He makes a strong point that coaches, who are considered leaders, have a moral obligation to stand up for the players that make their lives what they are.
Levelle Moton Park
“Cultivate and Foster Relationships, but don’t compromise who you are”
In 2019 Moton helped Coach the USA Men’s basketball team to win the World Cup Gold medal. One would think that an honor like this tops the list of achievements for a career athlete and coach, but for Moton one of the greatest honors is being acknowledged in his own community and continuously being a part of it’s growth. In 2020 Moton had a park named in his honor in Raleigh NC.
The first thing he did was take his kids to the park and let them play on the swings because “as a kid, I never had the opportunity to play at the park. It was a cesspool of everything that was bad”. He recalls that the park was a hotbed for drug dealers and drug addicts. There was always the threat of danger or violence inside of that park. So for Moton, he wanted to see his kids simply just play, and not be worried about what was going on around them; something he was never able to do as a young child.
Moton also started to work on developing the park into a hub for the community. A place where people could go for medical testing, education, and events. His next goal is to create a STEM center for black youth in the area. With RTP becoming the “Silicon Valley of the South”, positioning these youth to be familiar with STEM related companies and executives is a way of creating a pathway to success for area youth; thus creating a way for them to create their generational wealth. These are the stepping stones that allow us to make permanent change in our communities.
Motion tends to forge ahead without thinking about the time and effort spent on his initiatives. When asked how the community can be a part of it he responds, “I’ve never been asked that question…But you can support it by being a part of it in so many ways. The Foundation has so many opportunities. We have the Single Mother Salute, the Reading Literacy Program, the upcoming STEM Center, the Back to School Community Giveaway, the TV Show that I Executive Produced to give these young men a platform to express themselves and not bottle up all of these emotions…the way to support is to be a part of one of those ventures”.
For Moton, his family, and his players, 2021 is already showing the world the value of black leaders who are transforming our communities. In a venture with ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith and the NBA’s Chris Paul, Moton is featured on the docu-series ‘Why Not Us: North Carolina Central University Men’s Basketball’. The series captures some candid moments with Moton and his players as he schools them on life, basketball, and the harsh realities of the cruel world around them. Viewers get a glimpse at life at NCCU, and the way Moton runs his practice. For many, seeing this side to an HBCU is something new, something foreign. But for Moton and many others, it just confirms what the award winning Coach has already shared…That “Black people have always been dope”.
‘Why Not Us: North Carolina Central University Men’s Basketball’ is available on ESPN+