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HBCU Basketball

If Bronny James goes to N.C. Central, could that change big-time basketball recruiting?

Coaches and commissioner say 1-2 top players could boost fortunes of HBCU programs

LeVelle Moton, head basketball coach at North Carolina Central University, recently offered a scholarship to current high school freshman LeBron “Bronny” James Jr. and Moton wonders what all the fuss is about.

“Let me break it down for you a little bit here, and this is just how I look at it,’’ Moton told The Undefeated last week, four days after the first report of the offer to the increasingly iconic son of the already iconic NBA star. Moton chose his words carefully to avoid running afoul of NCAA recruiting violations.

“In the year 2020, we have people that will get uptight because a black coach offered a black kid the opportunity and the means to attend a black college. A black coach offered an opportunity to play basketball at a black school – and he will be criticized by black people.

“Where are we? That’s crazy.’’

North Carolina Central Eagles head coach LeVelle Moton speaks with the press during practice before the First Four in the 2019 NCAA tournament at Dayton Arena.

Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY Sports

Of course, Moton knows that within the context of college basketball today and over the last six decades, it’s not crazy. And he’s not the only one looking at it that way.

That very notion – that the young elite athletes in basketball and football can and should turn away from the predominantly elite white college programs in favor of the mutual benefits of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) – is being discussed, analyzed and embraced more in the past year than at any time in recent memory.

Moton, though, was having that conversation earlier than most. He’s still having it, and it’s loud, if for no other reason than his offer to James Jr., who’ll still be James Jr. three years from now whether he matches his father’s on-court feats or not.

The criticism he mentions is more of a question, a plea for common sense and logic: Why would a five-star, top-tier, one-and-done, NBA-prospect recruit commit to North Carolina Central, a 6,000-student HBCU?

The reply: Why not?

Moton said: “When you think of the atrocities that have happened in our society, in a society where an arena is named after someone who is a known racist, at a school where if these kids were playing back when he was coaching, he would not have allowed them on his team and those schools would not even have allowed them to attend – those kids go flocking to that school to go play in that arena today.

“But when a coach is from a black college and offers that kid the same opportunity, that coach is criticized. That doesn’t even make sense.’’

Moton, of course, was referencing Kentucky’s Rupp Arena, and coincidentally that program is part of his proof that aiming high has always been his philosophy and that this is nothing new for him. Back in the spring of 2009, barely a month after Moton was promoted to head coach, consensus high school All-American and future NBA overall No. 1 draft pick John Wall – like Moton, a Raleigh, North Carolina, native – famously made N.C. Central one of his campus visits before picking, yes, Kentucky.

“John Wall lived four doors down from me,’’ Moton said, before laying out the short, pointed version of his mindset: “I offered John Wall. He had to say no.’’

Translation: If the best players in the country don’t take the HBCU leap and play for Moton, it won’t be because he never asked them to.

Bronny James Sierra Canyon Trailblazers guard shoots the ball during a high school basketball game.

Dylan Stewart/Image of Sport/AP Photo

Moton is not alone. Howard University stirred up the recruiting world in October when two seniors ranked in the top 10 by ESPN, Makur Maker from Phoenix and Josh Christopher from Southern California, made campus visits. They gave the same reasons Wall did a decade earlier: They wanted to see what a black college program is like, compared with the elites that have been chasing them for years.

Any coach worth his clipboard working in the two HBCU Division I conferences would do the same as Howard and N.C. Central did, said Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) commissioner Charles McClelland. “The probability is that these five-stars won’t pick us,’’ he said, adding that James Jr. is in that group even if he’s not a five-star recruit by his senior year.

“The mindset is, ‘I need to go to one of the blue bloods to get that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,’ ” he said.

McClelland, Moton and every other HBCU basketball authority know that certainly is not true for the players who aim to be in the NBA. Plus, McClelland pointed out, if athletes can benefit financially from use of their names, images and likenesses (NIL) in the next few years, that will offset some of the advantage the big schools have over HBCUs.

The path is starting to clear, he believes: “If one does it, I’m 100 percent positive that it would change the entire landscape of college basketball. There’s no doubt about it.’’

More important, he added, “I can actually envision it. It would have to be the right player under the right circumstance. I’d like to think he can go to an HBCU and accomplish everything he wants to do. It gives you an even larger platform – you’re a big fish in a small pond.

SWAC commissioner Charles McClelland (center) with ESPN’s Tiffany Greene (left) and Jay Walker (right) at the MEAC/SWAC Challenge in early September 2018.

Photo by John X. Miller

“I believe if LeBron James Jr. chose to go to a SWAC school, I do believe that he and that school could go into the NCAA tournament and go a long way. It just takes one.’’

That “just one” has never happened – as The Undefeated reported last year. Since the ESPN 100 basketball recruit rankings began in 2007, no player on that list has ever committed to an HBCU. Several have landed at one eventually after transferring, and that has been the lone tether the SWAC and MEAC have had to the cream of the recruiting crop. At times, it has given them a similar one-or two-year bump that an elite player coming straight out of high school arguably would.

But as Detroit Mercy coach Mike Davis said getting that star recruit to commit right away would provide far more than a bump. Davis coached Texas Southern (where McClelland hired him while he was athletic director) to four NCAA tournaments in six years before moving up the mid-major ladder last season.

“I think it would take two or three can’t-miss guys, a Zion Williamson, a LaMelo Ball, a Marvin Bagley, saying, ‘let’s go do this,’ ” Davis said.

As one who offered scholarships to the best of the best at his former school, including future first-round pick Dennis Smith Jr., he’s fully aware of how hard the sell is. He sees it even more now that he’s at a program that, even in the Horizon League, looks like the ACC compared with the facilities and amenities in his former league.

“We had to bus from Houston to Montgomery, Alabama, on a Thursday for a game, stay out that way for two games, then bus back Monday after the last game,’’ Davis recalled from his SWAC days. “That’s 10 or 12 hours. But I would tell kids what their choice was: You can fly there [with the major programs] for four points a game, or you can bus with us for 18. I try to get them to understand.

“But,’’ he continued, chuckling, “they take the nice sweatsuits and the four points.’’

Detroit Mercy Titans Head Coach Mike Davis watches the on court action during the mens college basketball game between Detroit Mercy Titans and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on December 10, 2019 at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend, IN.

Jeffrey Brown/Icon Sportswire

In addition, Davis said, recruits and their families have proven to care greatly about what others think and say. There is the perception barrier HBCUs still face in big-time athletics. “It looks a lot better to have a bigger school up there than if it says Texas Southern.

“It takes a lot of courage, and a lot of people aren’t built for that … They’re already programmed to think that [the predominantly white schools are] the only place you can succeed.’’

For his part, Moton has never been accused of lacking courage or being built for what he envisions. Like Davis, he has led four teams to the NCAA tournament and faced Davis’ Texas Southern team in the 2018 play-in game, another indication of where HBCUs stand in the hierarchy. He has coached in the USA Basketball program twice, including last summer with the under-19 team, embedding him with the best of the best players and college coaches.

He gets talked up every offseason for coaching openings but can’t think of a reason that those jobs would be better than the one he has, or why his program can’t aspire to what those big-time programs do.

“How do you ever win the lottery if you’ve never bought a ticket?” he said.

And it explains his lack of hesitation to point out why some blue-chip player needs to cross the threshold, to “be the Jackie Robinson for us,’’ he said.

“We must address the elephant in the room. We have some things that need to change. We have a system that has been broken for a long time, and we’ve just accepted that it’s broken. It’s 2020, not 1620.’’ — LeVelle Moton

“They don’t care about our lives at those schools anyway,’’ Moton said of the marquee schools and their marquee coaches. “All the great ones have benefited from black lives. Those black lives have made their great-grandkids rich.

“We must address the elephant in the room. We have some things that need to change. We have a system that has been broken for a long time, and we’ve just accepted that it’s broken. It’s 2020, not 1620.’’

Everything he has been in his basketball life leads Moton to believe the spell will be broken, the players and their families will make the choice, and both the mission of black higher education and the maxing out of their basketball opportunities will be accomplished.

“But it will have to come through effective communication,’’ Moton said, “and it will have to come through truthful communication … I don’t think we can blame them, because everywhere they turn, they’ve been miseducated. That’s the goal, and I won’t stop. I’ll continue to do what I need to do.’’

That includes inviting the ball-playing son of the defining ballplayer of this generation to join the North Carolina Central recruiting Class of ’23.

David Steele has written about sports for more than 30 years, for outlets including the Sporting News, Baltimore Sun, San Francisco Chronicle and Newsday. He co-authored Olympic gold medalist and human rights activist Tommie Smith's 2007 autobiography, Silent Gesture.