Virginia Union’s Terrell Leach appreciates his second chance at basketball
After dropping out of Winston-Salem State, he’s now back among the CIAA’s top scorers
In December 2018, Terrell Leach was in his apartment at midnight lying on his couch in his hometown of High Point, North Carolina, watching SportsCenter highlights, when a random Facebook message appeared in his iPhone notifications. He tried to ignore it, but curiosity got the best of him.
He began scrolling through the mysterious messenger’s profile page and discovered that it belonged to Virginia Union basketball coach Jay Butler. He responded to the message and they communicated for five minutes, ending with Leach receiving the coach’s phone number. Their conversations continued for the next three weeks, and eventually led to an official school visit in Richmond, Virginia.
“Once I saw that, I got excited and everything, because I didn’t know what he was reaching out for or anything,” Leach said.
Two years earlier, his basketball career seemed to be over. His priorities had understandably turned to surviving in the real world. He wasn’t sure if he’d ever play again. That phone call was the second chance he’d been hoping for.
Life Without Basketball
When Leach left Winston-Salem State in 2016, his son became the priority. He applied for jobs that would allow him to earn a decent salary and take care of Terrell Jr. Finding a profession he enjoyed was also important.
During childhood, he’d constantly heard his uncle Charles Grace talk about his craft. He worked for more than 30 years as a machine operator for SynTec Seating Solutions, the largest school bus seat manufacturer in the industry. Leach researched how to operate a welding machine and got a job at the same company. He was responsible for welding the back part of the bus seats together.
“I went through training and caught on pretty fast. I adjust really fast to things once I see how to do it a few times,” Leach said.
This became his new life: working a full-time job five days a week and sometimes on Saturdays from 5:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. This was very different from the life he used to know: waking up in a college dorm, going to class and then basketball practice. Leach was happy to spend more time with and support his son, but he missed basketball.
When he got the chance to watch NBA and college basketball games, the dream of playing professional basketball returned. He played in recreation centers whenever he could with hopes of lacing up his sneakers for a collegiate team again. With this came the desire to go back to complete his degree and finish the year and a half left of his basketball eligibility.
An Unexpected Setback
It was hard to believe that only a few years before, those dreams were also within reach. Leach attended Southwest Guilford High School in High Point, North Carolina, where he played varsity for four years under head coach Guy Shavers. His scoring average was 20.4 points. He couldn’t wait to start his collegiate basketball career.
During that time, Leach had attracted the attention of Division I schools such as the University of Virginia, North Carolina State University, Campbell University, and North Carolina A&T State. Division II schools, including Winston-Salem State, were also pursuing him. Poor grades and low SAT scores prevented schools from making final offers.
Leach had two options: Prep school or Winston-Salem State.
He chose the latter because of the comfort he’d felt during two school visits. The school was only 15 minutes from Leach’s home, allowing his family to watch him play. They would also watch him struggle academically. As a freshman in 2013, bad grades forced him to redshirt his first season.
The following year his academic performance improved and he returned to the court. He averaged 12.3 points and was named to the 2014-15 Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) All-Rookie Team. As a sophomore, Leach averaged 14 points, which led the team.
Things were coming together for Leach until they quickly went south before the 2016-17 season began. Leach was suspended for the entire fall semester for violating an undisclosed team policy. He ultimately chose not to return and dropped out of school.
“I really was kind of lost at the moment, to be honest, really,” Leach said. “I was just having those kinds of issues. My son was born in my second year and like, I was going back home, just trying to be there for him. My grades really caught up with me. I had to sit out a year, and then try to transfer, and I couldn’t because they said I had a balance, so I couldn’t get my transcript.”
The decision to leave school didn’t just affect Leach, it affected his mom, too. He left because he wasn’t happy, so he wanted to transfer. Terrell Jr. was 1 year old.
“My mom was kind of disappointed and everything but I was just explaining everything to her,” Leach said. “My mom never went to college. She knew what college was but really didn’t, at the same time. I was the first one out of my family to attend a university.”
ON to Virginia Union
In 2018, Virginia Union wanted a scorer who could take the pressure off forward William Jenkins, a graduating senior from Baltimore who averaged 15.3 points and 8.5 rebounds last season. The team also needed to find support for 2019 CIAA rookie of the year Demarius Pitts, a sophomore guard from Clinton, Maryland, who would later transfer to a Division I program.
Butler began his search for a new guard by calling other coaches from the CIAA conference. Someone mentioned Leach as a possibility, even though he’d been away from the game for two years.
Butler was familiar with Leach from the CIAA. He started to read up on him and then contacted the person who recruited him for Winston-Salem State, head coach James Wilhelmi. Butler wanted to know if the dynamic scorer would be interested. The conversation persuaded him to reach out to Leach.
“I remember he said, ‘Coach, it’s funny you reached out, because I was just thinking about trying to get back in and play basketball again.’ So I told him, ‘there’s a chance that we can get you,’ ” Butler recalled of his first conversation with Leach.
Virginia Union is known for having great scorers. Mike Davis entered the 2006 CIAA McLendon Hall of Fame as the second all-time leading scorer in the CIAA . Albert Jay “A.J.” English will be inducted into the 2020 CIAA Hall of Fame Class for his dominance in the late 1980s. And most recently Ray Anderson, the 2017 CIAA player of the year, signed with WWU Baskets Muenster of the German Basketball Pro B League in 2018.
Butler envisioned Leach as VUU’s next great scorer, and also as a better student with better grades.
He expected Leach to work with E. Lee Coble, Virginia Union’s academic coordinator for student-athletics. His focus is to make sure student-athletes are placed into the right courses and are making satisfactory progress toward graduation. Coble also imposes mandatory study halls and provides the athletes with tutors.
“If Leach wasn’t serious about getting his degree, he wasn’t going to let him come. Once we learned he was serious about that degree, then we started talking about his athletic abilities,” said Joe Taylor, director of athletics at Virginia Union.
At first, Leach was a bit reluctant. Not about making good grades; he was confident he could do that. It was spending two years out of collegiate competition that made him uncertain. Being on the team would also mean leaving his family for significant periods of time, and that was not ideal, either. Leach consulted with five people — his mother, father, sister, high school coach and girlfriend.
At the same time, his Winston-Salem teammates and acquaintances — and people who knew Leach back home, openly doubted whether he would succeed this time around. He was a kid from High Point, a small city where violence was common, and kids did not go back to finish school. They thought Leach was finished. He said the doubt bothered him but he still loved the game and trusted God’s plan for his life.
What also motivated him was the chance to become the first person in his family to get his degree. He needed a new start after everything that had occurred at Winston-Salem. Though he’d be seven hours away from his family, he’d also be seven hours away from temptation to quit. He decided being away from home would be best.
“Before I came to Virginia Union, my goal was to get my girlfriend and son out of High Point because there was just so much violence,” Leach said. “I couldn’t even go to a basketball court and just shoot around, because you never knew if it was safe to be out at that time. We have shootings all the time. People used to always get together to go play basketball, but it’s nothing like that anymore, so I had no choice but to separate myself because I have a son to raise.”
Leach’s desire to keep his family safe wasn’t just based on perception and crime stats. He’d lost a friend he considered a brother.
“Before he got killed, I told him I was going to get us all out. And that I was going to lead the CIAA in scoring and I was going to get POY [player of the year] and win the tournament. Everything I’m doing is for him and my family.”
A Second Chance
Leach first arrived at Virginia Union in the spring of 2019. Compared with Winston-Salem, it was a smaller student population (Winston-Salem has just over 4,000 students, and Virginia Union has nearly 1,200). He didn’t love that, but believed a smaller school would benefit him by keeping him focused. At age 23, he just wanted to buy into the program, get to know everyone and build friendships on and off the court.
“As he walked into his first practice inside Barco-Stevens Hall, players seemed to wonder: ‘Who is this dude? What can this dude even do?’ ” said team captain Raemaad Wright, a sophomore from Suffolk, Virginia. “So we ran a play and the coach told him to cut back door. And he says to one of our teammates, ‘When I cut back door, throw it up.’ And we looked at him like, ‘throw it up?’ This dude is about to catch that? So he threw it up. And he went up and tried a reverse dunk. He missed but still was up further than I was. And we were like, ‘Oh, this dude is like that. He can play.’ ”
He averaged 21 points for the season and played a significant role in the CIAA tournament, with Virginia Union advancing to the semifinals.
This season, Leach’s scoring rampage has continued. Virginia Union is currently on a seven-game win streak and is second in the Northern Division with a 18-10 overall record. It also stands 11-4 against conference opponents.
Leach is among the top scorers in CIAA, averaging 23.7 points a game. There has not been a game in which he has scored less than double figures. He has been credited with 12 20-point performances, six 30-point scoring exhibitions and one 40-point showing against Saint Augustine’s University.
“I got him getting player of the year over anybody right now,” Wright said. He did not, though, finishing second behind Livingstone College’s Roger Ray.
Teammate Dedric Byrd, a senior from Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina, who played and roomed with Leach at Winston-Salem, has noticed a change.
“It’s his motivation,” said Byrd. “As a freshman he just tried to play basketball, but now he has a kid. That was probably a big, big moment for him. Now it’s like, ‘I’m not even playing for me anymore. I’m playing for the betterment of my family.’ I think that’s what kind of made him make another jump in his commitment and dedication.”
Leach, now 25, said he has no regrets about his tenure at Winston-Salem. He’s thankful for the lessons he learned outside of basketball, which made him a stronger person and even better player. He said his mother is as proud as ever. And he’s elated to give citizens in his hometown, High Point, another thing to smile about.
Leach’s ability to produce so highly on the court while also being a full-time dad and student has turned heads. He hopes his story is one that everyone, especially young people, can gain motivation from.
“Terrell has demonstrated resilience in so many different ways,” CIAA commissioner Jacqie McWilliams said. “His story really impacts the CIAA because I know kids will see him and think, maybe I can get into a school, too. Hopefully, he will have a great tournament, because that’s where I really see the life of our student-athletes.”
At the CIAA tournament this week, Leach is focused on fulfilling the last part of his promise to his friend: Bring Virginia Union a national championship.