‘Why Not Us’: Chris Paul’s pride, appreciation and love for HBCUs on full display
North Carolina Central is ‘really good, so we thought it would be very interesting for people to see their story’
With Why Not Us: North Carolina Central University Men’s Basketball docuseries, Chris Paul is going next-level with his appreciation of historically Black college and university (HBCU) culture.
The eight-episode series that premiered Feb. 12 and is presented by The Undefeated via ESPN+ follows head coach LeVelle Moton and the NCCU men’s basketball team for eight weeks as they navigate the challenges of being a small program and working toward their goal of becoming the first HBCU team to make the NCAA Sweet 16.
When it came to selecting which program was right for the documentary, NCCU was a front-runner because of Paul’s deep roots in North Carolina basketball culture, but also because his parents attended Winston-Salem State and several players from his AAU team have played for the Eagles.
However, Paul said Moton solidified NCCU as the perfect choice.
“For me, being in sports and athletics all my life, I know the importance of coaches and how they can affect you not only athletically, but also emotionally and spiritually, as a man,” he said. “And to see the connection that ’Velle has with his players, that’s a big part of it. They’re also really good, so we thought it would be very interesting for people to see their story.”
Moton is an NCCU alum who played for the Eagles in the late 1990s. After spending time as an assistant beginning in 2007, Moton took the head-coaching job in 2009, becoming the program’s 17th head coach.
Throughout the documentary, viewers not only get a glimpse into the program, but they also get a chance to look into the lives of players and coaches.
“It’s very important, and I think that’s what we wanted to make sure that we did in this doc,” Paul said. “Basketball is just a snapshot of it. That’s just a few hours out of your day. Through this documentary, we get a chance to show you what their lives are like off the court and with being away from their families. One player is expecting a child. We get a chance to see Coach Moton’s relationship with his wife and how that works because the guys on the team are basically part of his family. I think it’s very important to tell those other stories and go into the different layers of their actual lives.”
In episode one, viewers meet Deven Palmer, a talented senior whose girlfriend is soon expecting a child; C.J. Keyser, a dominant senior who might have what it takes to make it to the professional level; and Justin Wright, a dedicated freshman striving toward a 4.0 GPA and coping with his time away from home.
Viewers also get to watch as Paul, who now plays for the Phoenix Suns, meets the players for the first time when he unexpectedly walks into an early-morning NCCU practice and greets Moton. He stands back and watches as the players run through drills before stepping in and offering instructions, leading in with a simple, “My bad. I’m Chris, by the way.”
At the end of the practice, Paul is able to connect with the group and offer advice about hard work and what it takes to make it to the next level, which Paul said was a great experience.
“Nothing like it,” he said. “Just to give you a little backstory, I left Winston-Salem that morning maybe around 4:30 a.m. so I could make that two-hour drive down there to practice, and the guys didn’t know I was coming. I was excited. I was so excited. First and foremost, they’re up practicing at 6 a.m. They’re in there working, and then me, I couldn’t help but be me. I [saw] things that I could help with. I’m not that far removed. Even though I’m an NBA player, I still remember the grind and I’m still grinding right now. I just want those guys to have the same resources or at least some of the same knowledge that I was able to have. These guys are up grinding day in and day out and they only have two goals to practice with. But they’re not complaining. This is their situation and this is their circumstance, and they move forward from it.”
The Eagles are known for pushing through adversity and being able to tackle problems. They have done so in some respect each season, but the last three seasons after winning the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament, they played in the NCAA men’s tournament. This year, however, dealing with COVID-19 has put a damper on their efforts, as it has with many NCAA programs.
As COVID-19 looms over college basketball, NCCU has seen its effects firsthand. According to Moton, the team has missed more than 40 practices and has practiced only 10 days with more than nine players.
“This has been the most difficult season of my coaching career but the most educational for my team,” he wrote in a tweet on Thursday. “Covid has been the ‘boogeyman.’ We’ve practiced a total of 10 days with 9 ppl or more, Missed 42 practices & Quarantined 52 days. The Blessing is, we’re alive and Healthy to see another day… The lesson is ‘Adversity introduces a man to himself.’ …Respond as best you can because FIGHTERS always give themselves a puncher’s chance!”
Thus far, the team has had six of its scheduled games canceled or postponed this season, but still remains focused on its goals.
Paul says that although COVID-19 has affected the production of the series, he is grateful to all who were able to help get the documentary completed.
“It was amazing all of the people behind the scenes that made this happen,” he said. “I rode down to Raleigh in October or November to see the team. But given COVID protocols, not being sure if there’s going to be games because games have been canceled, practices being canceled. The access that was granted by LeVelle and North Carolina Central was amazing because everything is real and it’s happening in real time. So big shout-out to everyone who made this happen.”
The documentary is yet another way Paul has shown his connection and dedication to HBCUs.
Paul attended Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, before being drafted into the NBA, and comes from a family of HBCU attendees. Besides his parents attending Winston-Salem State, his brother played basketball at Hampton University.
During his time at Wake Forest, Paul recalls going to the WSSU campus and experiencing some of the HBCU cultural experiences. Now, he’s having his own mini HBCU experience after announcing his enrollment in WSSU in 2020, where he’s been a helping hand when he can.
“When I was in college, I used to go to Winston-Salem State all the time,” he said. “It’s just different. The probates, the step shows, the homecomings. Everything just hits a little different, because it is. So when I got to go by Winston-Salem State so we could get the young kids out to vote, we had the band come out to march and stuff. The energy was like no other, and it’s been really dope to see so many people get educated on HBCUs and understand why they’re so unique and why they are the way they are.”
Over the years, Paul has invested in HBCUs through classes, scholarships and activism, all to show the world that HBCUs aren’t less than, and to highlight their historical and cultural importance as well as provide the recognition and appreciation they deserve.
HBCUs often lack two things: funding and recognition. Paul is doing what he can to help in both categories, including a $50,000 donation to WSSU athletics through the Chris Paul Family Foundation in 2019, and his now-famous HBCU fashion statements.
Paul is known for sporting HBCU gear when he attends games and takes part in the highly publicized NBA tunnel walks. He’s worn pieces from Texas Southern, Howard, Alabama A&M, Florida A&M and other schools.
Not only do his efforts show appreciation and bring awareness to individual HBCUs, it’s also a way for people in the HBCU community to connect with one another.
“Obviously, I love to support Black colleges,” Paul said. “But I think, for me, the part that is really fulfilling, is when you do wear some of the paraphernalia or the gear, to see how excited people get about it, whether they went to that school or not. There’s a community. You could wear a plain shirt and everybody would say that’s a nice-looking shirt. But if you come with a Florida A&M shirt or something like that, someone who went to FAMU or Hampton or something like that, they’ll be like, ‘Oh, you went there?’ or ‘We played them’ or ‘I went there.’ It’s definitely a conversation starter and a way that people can be united.”
Paul says continuous efforts to support HBCUs are leading to a higher purpose.
“Everything that we’re doing is just trying to give others the platform and the resources to prosper and to be great,” he said.