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North Carolina Central and college basketball’s long, unseen road

ATHENS, Ga. — After fighting through a tough practice, North Carolina Central‘s players stretched their oversized frames across the aisles of the team’s bus, stuffed AirPods into their ears and tried to grab quick naps. Some cracked open laptops, logging into the campus website just hours before a midnight deadline to complete their final exams. As the bus rolled through the Peach State, an alert from the front energized the fatigued group.

“We’ve got wings, and there’s a pizza spot,” Garrett Bridges, the team’s director of basketball operations, announced as the team rolled down a bustling strip near Georgia’s campus. “Um, there’s also a Waffle House.”

It was a familiar scenario for the program. By the time the team reached Athens during this week after Thanksgiving, the Eagles had already logged nearly 6,000 miles (2,215 miles by bus and 3,408 by plane) in the first month of the 2019-20 season. By Christmas, they approached the 10,000-mile mark.

It’s a unique student-athlete experience, one that requires balancing life on the road with trying to find time to enjoy life as college students.

What’s not unique: the reality that comes with the road.

High-major programs with multimillion-dollar budgets can pay schools such as NCCU to play them on their home courts, known as “buy games,” during the nonconference season. The hosts collect the ticket, concession and parking revenue, and their opponents, such as the Eagles and other non-Power 5 programs, get a check — funding often necessary to maintain their athletic budgets.

And the road doesn’t take away the pressures of maintaining scholastic responsibilities. NCCU players, for example, make arrangements with their teachers to complete finals online (the team does not have an academic adviser who comes standard on road trips the way major-conference teams do) and hit those deadlines while also preparing for a long stretch of games.

We followed along for one jaunt that featured four games over nine days in early December, including three on the road. The trip of more than 1,300 miles (about the distance from Chicago to Miami) included unfamiliar beds in three hotels, meals at fast-food joints, missed classes, study sessions, tests, practices and games without much contact with friends and families back home. It’s a taxing cycle the program repeats for two months.

“I think it affects us negatively,” NCCU junior guard Jordan Perkins said. “Our bodies hurt. I feel like sometimes it affects us in the games. I think we’ve played like four games in eight days, and we’re traveling the whole time. It’s gonna affect you.”

The Georgia trip alone represented nearly 10% of NCCU’s men’s basketball revenue for the season ($1.6 million, per Department of Education data). Wofford, a perennial contender in the Southern Conference, gave coach LeVelle Moton’s program more than $35,000 for its matchup. Two days later, NCCU traveled to Athens to face the Bulldogs, who provided the school with $90,000 and 100 free tickets, according to the contract obtained by ESPN.com.

By the time the team left for Wofford, it had already traveled to five states: Texas (Stephen F. Austin), Kentucky (Louisville), Ohio (Akron, Youngstown State), Illinois (Southern Illinois) and South Carolina (Wofford). Before starting conference play with a Jan. 4 home game against Florida A&M, the Eagles added four more road trips and two additional states.

By contrast, Duke’s men’s basketball program, which sits just 4 miles from NCCU’s campus, earned $36.4 million last season. Per research conducted by AthleticDirectorU.com, 126 schools have collected more than $35 million this season off revenue from more than 500 nonconference games.

“There is value to the experience for these young men and women who have to play these games for us,” said Ingrid Wicker McCree, NCCU’s athletic director. “But that revenue goes back into building their program. It’s a wash at the end of the day because we’re investing it right back into their program.”

“We’re doing something we love,” Eagles junior guard Randy Miller Jr. said. “We understand we’re sacrificing, but it’s for a good cause.”

But the numbers do not factor in the toll on the players, coaches and staffers who anchor a North Carolina Central program that has earned the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference’s automatic berth to the NCAA tournament in four of the past six seasons under Moton, a former NCCU star who accepted the head-coaching job in 2009.

“It’s uncomfortable at times,” Moton said. “It’s trying at times. We have guys that are injured. We have guys that are away from classes. And when you’re injured, you can’t heal in a bus or a hotel room. There is something about being home that makes you feel a little better. It’s difficult. Throughout the years, I’ve started having back issues. All of those things are pivotal, in terms of being fresh and healthy.”

The 200-plus-mile trip to Wofford took about an hour longer than usual due to heavy holiday traffic on Interstate 85 the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Illuminated highway signs signaled small towns, such as Sedalia, North Carolina (population 623), and Gaffney, “The Peach Capital of South Carolina.”

From the front row of the bus, Moton worked the remote, flipping back and forth between college basketball games on a pair of TVs.

The 45-year-old coach had risen from housing projects in Boston and in Raleigh, North Carolina, with the help of a protective community. When he wanted to sell drugs to help his mother, a local drug kingpin told the dealers he’d punish them if they attempted to employ Moton. A teacher often put food in a brown paper bag for him because she knew he would otherwise miss meals.

It’s now Moton’s turn to influence a group of young, African American men at a pivotal period in their growth.

When the bus reached Jerry Richardson Indoor Stadium, Wofford’s $39 million facility funded by the former owner of the Carolina Panthers, NCCU’s managers, Chris Daniel and Russhion Jones, grabbed equipment and hustled it into the building. The sparkling venue features suites and a large video board.

“People say we’re a mid-major,” Moton said as he entered the arena, “but we don’t have this.”

After practice, the team hyped up Jonathan Duren, the team’s sports information director and play-by-play voice, as he tried to dunk. On his fifth try, he flushed it. “Whoooaaaaaa!!!!” the players yelled with an exaggerated tone. Daniel and Mike Melvin, a junior guard, playfully wrestled next to the bus. Later, players smirked as Joshua Dawkins, a freshman, complained about a mistake on his pregame meal order.

“You’re telling me I didn’t order mozzarella sticks?” he asked Daniel. “I didn’t? Me? I didn’t order mozzarella sticks?”

The jokes and laughter help players maintain their focus during their grueling schedules, and help them learn more about each other.

At breakfast the next morning, leading NC Central scorer Jibri Blount talked about a family trip to the Super Bowl that would take place without him. “Yeah, my dad is going,” he said. His father, Pittsburgh Steelers legend and Hall of Famer Mel Blount, was named to the NFL 100 All-Time Team after winning four Super Bowls and would be part of the ceremony in Miami.

When Jibri was in third grade, he decided to spice up show-and-tell by bringing two of his father’s championship rings to class — without telling him.

“I knew they were a big deal,” he said. “I knew that they were cool. I can’t really speak for my actions in third grade. There was no logic behind it. He had some Super Bowl rings, so I just took the rings to school. It was a learning lesson, and nothing got lost or stolen or anything like that.”

Reserve forward Kobby (pronounced “Kobe”) Ayetey smiled at his mother, Patience, as she FaceTimed him from his native Ghana while he piled breakfast potatoes onto his plate. He hasn’t seen her in person since 2016, but they stay connected through their seven or eight phone conversations each day. Whether at breakfast, study hall or in his hotel room, Ayetey talks to his mom, whom he calls his “best friend.”

He often yearns for his grandmother’s jollof and his mother’s waakye, traditional dishes in Ghana. Patience hates his hair and wants him to cut it. Ayetey has been on his own road trip for the past four years, but he tries to maintain his optimism.

“We are alive,” he said when asked why he always smiles. “Man, sometimes I just wanna go home and eat my mom’s food and come back. It’s very difficult, thinking about how close we are, having to be apart from each other for a very long time and all we can do is just talk and text and see each other on the video.”

While the other players and coaches might not have families across an ocean, they understand the importance of home after these long stretches on the road.

Carl Little, NCCU’s player development coach, was a member of the U.S. Air Force when he witnessed a chaotic scene while stationed in Italy. The quiet base erupted with action after two planes struck the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

Little said he loaded bombs onto planes before they took off down the runway of the base. He would go on to serve three tours in Iraq as a captain in the U.S. Army, offering a perspective of someone who knows real life is more serious than basketball. To keep things light, the former Virginia State standout often challenges players to 3-point contests, trash-talking the entire time.

“How you want it?” he asked as he launched 3-pointers after one practice. “Net? Straight off the glass?”

The lighter moments are a necessary distraction on the road, where time management, more than anything, is the greatest challenge. When they’re not practicing or playing, NCCU’s players have to study for tests and complete coursework. But they also have to rest and prepare for each game.

It’s not unique to NCCU, but Power 5 budgets offer accommodations and luxuries that minimize the physical toll on players, including academic tutors who often travel with teams on road trips and help players stay organized to complete their coursework. In the ACC, where teams routinely fly to games on private charters, players sleep in their own beds just hours after road games. At NCCU, they wait, on buses and planes, in fast-food joints and hotel lobbies, longing for the life they’ve left behind on campus.

“Our social life, that’s obviously limited because you’re not there,” Perkins said. “We missed homecoming. That’s a little upsetting, but that’s what we signed up for.”

Moton said he doesn’t care about the money these trips generate. And he’s not interested in simply using these games as a tuneup for conference play. Moton wants to win.

After the Eagles lost by 18 points to Wofford, the bus remained quiet for the duration of the two-hour trip to Athens. Moton sat at the front of the bus, contemplating the loss and scrolling through his phone. One of his wisdom teeth had been bothering him, and the game result seemed to magnify the pain.

“Emmanuel,” Moton said to the team’s bus driver about 15 minutes after leaving Wofford’s campus, “can you pull over to that Bojangles’?”

Amid plates of fried chicken, the team regained its jovial vibe. Blount carried a half gallon of sweet tea like a football. Ayetey stood in line with a smile on his face. Evan Clayborne, a 6-foot-6, 230-pound forward, tried to meet his caloric requirements.

“You all know I gotta eat every few hours,” he said.

Moton, who might have the most impressive list of contacts in college basketball, found a table near the back of the restaurant. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski spoke to his team last summer. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is a mentor who offers career advice. At the AAU level, he coached NBA star John Wall. During his time in Boston, he grew up in the same housing projects as members of legendary R&B group New Edition.

“So I’m talking to [New Edition member] Michael Bivins, and he has these four boys with him,” Moton recalled. “He claims they’re going to be the next big thing in music. Yeah, OK. But I decided to take a picture just in case.”

On his phone, Moton holds up the early 1990s photo of the quartet, all dressed in baby blue outfits. The world would soon come to know the group as Boyz II Men. He has a million stories like that. They help connect him with the young men he leads, young men who know his true mission.

“We share the same passion for winning,” Blount said. “People can say what they want about Coach, but you ain’t gonna get me to talk bad about him. That’s my guy.”

Added sophomore guard Nicolas Fennell: “A lot of times, he’ll ask you if you’re OK. He’ll joke around with you. When it comes to games, he wants to win, so it’s tough love.”

When they entered Georgia’s Stegeman Coliseum for the matchup against the Bulldogs, Moton noticed aloud to his team that the venue didn’t have a picture of a certain all-time great.

“You ain’t got a picture of Dominique Wilkins?” Moton said. “Where is he? Do you even know who he is?”

“Yeah, he’s on the NBA 2K all-time team,” junior guard Deven Palmer said. Moton chuckled as he walked away.

Minutes before tipoff against Georgia, NCCU’s players gathered in the tunnel and held hands.

“All for one … God for us all … all for NCCU … family on three … one, two, three … family!”

Sparked by an early windmill dunk from possible No. 1 NBA draft pick Anthony Edwards — and five NCCU turnovers in the game’s first 10 minutes — Georgia jumped out to an 18-9 lead. The Eagles didn’t have the athletes to compete with their opponent, and the Bulldogs knew it.

During one stretch, Edwards made a 3-pointer, held up three fingers and looked at Moton. “You’re a fan,” Moton said at halftime of Fennell’s defensive approach to Edwards. “He’s winking at me because he can smell blood, because you’re not competing.” Said Moton later, “I want them to understand that he’s tough on us, but he’s fair, he’s understanding, he’s supportive and he’s trustworthy. I’ve never in my life lied to a kid. I’m always going to tell them the truth. I’ll look you dead in your face and tell you: This world is not going to pacify no black man.”

Not much changed in the second half. Edwards scored 21 points in 26 minutes, and Georgia walked away with an easy 95-59 win.

As NCCU exited the locker room for the trip back to Durham, dozens of family members and friends were waiting in the lobby. Basketball, in that moment, didn’t matter as much.

Once the team left the arena, the TVs on the team bus rotated between highlights of Ohio State’s 74-49 win at North Carolina from earlier that night and a “programming is temporarily unavailable” message as the bus cut through small towns across the Carolinas. Hungry players tore into their postgame meals after another trip to Bojangles’. As most tried to get some sleep for the 5½-hour journey, assistant coach Brian Graves kept his laptop open and watched film from the Georgia game.

The bus reached NCCU’s campus at 3:36 a.m. It was 36 degrees as players grabbed their bags and walked home. Ayetey and Perkins entered their apartment at 3:52. But they wouldn’t have much time to get comfortable. The next day, they would travel again, this time on a four-hour bus ride back to South Carolina to face Charleston Southern.

At NCCU, the road is a lifestyle. But it’s also where the team bonds.

“It’s tough being on the road for a long time,” Blount said. “But at the same time, it’s a blessing because you’d rather be here than anywhere else.”

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