This time there were no long faces.
The last time the North Carolina Central men’s basketball team were together as a group, they were walking off the floor in Dayton, Ohio, their season over after falling to UC-Davis, 67-63, in the NCAA First Four.
Many of the players escaped to the locker room with blank stares on their faces, knowing that walk would be their last. A few players hid their faces in their jerseys, fighting back tears. The next morning they boarded a plane and headed back to Durham, filing off the bus one by one, going their separate ways once they returned to campus. It was a somber scene, but, luckily it wasn’t the final image of the 2016-17 men’s basketball team.
Thursday night in McDougald-Mclendon Arena the smiles were back. The players laughed, danced and posed for pictures. They addressed the fans who came out, not only Thursday, but all season to show support. Ten days ago the dream season - 25 wins, MEAC regular-season and tournament champs - came to an end. On a cold night in Dayton, it was hard to appreciate just how much they accomplished. However, Thursday in Durham, the players were able to celebrate and put the season in proper perspective.
“This being probably our last event together, it means a lot,” MEAC Player of the Year Pat Cole said. “Just a bunch of silly dudes who keep things energized around here.”
As Cole talked, Del’Vin Dickerson stood a few inches away, dancing in an attempt to make Cole laugh. Dickerson and Cole are two of seven seniors who led the Eagles to another 20-win season and into the NCAA tournament for just the second time.
Dickerson got serious enough for a moment to reflect on the year, his first, and only, season playing in Durham. He used the word blessed several times; blessed to be around such a great group of guys; blessed for Coach LeVelle Moton to give him an opportunity; blessed to win a championship. After the players were announced, they threw t-shirts to the fans, Cole spoke to the crowd and Moton presented the team with their MEAC tournament championship watches, prompting Cole to shout “I’m putting this on right now.”
When Moton addressed the crowd he told those in attendance that the reality for his seniors is that their college days are quickly coming to an end, the real world awaiting them. Some will continue their basketball careers, others will join the workforce. One thing for sure is this particular group has had their last ride together, something that has already sunk in.
“I cherish every last day with these guys,” Dickerson said. “Everyday we try to do something, like this weekend we are going to celebrate. We’re just going to keep it going because I don’t know when I’m going to see some of these dudes (again).”
Championship teams are usually honored five, 10, or 15 years after their last game. Moton wanted to make sure his guys got a proper celebration for their season, one they didn’t get after winning the MEAC tournament because they had to hit the road for Dayton. More than his players, Moton realizes the ball has stopped bouncing for this group and it would be nice for the fans to see them together one last time.
“When it’s over, it’s over,” Moton said. “It’s nothing but memories, so they need to be taking pictures with each other and the fans, all of that because it’s a special moment that not too many are afforded the opportunity to get.”
The celebration Thursday night included several video tributes, the last one was the Eagles very own ‘One Shining Moment’, the popular video played at the conclusion of the national championship game each April. It included highlights from the regular season, MEAC tournament and the First Four in Dayton. The players looked up, most of them smiling, none of them saying a word, just taking it all in as the music blasted and the highlights rolled.
Dickerson said the highlight clip made him think back to all the work the team put in before the season even started, the behind the scenes stuff that got them to a championship.
“Just how we got together as a team,” Dickerson said. “Just looking at it like, dang, we came a long way and now we are champions.”
Cole said he can see this group staying close for many years. They will still have their group chat, named ‘Jelly Fam’ and celebrate the season for the remainder of the school year. But the games are over. Thursday was it. The last time this group will be in McDougald-McLendon as one. Senior Will Ransom was the last player to leave the locker room. He emerged from the back, pushing his bike, Lucille, out the door, sticking around to sign a few more posters and take pictures. N.C. Central was Ransom’ fourth school, and Thursday was his last celebration. He stopped before he left his basketball sanctuary and gave his farewell speech.
“I’ve met a lot of good people during my time in Durham,” the Fort Worth, Texas native said. “This being my last year, I really enjoyed it. I love my teammates, those are my guys, I’ll lay anything on the line for them.”