LeVelle Moton’s secret motivation for NCCU

NCCU coach LeVelle Moton instructs the Eagles during their NCAA First Four game at Dayton, Ohio, earlier this month.
NCCU coach LeVelle Moton instructs the Eagles during their NCAA First Four game at Dayton, Ohio, earlier this month. AP

DURHAM North Carolina Central men’s basketball coach LeVelle Moton wasn’t going to tell a soul. Nope, this was going to stay with him because he didn’t want that kind of pressure on him or his team.

Last week during a celebration at the school to honor the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference regular-season and tournament champs, Moton addressed the crowd. Near the end of his speech, after holding it inside for four months, Moton shared his secret.

Earlier in the fall he had a visitor stop by his office, the late Debra Saunders-White, the former Chancellor at N.C. Central.

Moton hadn’t seen Saunders-White in a while. He was worried because that was unlike her. One day she stopped by his office in McDougald-McLendon Arena. Moton recalls that she looked different, the kidney cancer she was diagnosed with in 2015 taking its toll on her. So the veteran coach, who sent Saunders-White flowers each month, asked her if she needed anything.

“She said ‘no, I just need you to win me a championship,’” Moton said. “I’ll never forget that. It was just her and I, and a couple of months after that she passed.”

Saunders-White passed away on Nov. 26. The team found out the morning they were scheduled to play at Northern Kentucky. With heavy hearts, N.C. Central won the game, 82-74. On the morning of Dec. 3, Moton drove to Hampton, Virginia for her funeral, then made the trip to Greenville where the Eagles fell to East Carolina, 69-56. Moton admitted after that game he was tired and didn’t bring any energy to the sidelines, something his team picked up on. A little more than a month later N.C. Central started a 13-game winning streak, on its way to Moton’s third MEAC championship in four years.

Earlier this month in Norfolk, Virginia, the Eagles put together one of the best three-day runs in tournament history, winning their three games by an average of 23 points, securing another trip to the NCAA tournament. The last time they accomplished this Saunders-White was in the locker room afterwards. Her postgame speech to the team is still part of the starting lineup introduction video at N.C. Central home games. In a tribute video to Saunders-White, she is seen posing for pictures with the 2014 basketball team. There is also a clip of her and Moton, wrapped in a huge embrace at a football game. She was like another mom to Moton, and he wasn’t about to disappoint her final wish, even if he kept it, and her, inside the remainder of the season.

“I always had her in my spirit, I always had her in my heart,” Moton said. “I always knew that she was smiling down on me, and that’s normally when destiny occurs.”

Jonas Pope IV: 919-419-7001, @JEPopeIV