North Carolina Central University stands on Durham's Fayetteville Street as a longtime beacon of freedom, education and chance at equality for the African-American community. But unfortunately for Central fans, alumni and students, NCCU's basketball program has recently become more of an athletics buoy caught in a perfect storm of bad timing.
Just about every night, Central's McLendon-McDougal Gymnasium sits quietly as the Eagles barnstorm the country like the Division I version of the Washington Generals, the team of stooges the Harlem Globetrotters have embarrassed for decades.
Last season, Central played 23 road games and fewer home games than any team in the nation except Presbyterian College. This year's 30-game schedule calls for 10 home games; the visitors include Chowan University, Longwood University and Central State of Ohio.
In the Jim Crow days of 1944, there was a secret, forbidden basketball game between Duke University and Central—then called the North Carolina College for Negroes. The all-black Central team destroyed the all-white Blue Devils by a score of 88-44. Now, 64 years and a historic presidential election later, Durham's other Division I team is six games into its second season playing top-tier ball, with a dismal 0-6 record. On Wednesday, Dec. 3, the team will play its first home game of the season, against High Point.
Last season was the team's first campaign in Division I ball, and it was easy to excuse the difficulties as the inevitable trial by fire. Now, the true enormity of the battle is setting in, and many see Central's new basketball challenges as a metaphor for the Civil Rights movement as a whole—making baby steps toward victory.
The Eagles may be Division I, but barely, for they're a team without a conference to call home or many chances to win.
"[Success] may not come as quickly as everybody wants it to. But somebody has to start it. We're the ones who are brave enough to start it," NCCU senior guard Philip Branch said via mobile phone while traveling through the Midwest for yet another Eagles road game. "Don't ever count the underdog out."
For years, Central had been competitive in the Division II Central Intercollegiate Athletics Association (CIAA), where it played against schools like Shaw University, St. Augustine's College and Fayetteville State. Like a family, the fans and alums of the historically black Division II league traversed the region all winter to watch basketball games, listen to the bands and meet up with old friends.
But then Central's higher-ups—including former Chancellor James Ammons and former Athletic Director William Hayes—decided the CIAA wasn't big-time enough and left the largely church-affiliated league in hopes of joining the Mid-Eastern Athletics Conference (MEAC)—one of only two Division I HBCU (historically black colleges and universities) leagues in the country.
When basketball desegregated, the most talented black players were drawn to the big-time, historically white programs. Increasingly, HBCU sports programs became marginalized in the lower college divisions.
The MEAC, with its larger and more prestigious HBCU universities and sports programs, became the focus of Central's ambitions. And with the MEAC moving its low-excitement tournament to Raleigh in 2006 with hopes of picking up some of the departed CIAA Tournament's buzz, Central joining the Division I league seemed perfect.
There were only several problems with the idea: Nobody from the MEAC made any binding promises to NCCU; Central would have to go through a five-year process to become a full-fledged Division I program; and MEAC officials didn't get the Triangle's black basketball culture—its tourney left Raleigh last spring after three seasons of low attendance.
So now, the Eagles are without the CIAA and the MEAC, and since the only other Division I HBCU conference, the Southwestern Athletic Conference, is located in the Gulf South, Central has nothing to do but play larger Division I programs for competition and money in what many mid-majors call "guarantee games."
Another term may be lambs to the slaughter.
NCCU made approximately $450,000 by playing on the road last season, getting ripped by teams like Duke, Florida and Nebraska. They lost by more than 22 points on average per game. So far this season, the average margin of defeat is 28, with games against Michigan, Miami, Arkansas and N.C. State yet to come.
Still going through other hardships, Eagles head coach Henry Dickerson says he can see parallels with The Struggle.
"The greater the trial, the greater the glory. If it's easy, I don't think you can have that glory. Look what [African-Americans] went through, but look where we are now," Dickerson said.
"No matter how difficult the situation is, there's always a silver lining, even if you can't see it right now."
It's not Dickerson's fault the schedule is what it is, but it is his charge and he gladly accepts it.
"We're representing quite a few people. It only takes for you to stub your toe one time to get a black eye from adversity," said Dickerson, a sturdy and direct man.
"From Wake Forest to Tulsa, we've made people actually work. At the end of the game, those guys will tell you it's not a cake walk." (Wake beat Central by a score of 94-48, while the Tulsa game ended with a 92-52 tally.)
Last season, Central's players pacified themselves with the thought that they were the school's first Division I team, making them martyrs. This season, the religion is the same, but it's more based on faith than fact.
"We're adding to the foundation that was started last year," Branch said. "We're not expecting a lot, but we're not expecting a little, just build on that foundation."
But believing in overcoming insurmountable odds is the reason Central and other HBCUs exist. It's a big reason many African-Americans exist, students, athletes and others say. It's a legacy burned into the black psyche.
"It's part of our pride. Everything that has to do with HBCUs has do with pride. We play these teams out of a sense of pride," Branch said just before proudly admitting to voting for Barack Obama.
While not comparing the Eagles with Obama, Dickerson said the former senator's win illustrates what underdogs can accomplish.
Rodderick Powell, a 19-year-old sophomore student at Central, said he doubts the Eagles' fate on the basketball court will change quickly, but added that neither did the fates of African-Americans in America, making NCCU's athletics challenge look similar to its other obstacles.
"Just like with the basketball team, we have to try twice as hard. If we don't, we fall further behind, because we already started behind," Powell said. "It's hard in the real world, too. Because just like basketball, the real world isn't [all black]."
Branch agreed and then noted that before there was an Obama, there was a Jesse Jackson—and one day, Central can win on a consistent level in Division I.
"Last season we had four [wins], this year we may double it," Branch said. "You can't keep us down forever."
The N.C. Central Eagles play their home opener against the High Point Panthers Wednesday, Dec. 3, at 7:30 p.m. at McLendon-McDougal Gymnasium on the N.C. Central campus.