DURHAM, N.C. -- "White boy."
That's how Landon Clement is referred to by a lot of students here on the historically black campus of North Carolina Central University. When he first arrived two years ago, the term was not exactly a compliment.
What's White Boy doing here?
Students couldn't help but notice Clement, and talk. He spent all his time with black teammates. He had a son with a black girlfriend. And from that came another, more scathing suggestion:
Oh, he's trying to be black.
There are plenty of whites playing sports at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), but most play traditionally white sports such as golf and tennis. Landon Clement played basketball, and he was the only white on the team.
But he was no hanger-on. He was good. Really good.
Clement had a gift -- one of the sweetest jumpers you'll ever see. And when the students at this school of 8,300 saw him float the ball into a pure and lovely arc, well, "White Boy" became "White Boy!"
"Our ratio is 17 to 1 girls," says Eagles head coach LeVelle Moton, who starred as a player here. "And they all love him."
Landon Clement is now the most popular player on the team -- maybe the entire campus -- and before he went out with a foot injury late last year, just about every three-point shot he took at home was greeted by thousands of arms raised in anticipation. When his three-pointers fell -- and they fell a whopping 40 percent of the time -- the arms came down and the roof came down with it.
Last season, in his first full year at NCCU after transferring from UNC-Greensboro, he would have ranked second in the nation behind BYU sensation Jimmer Fredette if NCCU was Division I, which it is for the first time this season. This year, in the nine games before his injury, Clement was shooting 44 percent from long range.
"He's an assassin," says forward Ray Willis, who transferred from Oklahoma. "He really doesn't miss."
But students here don't just appreciate Clement because he can shoot the trey. They also respect the way he carries himself -- the way he walks through campus with his hoodie up and backpack strapped tight, calling no attention to himself whatsoever. He's not a big talker. In fact, he's not much of a talker at all.
"He's genuine, honest, mature," says sophomore manager Sabrina Peace. "There is nothing fake about him."
Moton puts it more bluntly:
"There's a difference between Vanilla Ice and Eminem," he says. "Vanilla Ice is homogenized. Landon is Eminem. He doesn't try to be someone he’s not."
A lot of that is because of a part of Clement's past almost no one knows about. And that side of White Boy has nothing to do with race.
Perhaps the most remarkable event in the century-long history of North Carolina Central University involved both race and basketball. It took place in 1944, when it was dangerous -- not to mention illegal -- for blacks and whites to interact. But through a covert agreement reportedly made at a local YMCA, a basketball game was arranged between a powerhouse team at the North Carolina College for Negroes (which became NCCU) and a team of medical-school students at all-white Duke, whose campus is four miles away. The game was held under such guarded conditions that some Duke players didn't even know about it until they got off the bus. But the Central team -- coached by the legendary John McClendon, a James Naismith disciple –- destroyed the Duke team, 88-44.
More improbably, the game was followed by another matchup, this time with mixed teams going shirts and skins. It was so heretic -- more than two decades before the Civil Rights Act -- that it would be years before the public knew about the events of that day. It was henceforth known as "The Secret Game."
But the game is too secret. Few sports fans know about it. And few Americans know much of anything about North Carolina Central. Both in basketball and in academics, the school is towered over by Duke. Most people don't even know that the woman involved in the Duke lacrosse scandal, Crystal Mangum, was a student at Central. That controversy took place at the worst possible time for NCCU because that was the year it started the process of moving to Division I.
Now, five years later, that process is complete. Memories of Duke lacrosse have faded. But NCCU is still an enormous underdog in Durham. It always will be. The school is looking for a greater identity -- an identity an NCAA tournament berth can provide. This is the program's first season with eligibility for March Madness. A conference tournament win next month would get the 12-12 Eagles a first-ever ticket to the Big Dance. The third page of this season's basketball media guide blares: "The Transition Is Over: This Time It Counts."
Right below that declaration is a large photo of Landon Clement.
Clement doesn't look like much of an athlete. He's a bit scrawny, a bit scruffy, a bit hang-dog. He runs up the floor quickly but his posture shows some reluctance, as if it's a bit of a bother to get to where he can work his magic. No, Landon Clement doesn't seem like a star. And that's notable considering one aspect of his background: He comes from money.
Clement grew up in nearby Raleigh, with parents who ran a successful chain of jewelry stores. His childhood home, his coach says, was "bigger than this gym."
"When I first met him, I couldn't stand him," Moton says. "I was his teacher in sixth grade. He believed in himself so much. Too much. He had two diamond earrings."
Clement's father doted on him and had a novel way of teaching him how to shoot a basketball. Chris Clement urged his youngest son to focus on shooting form and not worry where the ball went. So even before Landon was strong enough to get the ball to the goal, he was honing his release, his rotation, his follow through. His dad didn't care if Landon's shots fell well short. One day, he would get the ball there. And one day, the ball would go in the hoop.
It did. Eagles teammate Nick Chasten, who has known Clement since childhood, remembers his friend going to a Purdue basketball camp at age 12 and returning a different player. "He came back," Chasten says, "and he hasn't missed since."
Clement didn't go to North Carolina Central, though. Instead he signed with a non-HBCU, UNC-Greensboro. He had big dreams of using that beautiful jumper to win games, earn a degree, and play pro ball. It all seemed quite possible.
But by the time Clement left for college, there was something else going on in his life.
The recession hit the family jewelry business hard. People stopped buying the precious gems the Clements sold, and the family's only source of income slowly vanished. They had to give up the business.
"We hit rock bottom," Clement says. "It was bad."
So bad that he sometimes came home from practice and ate only a bag of chips. The kid with the diamond earrings was suddenly worrying about his next meal. And that wasn't his worst fear.
Clement had an infant son, Chase. But the boy's mother was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and had to be hospitalized for a time. Clement temporarily got full custody of Chase and decided he should move closer to his family in Raleigh for support. That's the main reason he transferred to NCCU -- for Chase.
Things didn't get much better. Landon's father got a job installing windows and sun roofs and worked seven days a week. His mother helped out with the baby but had a daughter of her own living at home. Landon started winning hearts on his new campus with his humble personality and his game, but there was a reason for his unassuming ways: He was going without meals and sleep.
He told almost no one what he was going through. Except for his closest friend on the team, David Best, nobody had much of a clue.
In his first season after transferring, Clement averaged 18.7 points a game. But the gym was his only escape. He tried desperately to keep shooting, keep studying, keep his eyes on the prize so that his mind wouldn't entertain thoughts of crime. He admits those ideas lingered threateningly close.
"I used basketball to clear my mind," he says. "Basketball has always been more than a game, but I used it as counseling. When I had a ball in my hand, it relieved all that stress."
Race is something everyone can see. But class can be hidden. And Clement hid it well.
"It was a pride issue," he says. "I didn't want anybody looking at me different."
So he kept to himself. And he played as if his son's future depended on it. In a way, it did.
Practice lasts three hours on a chilly December day, and that's not unusual for Moton -- a taskmaster if ever there was one. There's a volleyball game scheduled in McDougald-McClendon Gym and the poles get set up even before the men's basketball team leaves the court. A volleyball player actually pushes a cart full of balls into the free-throw lane, and still hoops practice goes on. Moton might not be the most famous coach in America, but he's surely one of the most intense.
There's a reason for that.
He was born in Roxbury, Mass., which he calls "the murder capital of the world from 1985 to 1989." There's a near-pride in Moton as he talks about the poverty of his youth. "The projects prepare you," he says, "for anything and everything you might face."
Moton doesn't need to hint his players are, by that definition, unprepared. He comes out and says it.
"My players, they’re spoiled,” says Moton, who is black. "They're rotten. They don’t know what it’s like to hurt."
Moton is one of the best players ever to lace up at NCCU. But don’t ever say that was only because of natural talent. It was because of hunger –- the hunger from growing up in the projects with a mother who worked herself to the bone. His players don’t always understand, he says.
"They're not from the projects," Moton says. “That's the problem with the world. They don't understand the people before you."
To drive home the point, Moton printed out a photo of slaves and showed it to the team.
"This," he told them, "is you."
It was a motivational tactic, of course, meant to remind his players that like almost all African Americans, they come from a lineage that once had nothing. But standing there in front of the coach was one player who was especially moved: the white boy.
"He started out with nothing," Clement says of his coach. "Now he lives a very comfortable life. I started out with everything and went to nothing."
NCCU will celebrate Senior Night on Monday. But Clement will not be in uniform. He's been out with a foot infection that sent him to the hospital twice this winter. He still can't run and he has to leave his right sneaker untied because his foot is so swollen. There's been, in his words, "a lot of pain." A good deal of that pain has been emotional.
The injury has isolated Clement from the game he loves and now the senior is worried the gift he got from his father -- that pretty jumper -- might not ever make the arms fall at NCCU again. His dreams -- the school's dreams -- of March Madness in NCCU's first year of eligibility are starting to fade.
"Just trying to make the best of the situation," he says, quoting the famous saying Moton likes to use: "Tough times don't last; tough people do."
He's lasted. He's lived the story of so many black students who have come to HBCU's for help and hope: hard-working and talented but desperately in need of a break.
"I took a lot of things for granted," he says. "I had a fortunate childhood. Ski trips, beach trips, roller-coaster parks. My parents always found a way to give everything to me. They would do anything to make their kids happy. And they suffered from it, a lot. That's why I’m so determined to play ball and have a lot of money. That's what drives me. I want to provide my son the childhood I had growing up."
He starts to choke up.
So in a way, Landon Clement stands for NCCU as much as any black student. He's an underdog at the underdog school, able to compete with anyone but spurred on by the fear of losing everything. Many African Americans know that storyline well, but after the recent recession, more and more formerly middle-class whites understand it, too.
"Landon is indicative of the times we're in," says athletic director Ingrid Wicker-McCree. "I think NCCU will always have its roots as an HBCU, but it wouldn't surprise me if there comes a time when 40 percent of the student population is white. Any HBCU that isn't open to change will cease to exist."
That's in part because the survival of schools such as NCCU won't rely on recruiting black students but recruiting students, period. The real race in the new economy is the race to attain financial stability, and that transcends race -- for institutions and for individuals. There are only 21 white athletes at NCCU now. There will be many more in the coming years.
Landon Clement is not at NCCU because he's trying to be black. He's not trying to be popular. All he's trying to do is what so many Americans, black and white, are trying to do these days.
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