Now is the time for moving past it. Nearly everyone agrees on that. The family and friends of JamesOn Curry, would-be county hero. Other townspeople, too, because if you live in these parts, you're sick of hearing "Alamance County" and "drug bust" lumped in the same sentence in newspaper article after newspaper article, broadcast upon broadcast. This is, after all, the kind of place where, as school board member Gayle Gunn said, "neighborhoods are neighborhoods, kids play in the streets."
No player in North Carolina high school history -- not David Thompson, not James Worthy, heck, not Michael Jordan -- scored more points than Curry, bringing the spotlight to Eastern Alamance High School, enrollment 1,006. He was to play at the University of North Carolina, about 25 miles from home.
"He'd always dreamed of that," said his father, Leon. "Who wouldn't?"
Yet, as everyone around here knows by now, on the morning of Feb. 4 -- not 12 hours after Curry scored 47 points in another victory for the Eagles -- the kid's circumstances changed, the county's stillness changed, it all changed.
Before dawn, law enforcement officials from two towns and the county sheriff's office had a magistrate sign arrest warrants for 50 students at five high schools. Curry was among them, charged with six felony counts of possessing marijuana and selling it on school grounds.
The reaction from those who knew Curry was nearly uniform: Not him, not the kid who, his father said, "came home with a basketball pacifier in his mouth." No way.
"Not true," said Fred Quartlebaum, a former assistant at North Carolina and Curry's chief recruiter for the Tar Heels. "Can't be. Just not true."
The talk took off. It was a sports story. It was a news story. It was an editorial. More. The raid was right. It was wrong. We have a drug problem. Oh, Lord.
"Some said it shouldn't have been done," said John Moon, Curry's coach at Eastern Alamance. "Some said it should've been done. The kids should've been handled different. The kids were handled the right way.
"It'll probably be talked about forever."
Last Wednesday night, in his little white house tucked down a country road just before the county line, JamesOn Curry ended a three-month period of his young life that felt like forever. He put pen to paper, signed with Oklahoma State, and ensured he'll play college basketball.
'It Was a Sad Day'
In college basketball, this was about JamesOn Curry. Drug busts are a part of the routine, daily flow of the sports page, the items separated by ellipses, stuck in the corners of newspapers from Long Island to Los Angeles. That's what trickled out across the nation: North Carolina recruit charged with running drugs. Turn the page.
But in Graham, in Burlington, in Mebane and throughout the county, Curry was just part of it. Here were 50 sons and daughters -- 50! -- suddenly called to the principal's office, frisked, placed in handcuffs, and taken away in vans.
"It was a sad day," said Todd Baker of Mebane. "There's just no two ways about it."
Outside the schools, the county's reputation was well-established. Interstate 40 joins with Interstate 85, linking truck stop to truck stop from one side of Alamance County to the other. New York City, the Mexican border. All that traffic's moving through town; not much of it's staying. Who knows who's stopping at the gas stations and the Bojangles? Alamance County, with a population not much more than 130,000, became known as the "drug hub of North Carolina."
"I'd hear that, and it would fry my rear end," said Terry Johnson, the county's sheriff.
"But you know what? . . . In the past, drugs were not a major issue in people's eyes. And the reason is," he spaces out his words, "they were not looking."
Buoyed by surveys of parents and teachers that identified drugs as a major problem, James Merrill, the superintendent of the Burlington-Alamance schools, began looking. Last summer, he met with the sheriff's office as well as the police departments from Burlington and Graham, the county's largest towns. Their plan, "Operation Safe Schools," jumped out of a movie script.
Local officials couldn't use their own undercover officers; they would have been easily recognized. So they recruited young-looking officers from elsewhere. They manufactured academic records in other counties and fabricated driver's licenses. They recruited people from their own community who served as "guardians" for these "transfer students."
They supplied the officers with backpacks and book bags equipped with built-in video cameras. In some cases, they used tiny, James Bond-esque button-hole cameras. They had audio recording devices. Officers could hear everything, see much of it, get the information, track the drugs.
"First, we wanted video -- if we could get it," Johnson said. "And we wanted as many transactions that could take place to take place on the school grounds."
At the end of each day, the officers would meet, record all the transactions -- and head off to do their homework.
On Top of His Game
As the operation trudged forward, so did Curry. His senior year was to be merely the topper to his high school career, the season in which he would finally lead the Eagles to a state championship. In anticipation of it all, the newspaper from nearby Durham sent a photographer to track him through the season. A North Carolina fan Web site traveled to all his games, filing breathless reports, giving Tar Heels fans a taste of what might be to come.
"His ability to shoot the ball," said former North Carolina coach Matt Doherty, "it's just undeniable."
Doherty and his staff originally recruited Curry, inviting him to sit behind the Tar Heels' bench during games at Smith Center, convincing him to commit to UNC in the summer following his sophomore year. They liked his long arms, his big hands, his shot.
"He was just a gym rat," Quartlebaum said. "He loved the game."
So in 2003, as fall turned to winter, Curry, who declined several requests to be interviewed for this story, had already scored more points than any freshman in North Carolina history, more points than any sophomore, more points than any junior. On Dec. 16, in a gym in nearby High Point -- with the man who had held the mark for 44 years, Lawrence "Cotton" Clayton, in the crowd -- Curry pulled up on the fast break, banking home a jumper against High Point Andrews. The record.
"It was special," Moon said.
He would score 41 points that night. Less than a month later, he hung 34 on Northwood to go over 3,000 in his career. On Jan. 19, he poured in 65 against Western Alamance. He was a machine.
Through it all, he talked about team success. On the night Curry broke the record, Moon told reporters Curry wouldn't have been happy had the performance come in a loss. On Feb. 3, when he scored 47 against Graham, he told the Times-News of Burlington simply, "We tried to come out with the same game plan and play hard on defense."
At that moment, law enforcement officials were printing those 50 arrest warrants. They would be signed by a magistrate beginning at 4 the following morning.
Johnson, the county sheriff, speaks proudly of "Operation Safe Schools." He tells stories of his undercover officers sitting down in class for the first time, and being offered dope immediately. After that first day of arrests, 10 more students were apprehended, bringing the total to 60. District Attorney Robert Johnson said just two cases went to trial. One was found guilty. One was found not guilty. The remaining 58 cut pre-trial deals, pleading guilty.
Law enforcement officials cite those numbers as evidence that their cases were air-tight. Dawn Allen, Curry's attorney, said that "juries are unpredictable" and that her client chose the route that involved the least chance of jail time.
"It's just comes down to: Do you want to roll the dice?" Allen said.
Indeed, Curry's case seems muddled. Johnson will tell you, in one breath, "From what we hear, JamesOn Curry's a good kid." In another, he'll say, "I don't have long to live, but I'd bet my life this wasn't the first time he sold drugs."
Last fall, J.R. Hughes, an undercover officer from Cumberland County, more than 100 miles away, enrolled at Eastern Alamance under the name Kevin. He had three classes with Curry, as well as lunch. He saw him in the weight room. He told him things about his personal life. He got close to the school's star.
"The guy kept bugging him and bugging him," Leon Curry said. "And unfortunately, JamesOn knew some people that sold marijuana. [In this case], he was the go-between guy. He would get it from the people, and he would take it to the school and take the money.
"It was wrong. There's no question it was wrong. But if you see a kid with so much potential, why in the hell would you approach him? Where was your motive? I do not understand it."
Hughes, reached earlier this month, declined to comment on the intricacies of the investigation.
Two days after his plea resulted in 36 months of probation and some community service, North Carolina Coach Roy Williams, Doherty's replacement, rescinded his scholarship offer, saying "he is a nice young man, but one who made some very serious mistakes." The Currys say they have no ill will.
But even now, as the Currys concentrate on what's ahead, they wonder about how the sting was handled. They wonder about what they say is a disproportionate number of African-American students who were arrested.
"Why was the officer placed in basic-level math? In weight-lifting?" Allen said. "Why weren't they in calculus? It doesn't sound random to me. . . . They needed a name."
As Leon Curry said, "Why would you send a wolf dressed in sheep's clothing, when you should've been sending a shepherd?"
Sheriff Johnson vigorously defends the way the operation was carried out. He points out that more white students were arrested than minorities. He said the idea that there was a racial or social bias is absurd.
"We backed up everyone with veteran officers," Johnson said. "There were strict rules. We handled it properly and professionally. . . .
"Ninety-nine percent of the community is saying, 'Sheriff, I appreciate what you've done in our schools. It's been needed for years.' "
Curry, now, is done talking about it all. He is finishing his high school education at an alternative school in Burlington. He cannot go to his senior prom, can't even set foot on the Eastern Alamance campus.
"He knows now that the measure is how you're able to swim against the tide," said Frankie T. Jones Jr., a businessman who lives not far from Curry and, since the charges, has helped advise the boy and the family. "There's so much adversity. Even in our great country, with the past discriminatory practices that have gone on, he understands that life offers some unfair things at times. . . .
"He is rejuvenated. Much of his hope and faith that was being questioned, or was diminishing to some degree, has been restored."
His hope is back, in large part, because Oklahoma State Coach Eddie Sutton, who has a history of extending second chances, gave one to Curry. "I have looked in his eyes and seen a remorseful young man who is looking for a second chance," Sutton said in a statement the day Curry signed. "He understands fully there is no margin for error."
Alamance County, though, still feels the impact of it all. Merrill, the superintendent, has refused to comment publicly on the sting since the day it happened. Sheriff Johnson pledges he will continue to fight drugs in schools. And the people in the towns, in the diners, in the convenience stores and barrooms still discuss it.
"I have daughters," said Walter Britt, the director of the YMCA in Burlington, where Curry still occasionally works out. "But if I had a 12-year-old son, and we followed him around, and my son idolized him, I can see where it would be devastating to the child. He had become a role model in this area.
"But I've heard nothing but support [for the raid]. I think we can use it as a teachable moment: It's not just these NBA players making mistakes. It's high school kids making mistakes."
The mistake, now, is done, over with. Last month, encountering an unexpected visitor at his house, Curry sounded eager to move on.
"Yes, sir," he said. "I just want to play. Yes, sir."
Quietly, he ambled inside the small house. Next month, he will go to Stillwater, Okla., to begin summer school, to start over. He will take his jump shot with him. He will try to leave his past, or at least this chapter of it, behind.