The friendship began at a corner store in Raleigh, N.C., near the apartment projects on Lane Street. It was the early 1980s and LeVelle Moton was around 9 years old, hustling for nickels in games of H-O-R-S-E so he could buy Now and Later taffy – cherry, if they had it — from the woman who ran the cash register, a former college basketball star nicknamed Pee-Wee.
Pamela Wells watched Moton grow up from behind that counter, reminding him to keep his grades up, because academics would be his ticket out. Years later, after Moton became the head basketball coach at North Carolina Central University in Durham, Wells would reflect on those moments at the corner store and think about how that boy, smiling and eager and always bouncing a basketball, resembled her own son, Dez. They were once both inner-city children with big dreams and, under the motherly guidance of Pee-Wee, they both became so much more.
“Yes,” she said, “I do see Dez in a lot of ways that I saw LeVelle.”
On Tuesday afternoon, Moton and his Eagles will face Maryland and Dez Wells, the junior guard whom Moton calls “Nephew.” Dez calls Moton “Uncle” and Moton calls Pamela “Auntie,” but their relationship transcends any familial designation. Ever since childhood, Moton has remained close to Pamela and Dez, serving as a mentor to him and a lifelong friend to her.
In four-plus seasons at North Carolina Central, Moton, 39, has transformed his alma mater from a low-major doormat into an upset-minded upstart. On Nov. 20, the Eagles beat North Carolina State on the road by 10 points. Since transferring from Xavier last summer, Wells has become the face of the Maryland men’s basketball program, armed with the guidance received from Moton through the years.
It was Moton, among others, who helped keep Wells motivated during high school, even as the teenager was overshadowed by five-star recruits like John Wall and C.J. Leslie. Moton starred at a Division I school and signed a professional contract, and he wanted to ensure Wells reached similar heights. Whenever his coaching obligations don’t overlap with Maryland games, Moton flips on the television and watches. They still talk twice weekly and Moton has been a sounding board on everything from girls to basketball to handling the hype.
“My mom basically raised him,” Wells said. “He’s just repaying the favor, being such a great mentor and father figure for me.”
Their relationship reached its strongest point last summer, when Wells began searching for new schools after his expulsion from Xavier. He boomeranged across the country over the summer, visiting Kentucky, Memphis, Maryland and Oregon under deadline to commit before classes began. Moton never even considered mentioning North Carolina Central.
“Now maybe I’m foolish. People might read this and say, ‘He’s crazy as hell,’ ” for not recruiting Wells, Moton said. “But he’s had enough people try to come into his life and try to take advantage of him because of his basketball ability. I felt that at that time in his life, he needed guidance.”
Wells, for his part, said he probably would have gone to North Carolina Central had he not transferred to Maryland.
“He always protected me,” Wells said.
Moton had agreed to play Maryland last summer and for months it felt like a class project, with a fixed due date that never seemed to arrive. Yet once Moton’s assistants began the scouting report and started referring to Wells by his jersey number, “32,” reality finally dawned on him, and his players recognized it, too.
“They know he’s family,” Moton said. “I’ve got to convince them that, for two and a half hours, he’s not family. I hope he has incredible games, but I hope he doesn’t make a shot against us.”
Wells, for his part, said there is “not going to be any love showed” on Tuesday afternoon. Moton anticipated the reunion as both “awkward” and “weird,” and repeatedly joked about trash-talking with Wells mid-possession from his sideline spot. But both know the truth. The competition will last 40 minutes on the scoreboard, then they will embrace at midcourt. And from her perch behind the scorer’s table, somewhere equidistant between her son and close friend, the memories will come rushing back to Pamela Wells, of corner stores and candy and boys she helped raise into men.