Big talent flows through small NC 'Basketball Town'
Posted July 23, 2016
Updated July 26, 2016
Kinston, N.C. — A town of just over 20,000 people, Kinston is your typical eastern North Carolina town – with one big exception.
Over the last 50 years, seven basketball players from Kinston High School have gone on to be drafted in the NBA or make a NBA roster. That means a player who makes a varsity team at Kinston has roughly a one percent chance of making it to the NBA.
Seven players from Lenoir County have been drafted by NBA teams.
Cedric Maxwell attended UNC-Charlotte, leading the basketball team to the a NCAA Final Four. He was drafted 12th overall by the Boston Celtics in 1977. In 1983, Mitchell Wiggins was drafted 23rd overall by the Indiana Pacers after a college career that took him to both Clemson and Florida State.
Charles Shackleford played college basketball at North Carolina State University and was drafted 32nd overall by the New Jersey Nets in 1988. Jerry Stackhouse played college ball for the University of North Carolina and was drafted third overall by the Philadelphia 76ers in 1995.
Herbert Hill played college basketball at Providence and was drafted 55th overall by the Utah Jazz in 2007. More recently, Reggie Bullock went to UNC and was drafted 25th overall by the L.A. Clippers. In June, Brandon Ingram was drafted second overall by the L.A. Lakers after one year at Duke.
Tony Dawson, another product of the Kinston pipeline, was not drafted but did play in the NBA.
"It is incredible the size of the town, but yet you think about those players that have been there and what they've accomplished. It's phenomenal," said UNC basketball coach Roy Williams. "It's a pretty impressive list of just the players who have gone and played in the ACC and kept going. But there's a lot of college coaches that need to make a stop in Kinston every opportunity they get."
With players like Stackhouse and Bullock, Kinston has been kind to the Tar Heels.
"If I hear there's a player in Kinston, I am going to go there quicker than I would go to New York City," Williams said.
"It's called tradition," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "A lot of times people think of tradition with a school or whatever, but the Kinston community has a tradition of loving the game and producing real good basketball players."
Where it starts
Many major metropolitan areas have not produced the level of basketball talent that Kinston has produced over the last few decades, which leads to the question: How does a small town produce such players?
"Basketball is God here in Kinston," said Bryan Hanks, the editor of the Kinston Free Press who has covered Kinston's basketball team since 2002.
"It's amazing. I have lived all over the state of North Carolina and I have never seen what happens here in Kinston and Lenoir County ... I think it's just the way people grow up here. The parks and rec department that is in Kinston and Lenoir County is amazing. You have had strong leadership for 60 or 70 years."
Many basketball careers begin at the Holloway Recreation Center on North Myrtle Avenue in Kinston.
"Holloway is a place where all the kids in Kinston come. I don't care where you're living in Lenoir County, you come here to learn how to play basketball," said Skeet Davis, a retired teacher and coach.
Davis said kids of all abilities show up at Holloway. New players come to learn the basics. Experienced players come to refine their skills.
"If you lose, that's where you end up. See, they done lost. They've got to wait now for their turn ... No fouls are called unless you draw blood. You know, I've had to break up some fights every now and then, but no fouls are called. This is how you learn how to play," Davis said.
The parks and recreation department gets some credit for the success Kinston High School's basketball program has seen, according to current basketball coach Perry Tyndall and former coach Wells Gulledge.
"Our parks and rec department has been fantastic, and you've got so many leaders in our community that run these centers and have them open. It gives kids a chance to go play," Tyndall said. "If the doors are unlocked there will be somebody in the gym playing basketball."
Gulledge, who now coaches at Arendell Parrott Academy, agrees.
"There are many gyms open in this area, probably four or five at all times, and I think as a young kid, if you have somewhere to go and work on your craft then kids really get excited about the game," he said. "The recreation department is a vital lifeline for us here. IT just keeps so many kids off the streets."
Small town, high hopes
The rafters of Kinston High School's gymnasium houses many banners. The trophy case is home to many trophies.
The more recent banners are 2-A state championships. But there was a time when Kinston was a 4-A school, competing with the largest schools in the state. The population in Kinston has been declining though.
"Kinston was one time declared the tobacco capital of the world back in the 50s and 60s, and we all know what happened to tobacco. With all of that gone away, basketball has remained," said Hanks. "It's just the lifeblood of Kinston. Basketball is what people live for here ... especially with the economic situation being what it is, and it's on the rebound here in Kinston, but there have been several decades of the economy not being the greatest it could be."
The median household income in Kinston in 2013 was $29,179. The median income for the state of North Carolina was $45,906.
"There's not a whole lot to do here in Kinston. This is a cheap game. All you need is a ball, two or three people, and you can have a game going on," Davis said. "Basketball is the king of Kinston – just like tobacco and cotton used to be. Now we've got basketball. We're raising basketball players."
Kinston has had its share of crime over the years as it has dealt with the economy, but basketball has helped keep kids out of trouble.
"Our parks and rec department has been an extremely huge vessel to keep kids, give them something to do to help them stay out of trouble and keep them occupied," Tyndall said.
As kids grow up in Kinston, they're able to look at what the players before them accomplished in the same small town.
"You can see the kids light up and you can see them go out there and pick up the pace a little bit if Reggie or Jerry walks in the gym," Gulledge said.
"They may not know those guys, but they know, 'Hey, he played at Kinston,'" Tyndall said, pointing at Brandon Ingram as the latest example. "That's what makes this place so special. There is always somebody who keeps the dream alive for the kids."
Each generation of Kinston basketball players has had at least one high-level player to look up to.
"You get the list of one out of so many hundred thousand make it. I think Kinston has changed the ratio a little bit when it comes to that," Gulledge said. "You've got your ratio for the United States, and then you have your ratio for Kinston, N.C., which is a little bit different."
The love of basketball Kinston has is obvious to those outside of the town too. When a game is being played at Kinston High School, the gym is full, the atmosphere is rich and it leaves an impression on anyone attending – including college basketball coaches.
"It's not the basketball team of Kinston High School. It's Kinston's basketball team," Roy Williams said.
The town of Kinston and Kinston High School would likely agree.
Bryan Hanks of the Kinston Free Press contributed to this report.