GREENSBORO — Four N.C. A&T basketball players and their coach will complete a journey tonight from Dirtball to Freedom Hall.
For the uninitiated, that means a basketball progression from Louisville’s informal summer recreation league to the arena that houses the University of Louisville Cardinals. From moonlight to strobe light.
“It’s a dream,” Aggies center Jeff Alvis said of the 7 p.m. game with the 13th-ranked Cardinals (5-1). “I haven’t been home in a while. And to go home and play the home team? It’s what I’ve been waiting for my whole life.”
The same can be said for fellow Aggies Steven Koger, Sean Booker and Leslie Powell, all of whom, like Alvis, learned the game on the courts of Shawnee Park near the College Court housing projects. Coach Jerry Eaves has won a Kentucky state championship in Freedom Hall and helped the Cards win an NCAA championship .
They’ll all have dozens of friends and family in attendance, and that segment of the crowd will be emotionally split between Blue and Gold and Red and White.
“They’ll root for their family,” Eaves said, “but their loyalty is with the Cards.”
At the age of 3, Eaves and the family moved from Louisville’s West End to one of the first integrated suburbs in Kentucky. But the new address didn’t prevent an association with Cardinal hoops.
A second cousin, Jim Price, helped coach Denny Crum’s first team make the Final Four while earning all-tournament team honors along with Smith High School graduate Robert McAdoo of North Carolina .
As a high school sophomore four years later, Eaves and his Ballard team faced Male, led by the absurdly talented Darrell Griffith, later known as “Dr. Dunkenstein” at U of L.
“He did some amazing things,” Eaves said. “Kid shot a jump shot from about 15 feet. (Griffith) jumped in between the rim and the jump shot, caught the ball and pulled it out of bounds.”
The following year, Ballard won it all. And three years later, Eaves and Griffith helped the Cardinals claim NCAA glory. Eaves remains one of the most popular players in Cardinals history.
The current Aggies (1-7) weren’t alive to see that, and they didn’t wind up as Cards, but they’ve helped continue a tradition. Koger, Booker, Powell and Alvis spent many a Sunday at Shawnee Park, participating in and watching Dirtball games.
The West End sits 12 miles across town from the state fairgrounds and Freedom Hall. The venue is said to be short on ambience and high on intensity.
“Like any other streetball court,” Koger said. “Usually, there will be 2,000 or 3,000 people down there, all around the court. People having fun, doing flashy stuff.
“You’ve got to be tough out there. Tough environment. You’ve got to be able to take the aggression. Everybody’s coming with aggression. They’re trying to dunk on you. Trying to embarrass you.”
Alvis’ other favorite place was Iroquois Park, where the lights went out nightly at 9:30.
“But that doesn’t stop you from playing,” he said.
Koger already was an Aggie when Eaves took the job before last season. The new coach has brought the rest of the Louisville contingent with him, and Booker, at 19 points a game, is second in the MEAC in scoring. The hometown bond is there, and it will never be stronger than tonight.
“He knows what he’s doing,” Booker said of Eaves. “If there’s a man to follow, it could be him.”
Contact Rob Daniels at
373-7028 or rdaniels@