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NCAA Scrutiny Helps Hasten Decline of Tradition-Rich Black Prep School

LAURINBURG, N.C. – The Laurinburg Institute, the oldest historically Black prep school in the country, is a shell of its former self these days. The tennis court has no net and is over-run with weeds. Behind it, a two-story dormitory sits forlornly, still unrepaired after an arsonist’s fire some years ago.

Also boarded up is the school’s gymnasium, which has produced such NBA stars as Sam Jones, Charlie Scott and Charlie Davis. Although the gym was condemned in the late 1990s after moisture caused part of the roof to fall in, the school still maintains its prestige in prep hoops.

“We play where we can, at the public park courts or elsewhere,” says Laurinburg coach Napoleon Cooper. As such, it has placed more than 30 players on Division I teams in the past decade.

But a recent NCAA ruling is threatening to end that record. Last year, NCAA officials declared the school “not cleared” after a review of its academics and curriculum during the 2006-07 and 2007-08 school years. The designation means that Laurinburg graduates are not eligible for initial eligibility in intercollegiate athletics or for consideration for scholarships.

The ruling is yet another blow to Laurinburg Institute, known colloquially as “the Tute.” The school had 2,300 students in the early 20th century but the number has dropped to about 35, including seven due to graduate this year, according to Frank “Bishop” McDuffie Jr., the headmaster, whose grandparents founded the school at the behest of Booker T. Washington in this small North Carolina town in 1904.

McDuffie says the decline began in 1954 when the Supreme Court overturned segregation. The impact on Laurinburg was immediate. Although the school built a new 13-building campus in 1954, it started losing support to newly integrated public schools. “No one saw the need for an all-Black preparatory school anymore,” says McDuffie.

The NCAA probe, however, has significantly affected the school’s immediate ability to attract students and raise the $11 million it needs for campus repairs. In 2006, the year the probe began, the school, which charges $16,000 in tuition, reported revenue of $146,734, according to tax records it filed as a nonprofit institution. By 2008, records show, revenue dropped to $63,162.

Undisclosed Sanctions

Despite its storied history, Laurinburg may be caught up in a relatively new effort to rein in so-called “basketball academies,” which are typically new private schools tied to a church or municipal basketball league that try to lure students with big hopes of becoming a star and earning a lucrative NBA contract.

The schools have picked up since 2006 when the NBA implemented new draft eligibility rules that require players to be at least 19 years old and one year removed from high school graduation. Since college experience is not needed, students may attend these institutions, throughout and after high school, to focus more on their basketball skills than academics.

That same year the NCAA began routinely reviewing prep schools for academic irregularities, including reviewing the transcripts of prep school student-athletes seeking to play at NCAA-member institutions. (By virtue of meeting state requirements, public schools do not receive the same scrutiny.) The irregularities found in students’ transcripts at schools sanctioned as “not cleared” include dramatic academic improvement over a short period of time and the taking of sequential courses at the same time. In Laurinburg’s case, the NCAA, after two on-site visits, raised concerns about the curriculum and quality control, among other issues.

McDuffie says he’s tried and failed to learn from the NCAA what precisely is wrong with his school and how he can fix it. “I gave up communicating with them last fall,” he says.

NCAA spokeswoman Jennifer Royer says the NCAA does not disclose to the public the findings of its investigations, and she declined to comment specifically on the Laurinburg Institute, other than to confirm that the institute’s appeal was denied.

Royer says to be cleared Laurinburg must “offer courses that meet minimum NCAA eligibility requirements,” and the association has staff who work with schools to help them meet NCAA requirements. This is the first time Laurinburg has not been cleared, and it is among more than 60 institutions whose courses are discredited by the NCAA.

Such NCAA policies have long been controversial. Joe Nathan, director of the Center for School Change at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., says the NCAA has issued sweeping rulings without much transparency or explanation.

“They’re like the great school board in the sky,” says Nathan, who led a movement in the late 1990s to get the NCAA to change its policies claiming that courses offered by private or parochial schools were not college prep-level and not worthy of NCAA sanction. “We’ve documented situations where National Merit scholars were not allowed to play in college because of alleged academic deficiencies.”

The most recent round of NCAA probes has prompted at least one lawsuit. Star forward Michael Glover, for instance, was “not cleared” by the NCAA when in 2007 he left a private prep school found lacking by the NCAA to play at Seton Hall University. He sued, claiming that the NCAA never specified why it deemed his senior year transcript at American Christian Academy in Aston, Pa., unacceptable. His suit was dismissed, and Glover now plays at the College of Eastern Utah.

American Christian Academy was one target of the NCAA in its probe of “basketball academies.” Another institution “not cleared” by the NCAA, Lutheran Christian Academy in Philadelphia, did not have its own school building or formal classrooms but operated from a community center, The Washington Post reported.

Some “basketball academies” are dangerous frauds, says Robert Hughes, an 81-year-old retired coach who compiled a record 1,333 wins in 47 years at I.M. Terrell and Dunbar high schools in Fort Worth, Texas. Hughes says some schools do little to educate players while drawing talent away from more traditional sports programs.

If the children leave the private academies later for mainstream schools, “we have to re-educate them, even on how to play basketball,” says Hughes. “They are taught the ‘me-and-I’ style of play that isn’t team play but let’s them think they are already stars,” he says.

Humble Beginnings

Judging by its history, however, Laurinburg is anything but a fly-by-night basketball academy. Even though the school can manage only a six-member faculty, McDuffie says some 80 percent of its recent graduates have completed college on time. That kind of discipline goes to the core of why Laurinburg was founded in the first place, McDuffie says.

In 1904, McDuffie’s grandparents, Emmanuel and Tinny, were teenagers studying at the Snow Hill Normal and Industrial Institute, an all-Black facility in Alabama with links to the Tuskegee Institute, founded by Booker T. Washington.

A group of Blacks in south-central North Carolina wrote to Washington asking for his help in setting up a school for Blacks. Washington approached the Snow Hill school and challenged Emmanuel and Tinny, then about to be secretly married, to take up the cause. “Coming from Booker T. Washington, it wasn’t something they could turn down,” says McDuffie.

The grandparents walked most of the way to North Carolina and settled in Laurinburg, which is in a part of the state known for its past Ku Klux Klan activities. Two nearby newspapers won Pulitzer Prizes in the 1950s for their stories exposing the Klan.

The McDuffies approached a former Confederate colonel in Laurinburg about selling land for a Black school, and, after a brief period considering it, he agreed to the sale.

“My grandmother was angry that the land was swamp land, but my grandfather was glad that he was still alive,” McDuffie says.

At the time, the average Black had about two years of schooling and was shut out of many jobs. Besides teaching reading and writing, the Laurinburg Institute zeroed in on training students for jobs that Blacks usually couldn’t get, such as carpentry and brick making. The town is in the middle of a belt of red clay soil suitable for making bricks.

“Tuition was paid in what people had — 20 bushels of corn or collard greens,” says McDuffie. Even so, by the 1920s, the institute was thriving with 2,300 students from all over the South who boarded in nearby homes.

One student was Dizzy Gillespie, the famed jazz trumpeter and bebop innovator. He grew up in a poor family in Cheraw, S.C., not far away and went to Laurinburg on a music scholarship.

What made Laurinburg stand out was its sports program. As basketball gained traction in the mid-20th century, Laurinburg became famous for producing some of the biggest names among Black athletes in the country.

Among the greats is Sam Jones, who attended Laurinburg, played for North Carolina Central, and, in 1957, was one of the first African-Americans drafted onto an NBA team. He played 12 seasons with the Boston Celtics.

Others followed, including Spider Bennett, a Laurinburg alumnus who played for the Dallas Chaparrals and the Houston Mavericks in the 1960s, and Earl “the Goat” Manigault, who set a junior high school record in the late 1950s. Famous for his ability to jump despite his relatively short (6-foot-1) size, Manigault created the “double dunk” as his signature move. He never played in the NBA although he played street ball with many stars, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Earl Monroe. A 1996 HBO movie about his life starring Oscar nominee Don Cheadle features, in part, the Laurinburg school.

More recent athletes include Antonio Anderson, Kareem Cooper, Robert Dozier and Shawne Williams, who all played at the University of Memphis, and Magnum Rolle and Chris Johnson, who played at Louisiana State. This year, Casey Mitchell, who played a year at Laurinburg, started at West Virginia University.

Still, the basketball program is suffering. In addition to the blow by the NCAA, the school’s coach, Derrick Bond, left in 2008 to coach at Flora Macdonald Academy in Red Springs, N.C. And the school is struggling with fewer eligible students and no working gym.

“We have no money to fix the gym,” says McDuffie.

The school started to recruit from overseas. One such student, John Swan, came from Bermuda and was premier of that island nation from 1982 to 1995. Today, students hail from abroad, including Harune Sule from Nigeria and Don Hughes from the Caribbean island of St. Martin, who says “I like it just fine here.”

Yet its recruitment of international students is not without controversy. In a December story about African youth exploited for their athletic talent, The Boston Globe reported that six Sudanese refugees who attended Laurinburg complained of meager food. All but two left after the NCAA issued its not-cleared decree in March 2009.

With enrollment dwindling and the campus needing significant repairs, McDuffie has been working on federal grants and trying to secure help from some North Carolina companies and alumni.

An immediate problem, however, will be removing the not-cleared cloud from the NCAA. McDuffie has considered and dismissed the idea of suing but says he’s at a loss to know what to do.

Meanwhile, he says, the NCAA decision “has cost us so many things.”

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