Word around town is that Roy Williams was spotted at King’s BBQ, and when someone saw Mike Krzyzewski driving – it had to be him – the news spread the way people in other places might talk about catching a glimpse of a movie star.
“For a basketball town when coaches like that come, it’s like celebrities are coming to Kinston,” said Latisha Dawson, who on Friday was getting ready to cut hair at Jeano’s, the downtown barber shop where the recruitment of Brandon Ingram, the 6-foot-9 Kinston High star, is always a popular topic.
“I was told,” Dawson said, “that he’s a Duke fan. So I don’t know what his choice may be.”
The rumors and speculation travel quickly around here, as do tales of coach sightings. It has been like that in the past week and a half or so – and in the past months and years, in some cases – while some of the most recognizable college coaches in the country have arrived, all here to chase Ingram, whose recruitment has come with no shortage of suspense.
And now the intrigue will end, finally. On Monday, Ingram, who is considered the top uncommitted prospect in his class, is scheduled to announce where he’ll play in college, and the announcement will come not long after he and his parents – Donald and JoAnn – hosted a who’s-who of coaches, all of whom arrived in recent days to make one final in-person pitch.
Two Fridays ago, Krzyzewski and his entire staff at Duke were at Ingram’s house for a visit that began at 6:45 in the morning, before Ingram went to school. That night, John Calipari and one of his assistant coaches flew in from Kentucky.
Saturday morning, Bill Self came in from Kansas, and then Sunday – well, Sunday was a “day of rest,” Donald Ingram said Friday while he sat in the bleachers of the recreation center he runs, the one where his son learned to play alongside guys older, bigger, stronger.
Earlier in the week, on Monday, Mark Gottfried came in from N.C. State, and Krzyzewski and his staff returned again Tuesday. On Wednesday Williams and Steve Robinson, one of his assistants at UNC, had the final visit. A stressful time and an exhilarating time but at least the kitchen stayed clean.
“I said I was going to treat everybody fairly – I was going to give everybody a bottled water,” Donald Ingram said. “So that’s what I did. That simple. I kept it real. So that way nobody could get the impression that he’s going this direction because he gave me an orange juice or a meal or whatever.”
Kinston High is safe haven from stress
Donald Ingram has found himself thinking of those kinds of details throughout his son’s recruiting process. The elder Ingram has been cautious not to show favoritism or show signs and so, too, has Brandon – though on Friday he wore a Kansas shirt to school.
He figured he could get away with it, being in something of a safe haven. His teammates and classmates mostly leave him alone, though when he was walking the halls after his final class someone was asking him, in a joking way, how long he planned to stay in college.
Most of the time, though, Ingram said, “these guys – they don’t barrage me with questions.”
His recruitment has stretched on for years, and has lasted about as long as it could have lasted. N.C. State was the first major school to show interest, Brandon said, and then it was Wake Forest, followed by UNC, which has made Ingram a clear priority.
Ingram’s star has grown since last summer. He’s now the No. 3 prospect in his class, according to ESPN.com, and Kentucky became involved after his junior season. Duke’s interest has increased now, too, given the departure of three freshmen who led the Blue Devils to the national championship.
Wherever Ingram goes around town the questions follow. He said Friday, sitting in his high school coach’s office, that “it’s always good to be wanted,” but he acknowledged the madness of it all, too – the constant questions and the fear of disappointing people with whom he has established relationships.
“It can get stressful at times,” he said. “Going back and talking to these coaches, it’s hard to say no.”
And so he hasn’t. Not yet, anyway. The duration of his recruitment and the fact UNC, Duke and N.C. State all want him – and have for a while – have made Ingram’s recruitment perhaps the fiercest in North Carolina in recent memory.
Along the way, favorites have emerged and reemerged. Early on, UNC seemed to be the leader. The city, which has taken pride in the four consecutive state championships Kinston High has won, has a rich basketball history and two of its favorite sons – Jerry Stackhouse and Reggie Bullock – played at UNC.
Ingram is close with both – close enough to text regularly, at least – and he has played on the AAU team Stackhouse coaches. There has been no pressure, though, Ingram said – no directives from Stackhouse and Bullock that he should follow them to Chapel Hill.
“They just tell me to follow my heart,” Ingram said, and he said that’s all they’ve told him, basically.
Ingram has his standard, go-to non-answer answer when people have asked him – and they have been asking him for years – where he’s going to college. Lately, he’s been telling people they’ll find out Monday.
Kinston’s reality show
Around town, some have followed Ingram’s recruitment the way they might a reality television show. Kinston is a small place, small enough to walk into the downtown barber shop that Jeano Farrow opened about 15 years ago and hear stories about Ingram coming in there when he was a kid.
One customer remembered playing against Ingram at the rec center next to Teachers Memorial School – the one Ingram’s father kept open late so Ingram and other kids from the neighborhood could play and practice and, in some ways, dream.
“I remember when Brandon really couldn’t shoot,” said Rashawn Brunton, sitting in the barber chair while Skip Miller, who used to cut Ingram’s hair, went to work. “It was very amazing to see how he developed so quick. And seeing him stay in the gym late nights.”
Brunton, 30, a fork-lift operator in town, has heard the same thing about Ingram being a Duke fan, and Miller said a lot of people sit in his chair speculating about where Ingram might go – whether he’ll stay in state or whether he might wind up at Kansas or Kentucky.
“Anywhere’s better than here, basically,” Miller said. “When you can do better for yourself, for your family.”
Stackhouse’s story – how he made it from Kinston to UNC, and then began a long NBA career – is a source of inspiration for kids here, and they looked up to Bullock, too. And now Ingram, in some ways, carries that burden that comes with paving a way out of a town where trouble can come easily.
“To know someone came from Kinston and made it to the big stage, it’s like a plus to a lot of young kids because of the way Kinston gets talked about it – it ain’t nothing but a drug town, ain’t nothing but a gang-bang town,” Brunton said. “But to see someone young like that make it, it motivates others.”
New star, different era
When Stackhouse and Bullock were being recruited it was different, though. Stackhouse spent his senior season at Oak Hill Academy in Virginia. Bullock, meanwhile, committed to UNC when he was a sophomore.
Ingram’s recruitment has come with more drama and mystery, and his star has risen along the way, too. He helped lead Kinston to four consecutive state championships and didn’t miss a free throw in the fourth quarter of any of those title games.
“And I don’t remember what the number is, but he was perfect from the line all four years,” said Perry Tyndall, the Kinston High coach. “It’s crazy.”
Tyndall, who also serves as the athletic director, had had a busy day. He was about to drive the bus for the baseball team, and earlier, he had spent some time working out how Ingram planned to announce his decision Monday.
Ingram and his father decided to hold a ceremony at the high school gym – doors open at 5:40 p.m. before the festivities start at 6. It’s likely to be broadcast live on local television, and “if the word gets out,” Donald Ingram said, “it may be (packed) just a like a game.”
In some parts of the world it might seem eye-roll worthy – a high school kid inviting the town to come and watch him say where he’s going to college. Kinston is different, though, with its support of the most successful high school program in the state and its interest in where Ingram winds up.
Donald Ingram said he hasn’t “found a spot yet” where he can escape questions about his son and at his recreation center. On Friday, little kids peeked through the doors, looking for a glimpse of Ingram and his father while they sat down for an extended interview with a local television station.
“It continues the dream for all the kids in our community just to dream for something big,” said Tyndall, whose brother, Webb, was a walk-on on Dean Smith’s final team at UNC. “And I think he continues that. We’ve been fortunate with Jerry and Reggie then and now Brandon.”
A final pitch to the Kinston’s next star
Tyndall has been the head coach at Kinston High for the past three seasons, and before that he was an assistant for seven years. He saw Ingram years ago, before he’d even hit his teens, when Ingram would come into the high school gym and practice by himself.
Ingram grew up in gyms, in some ways, both at his dad’s rec center at Kinston High, where his brother, Bo Ingram, graduated in 2008 after leading the high school to its first state championship in 43 years. That championship was the beginning of a run of them.
“He’s got the ‘it’ factor,” Tyndall said. “I mean, he loves (basketball). He spends all that time at Teachers (rec center). If he’s not up here, he’s going working out with his dad. He’s at peace, and he’s at home at 11:30 at night in a gym, shooting for an hour.”
Ingram’s older brother – his only sibling – played at the University of Texas-Arlington and is now playing in Mexico. His uncle Ronnie Ingram, the sheriff of Lenoir County, also had been through a recruiting process before.
Nothing could have prepared him for this, though. Brandon said he had hoped to make his decision in the fall and it might have come before that if not for the NCAA investigation at UNC, where Williams has been forced to address questions that likely will be without an answer for a while.
The NCAA investigation at UNC and Kentucky’s increased interest and Duke’s decision to make Ingram a priority have made this a more difficult decision than it probably appeared to be about a year ago. But now, at last, Ingram’s recruitment has reached its end point.
At its height, Donald Ingram said he’d received 20 phone calls and text messages a day. Those were still arriving late last week, days after Williams and Krzyzewski and the others made their way to Kinston and left, hoping they’d said the right words to convince Ingram that their school is his best choice.
The visits last an average of 90 minutes – with the coaches, Donald Ingram said, emphasizing how Ingram would fit in at their schools given recent departures – and the family planned on using Saturday and Sunday to organize their thoughts and analyze their options.
Brandon said Friday he wouldn’t have changed anything about the past three years. When he needed an escape or a break, he found one at the gym – the one at the high school and the one he grew up at, the rec center.
He was there on Friday afternoon with his father, back where his basketball journey began and just days from ending the questions about where it will continue. His dad called the questions “overwhelming” of late.
“And that’s why I’m glad Monday is approaching,” he said, “because I’m ready for it to be over. And so is Brandon.”