Many fans go to basketball games to watch the action on the court. Making a visit to an HBCU is a completely different experience. There is a story in every facility. North Carolina Central University's home deck is no exception.
Opened in 1952, the then-McDougald Gymnasium saw its first-ever basketball action. The building cost just a million dollars to complete, and featured a team coached by the building's eventual namesake. More on that in a bit, however.
Richard McDougald, a local bank executive and NCCU alum, was the original inspiration for the building's moniker. The McLendon -- for legendary coach and leader John McLendon -- was added to the building in 1991.
McLendon was the head coach at NCCU -- not named such at the time, however -- for over 10 seasons. His club won 239 of its 307 games in his time in Durham, though his most significant accomplishment was much more noteworthy for its importance on a national stage. McLendon led his team in "The Secret Game," the first racially-integrated game in Jim Crow-era North Carolina. His club defeated a team from the Duke School of Medicine that day, changing the landscape of the game and a society. McLendon did go on to coach the first game in the state-of-the-art facility he helped to launch, but did so as the coach of Hampton Institute (now Hampton University). His Hampton club fell to Tennessee State in the brand-new building in 1952.
McLendon's legacy will live forever, thanks to his 1979 Naismith Hall of Fame induction and the McLendon Classic, which is now part of the CollegeInsider.com Tournament (CIT). The classic serves to honor McLendon's status as a coach and leader of men, and also showcases a team from one of the HBCUs. The MEAC's South Carolina State played in the inaugural McLendon Classic, which took place in 2016.
NC Central won CIAA conference championships in 1946 and 1950, prior to the school's eventually joining the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) it helped start in 1970. The Eagles left the school prior to the 1980 basketball season, when the MEAC became an NCAA Division I conference. NCCU made seven NCAA Division II tournament appearances, with a 1989 national championship to the institution's credit. The school rejoined the MEAC in 2010, and went on to win the 2014 MEAC tournament and advance to the NCAA tourney.
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Concession stands -- at least, in the normal sense of the word -- are not the easiest to come by in McDougald-McLendon. There is usually one open stand, with somewhat meager offerings. Popcorn ($2), candy ($2) and beverages (Pepsi products, $3) can be found at the stand.
As uninspiring as the fixed stand may sound, the real culinary draw at a game at McDougald-McLendon comes in the form of the food truck that can be found just outside the arena. Orders are taken at a table inside the arena, then relayed to the truck for preparation and brought back piping hot for fans to enjoy. The truck, run by J & C's Concessions, features fish platters (two-piece for $10, three-piece for $15), chicken wing platters (six-piece for $10, 10-piece for $!5), fish sandwiches ($8), six-piece wing orders ($8), hamburgers ($4; $5 with cheese), hot dogs ($3), nachos ($4; $5 with chili), and french fries ($3 plain, $4 with cheese and $5 with chili and cheese). The lines can back up a bit, but the wait is worth it, as pretty much everything the truck offers seems to be a hit with fans taking in an Eagle contest.
As the facility opened 65-plus years ago, there are some -- well, let's call them "structural quirks" -- but this should be expected. Some aisles are wider than others, and some areas have more comfortable seating than others, but the arena was renovated in 2015 to account for several changes, including a new scoreboard and better lights. A concourse separates the upper levels of chair back seating from the lower levels of bleachers. The lower bleachers are primarily occupied by the students and band, and things tend to get louder the closer one moves to the floor.
Part of this noise comes from the NCCU Sound Machine band. The band is incredibly gifted, and seems to never miss a note. They don't play as much as they could, though, and this is because the school has a DJ just off the floor who spins tracks during many of the media timeouts. The various songs elicit singing and dancing from the fans and cheerleaders, which make normally mundane breaks a very interactive experience. The school occasionally peppers in a contest or two, but there are not a lot of wacky promotions or distractions.
One of the recent updates to the building can be found directly above center court. The school has installed a four-sided scoreboard with video screens, and the structure is easily visible from any seat in the arena. The video is, as one might expect, quite clear, and allows fans to watch the game action as it unfolds.
This facility is aged, but not old, and fits the description by esteemed columnist Ron Morris of being a "gem." While you're taking in all of the features that the building offers, be sure to look up. There are interesting architectural designs in the ceiling of the building, and windows lining the top of the walls allow for natural light to creep in from the outside and supplement the illumination from the recently-renovated lights above.
North Carolina Central is located just off the Durham Freeway, between Interstates 85 and 40. Durham Bulls Athletic Park is located nearby, allowing for all of the trappings of the American Tobacco Historic District. Stadium Journey founder Paul Swaney made our first visit to McDougald-McLendon, and many of his favorites in the area can be found in the Location section of this review.
One of Paul's favorites is Tyler's Restaurant & Taproom. Swaney said of Tyler's, "They have a wonderful beer selection with 50 brews on tap, including several local options. I tried the pork belly BBQ sandwich with a side of garlic fries, and ate up every morsel. In general, their menu is an interesting variety of burgers, sandwiches, and appetizers."
The real star of the area, though, is Dame's Chicken & Waffles. This favorite of locals -- and even visiting teams' officials -- can be found just under two miles from campus, and is worth a visit anytime you're in the vicinity. Dame's has some odd hours, though -- especially on Mondays, when the MEAC plays many of its home games -- so check the hours before you head out to get your chicken, waffles and "shmear."
Hotels are, as one might imagine, quite prevalent in the area, with every chain imaginable represented nearby. The SpringHill Suites off US 15/501 and Hotel Indigo near Raleigh-Durham International Airport are both solid choices. Shopping options are plentiful (The Streets at Southpoint, for example), so if you want to check out an afternoon game and go shopping afterwards, that is also an option.
We visited McDougald-McLendon on Senior Day, and the arena was not completely full. This was a bit of a disappointment. However, those who are in attendance for Eagle games are devoted and loud. Eagle coach LeVelle Moton -- who played at Central in the early '90s and now calls himself the "caretaker" of McLendon's program -- has mentioned on multiple occasions that the same faces he sees congratulating him after games now are those who supported him as a player twenty-plus years ago. This shows the generational love that the fans in Durham have for their Eagles, and vice versa.
The crowd stays involved at all the right times, and loves their Eagles. With the proximity of the seats to the floor, there may also be some (admittedly good-natured) heckling between fans and opposing players throughout the game. The fans also are close enough to walk down on the floor and talk to their favorite players and coaches after the game, which is a nice touch.
A parking garage is directly across the street from McDougald-McLendon (and O'Kelly-Riddick Stadium), and parking in that garage should be more than adequate for any NCCU basketball game. There are some surface spaces outside that garage and across the street, but pay extremely close attention to the parking signs. In fact, there are some spaces inside the garage that are reserved. However, if you follow the crowd, you are likely to be just fine.
There are two "concourses," to be technical. One of these separates the upper-level seats from the lower-level seats (except for the wall next to the home bench, where there is only floor-level seating), and is located inside the gym proper. The other is more of a hallway that has no real view of the court. The hallways can get a bit labyrinthian, to say the least, so make a note of your route into the building and seating bowl, then try to follow it back out as closely as possible.
Driving in the area is also quite easy. Durham Freeway (NC 147) is the primary north-south route between northern Durham (Interstate 85) and southern Durham (Interstate 40). The Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU) is only a 20-minute drive or so, depending on traffic. Simply take 40 west from the airport, then exit onto the Durham Freeway heading northbound. Exit at Alston Avenue (NC 55, exit 11), then turn left. Proceed until you see Lawson Street, then turn right. The gym will be ahead on the right, and the parking structure on the left, before the road starts down a hill.
Once inside the building, restroom facilities are well-kept, and should have good enough traffic control for even the busiest of games.
Ticket prices at NCCU games have multiple structures, and they honestly can get a bit confusing. For doubleheaders and men's single games, general admission seats are $10 for non-MEAC games, $15 for MEAC games and $25 for North Carolina A&T, NCCU's biggest rival. Seniors (55-plus), faculty/staff and students from other institutions get a bit of a price break, as those tickets fall to $5/$10/$20. Kids aged 5-12 get in free for non-MEAC games, $5 for MEAC games and $10 for A&T. Kids under five are free at all times, as are NCCU students (with valid ID). Reserved seats are $15/$20/$30, depending on the game.
If you're going for a non-MEAC game and/or a doubleheader, the value is quite good. Once you start getting into single games or the A&T game, things start getting extremely pricey.
Value is slightly above average for the lesser-priced games, and slightly below average for the highest-priced games, especially once concession prices are figured in.
There are very few arenas in which one will find a DJ playing during breaks. He spins everything from Carolina beach music to Motown classics to modern-day club tracks, and the crowd loves him.
The public address announcer is quite the character, as he does much more than the standard voice ("Too! many! steps!" on traveling calls, for example), and this also seems to go over quite well with the crowd.
Be sure to look up from your seat to see more of the history associated with the building, and when you do so, you will see numerous banners commemorating the Eagles' past successes. There are also retired numbers along the wall nearest the home bench. One of those numbers, 41, was worn by Sam Jones, a long-time Boston Celtic great. Jones was selected eighth overall out of Central in the 1957 NBA Draft, and he played in the league until 1969. Jones, recruited by McLendon, scored 1,745 points at NC Central, good for second-highest in school history. Jones played on 10 NBA Championship teams, was a five-time All-Star, and scored over 15,000 career points in the NBA.
Finally, as with most HBCUs, you will always feel welcome at a game. Fans at NC Central are -- justifiably -- quite proud of their school's history, and will be more than happy to share it with you, if you just ask them. Southern hospitality is on clear display as you greet helpful staff member after helpful staff member, and it feels like watching a game at a friend's house. We attended on Senior Day, and before honoring their own seniors, the school took time to honor visiting Bethune-Cookman's seniors. Each announced name drew a cheer from the home crowd, which was a touch one is virtually assured not to find anywhere else.
Everyone goes to the Triangle to go to the Dean Dome, the PNC Arena or Cameron Indoor. If you insist on visiting one of those three venues as part of your travels, plan a time when you can also take in an NCCU game. You'll be greeted with a welcoming crowd, a fun atmosphere and traditionally great basketball. You might even learn a thing or two while you're there.
There is a difference between an arena and a gym. If you have ever bounced a basketball in an empty gymnasium, shooting baskets in the dim glow as the lights slowly come on, then you can appreciate the nuance.
McDougald-McClendon Gymnasium, on the campus of North Carolina Central University is exactly what one might hope for in a gym. It is small, with seating close to the court. The capacity creeps just over 3,000 and when the gym is full, it can be a loud and entertaining environment for college basketball.
NCCU competes in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC), of which the school was a founding member in 1970. The school opted to play at the Division II level from 1979-2007, but rejoined as a MEAC member before the 2010-2011 season. The Eagles are still looking for their first trip to the NCAA Tournament. The MEAC is typically a very competitive conference, and when the McDougald-McClendon Gym is full, you can be sure to get a high energy environment and a close game.
Outdated and not very accommodating for big-time basketball. But you still get a solid HBCU atmosphere here, and the home team is now getting closer to big-time status.
324 Blackwell St
Durham, NC 27701
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Durham, NC 27701
5310 McFarland Dr
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1542 N Gregson St
Durham, NC 27701