THE CLIPPERS’ CAROLINA CONNECTION

There is a basketball factory on the Atlantic Coast. It’s not a political capital or world financial center or birth place of liberty.

But the state of North Carolina has been a boon for the Clippers. It’s the collegiate home to four players on the roster and former professional home to three more.

"Basketball is a way of life in Carolina,” said rookie Reggie Bullock, who went to Kinston High and was drafted No. 25 overall by the Clippers after three years at UNC. “It was a way for me to succeed and make people proud in my hometown."

Perhaps, the most recognizable player from the state is Clippers point guard Chris Paul, whose family still lives in Winston-Salem, the city he grew up and attended Wake Forest. But Bullock, Charlotte native Antawn Jamison and Associate Head Coach Alvin Gentry all spent their formative years in the state as well. J.J. Redick put together one of the best modern collegiate careers at Duke. Jared Dudley and Ryan Hollins were drafted by the Bobcats and Byron Mullens had his two most productive NBA seasons there.

“I think it compares to Indiana,” Jamison said. “If you think about the history, I think the colleges really put their stamp on this region with Duke, Carolina, NC State. And just to go back through the history of that. And I think when the Hornets first came [to the state], it used to be… I remember as a kid at the Hive, the old coliseum… They used to have banners because they sold-out like four years straight. It wasn’t the best team, but it was a great place to come and cheer for a team. It’s almost like the way they feel about the Panthers now. But, most definitely, this is a basketball state. This is a basketball region.”

“There’s a love for the game there that’s unbelievable,” Gentry said. “I don’t know if it’s at the level of Indiana from an attendance standpoint, but from a pure love of the game and understanding basketball, I think it’s second to none in any state.”

Gentry, 59, was born in Shelby and attended Appalachian State in Boone, a small town in the northwest corner of the state, said when he was growing up the ACC had not yet ascended to a national power conference. As the conference grew, so did the national awareness of the state as a basketball center of the country.

“I think at the time if you at look at NC State and their run when David Thompson was there and then the magical run that they had with Sydney Lowe and Dereck Whittenburg and, obviously, Coach V (Jim Valvano) and it’s happened really since Coach K (Mike Krzyzewski) arrived there (at Duke in 1980),” Gentry said. “The basketball and the intensity and the level that they play in ACC basketball has been tremendous. Wake Forest has had some good runs. Obviously, Virginia and Ralph Sampson. Pretty much all of the schools are in the state of North Carolina except for a few of them. Then, when you think about the proximity of where Duke and North Carolina are located, they’re basically only seven miles apart. That makes it even more intense I think.”

The intensity of basketball in the region is born from its relatively small size as a whole, not just Tobacco Road. From North Carolina’s southernmost border to Virginia is 150 miles, roughly like driving from Los Angeles a little past Palm Desert. There are fewer than 10 million people in the state, about the same as Los Angeles County.

But according to Basketball Reference, 106 NBA players in history have been born in the state. And that does not account for those like Bullock, whose birth certificate reads Baltimore, Maryland but grew up in Kinston.

“Basketball is big,” Bullock said. “I’m from a small town, but we have strong tradition of basketball there. The state of North Carolina produces a lot of big time players, too. So, I just feel like there’s a great tradition of basketball in Carolina. [Chris Paul’s] from there. John Wall’s from there. There are a lot of great players who came through Carolina.”

There are also Hall of Famers like Walt Bellamy, David Thompson, who is Gentry’s cousin, James Worthy, Sam Jones and former Buffalo Brave Bob McAdoo. Michael Jordan grew up in Wilmington and went to Emsley A. Laney High.

Gentry thinks Thompson may have been the first Carolina-born player to attract a high level of national attention, somewhat paving the way for the generations to come.

“I think he was a guy that everybody started to go, ‘Wow, here’s a guy from a small town in North Carolina,’” Gentry said. “And eventually you take the Michael Jordans and the James Worthys and the Sleepy Floyds and so many other people like Antawn and all of the other people who have come through since then.”

In a number of ways, it’s merely coincidence that the Clippers have accumulated so much talent that’s connected to the state. They drafted Bullock, traded for Paul, Redick and Dudley and signed the other players on short-term contracts.

Either way, the Clippers’ Carolina connection is there and as Bullock might suggest, well-known or not, they could be dipping into a lot shallower talent pools.  

Said Bullock, “It’s definitely at the top level of basketball in America.”

NOTE: The above story will appear in the season’s third issue of GameTime Magazine, the Clippers’ in-arena game program. The latest edition will be available inside Staples Center on Feb. 26 when the Clippers take on the Houston Rockets.