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This is the untold story of its survival. The spark to ignite all-out nuclear hellfire pierces through a moonlit sky in the early minutes of Jan. Ingram Park Mall American B-52 bomber’s right wing has snapped off, undone by a fuel leak, sending the aircraft into a barrel roll. Operation Chrome Dome, a Cold War-era program, was designed to keep nuclear-armed American B-52s airborne at all times, ready to strike the Soviets at a moment’s notice.
That, at least, was the plan — but that plan has gone horribly wrong. And as the B-52 and its two 3. 8-megaton nukes crash near Big Daddy’s Road in rural North Carolina, less than 50 miles southeast of Raleigh, debris rains down across miles of farmland, and flames hundreds of feet high set alight the frigid night. The bombs, mercifully, do not detonate. The second bomb’s parachute, however, had failed, and that one had free-fallen for nearly 2 miles, reaching the speed of sound before plunging headlong into a plowed tobacco field. By the eighth day, the Air Force declares that the “principal hazards” are under control.
Eventually the massive hole, about 93,000 cubic yards of earth, is filled in with soil. By the slightest margin of chance, literally the failure of two wires to cross, a nuclear explosion was averted,” U. But before he puts pen to paper, his hand begins to shake. What could have happened was this: The bomb could have created a crater eight football fields wide. It could have destroyed every building within 4 miles. It could have killed every human in the open within a diameter of 17 miles. It also could have unleashed enough radiation beyond the blast site to endanger a significant portion of the East Coast — including, some 30 miles southeast of the crash site, a pinprick of civilization, a tiny town called Kinston.
Kinston is a tiny town just 30 miles south of where a B-52 and its two 3. King’s Restaurant, a Kinston institution famous for its pulled-pork barbecue. And the sweetest tea in America,” boasts the 60-year-old two-time NBA champion. It’s a sweltering day in the summer of 2016, and, as usual this time of year, Maxwell is back home to visit his mother, Bessie, who is sitting beside him. Founded in 1791, Kinston has seen its share of troubles: recurring floods, economic devastation, rampant gang violence — even, as Maxwell now recounts, wayward nuclear bombs. That Kinston has survived is remarkable enough.
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This does not make Kinston unique in a nation whose small towns have been battered for decades by economic dislocation. Locals call this place Basketball Heaven, and many believe that Kinston’s basketball tradition will survive anything the good Lord throws at them just as much as they have come to believe that the good Lord will send calamity their way time and again. And every few years, as a return for its survival, the good Lord will deliver unto them yet another NBA talent, yet another favored son. Or as Maxwell, the town’s first favored son, says about that bomb: “If it had exploded, you wouldn’t be talking to me about Brandon Ingram right now. Lakers jersey with his name emblazoned across the back. One month earlier, the Lakers selected the 18-year-old Kinston native at No.
2 in the draft, and now they’re introducing him at their El Segundo, California, training facility. His parents, Donald and Joann, sit a few feet away in the front row, beaming. In another month, Brandon will reveal that he bought them a new home in Kinston. Today, the 6-foot-9 190-pounder dons a tailored royal-blue suit with a purple flower on the lapel. He’s part of an NBA that is more flush with cash than ever. He is labeled a cornerstone of the league’s glamour franchise. But consider his fortunes, as he does.
Ronnie Ingram, a longtime police officer and now the local county sheriff. About 3 out of every 10,000 high school basketball players go on to play in the NBA. But since the 1972-73 season, 1 out of every 52. 7 players to suit up for Kinston High School’s varsity squad has reached the league, meaning the odds to do so in Kinston are, since the early 1970s, about 63 times greater than the national average. The town boasts 10 gyms, countless playground parks, more than 60 youth teams, innumerable church leagues, industrial leagues and rec leagues, and endless pickup games that on any given night feature homegrown NBA stars, NCAA All-Americans or old-heads pushing 60 who just won’t quit.
Two-time NBA champion Cedric Maxwell is Kinston’s first favored son. Kinston’s east side, a squat, redbrick gym where toddlers dribble in diapers and almost every local standout honed their game. On a late August afternoon, Skeet Davis descends into a metal chair with a worn, padded bottom near the wooden doors that lead to the court. He’s 65 and has diabetes and a defibrillator in his chest and a back that has never healed from an old football injury, but for seven days a week since 1974, Davis has been here, coaching basketball and keeping tabs.
How can Kinston, North Carolina, have somebody in the NBA for the last, what, 35, 40 years? Maxwell, in a blue T-shirt, shorts and sneakers, booms from the lobby. There’s 21,000 people in this town. More gyms,” Davis adds, describing the advantages he says neighboring towns have. More money, more programs, more training places.
Yet, still, we shine above ’em. Yep, we shine above ’em, yep! Maxwell resumes a trash-talk-filled spades game against longtime friends. It’s his ritual every day when he’s back home visiting his mother. And if you ask Bessie, who’s in her 80s, to retrace Kinston’s history, she’ll start the tale, simply: “It was a tobacco town.
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Locals who were alive back then say you could smell it as soon as you entered Kinston’s main drag along Queen Street. By August 1940, Kinston billed itself the “world’s foremost tobacco center” and boasted four sets of buyers, nine factories and nine warehouses. Money poured in, and on Saturdays so did streams of cars from neighboring towns, some as far as 75 miles away. It was just so alive,” says George Whitfield, who grew up in Kinston in the 1950s, went on to coach prep baseball for nearly six decades, was named National Coach of the Year twice and has been inducted into nearly a dozen halls of fame. This two-block stretch of metropolitan high life became known as the Magic Mile. The seeds were sown in 1948, when the Grainger High School Red Devils — who would later merge with another high school to form Kinston High School — reached their first state title game, falling to the Hendersonville Bluebirds 46-44. Whitfield, 12 then, watched from the stands and remembers a new dream forged for young boys here: to play for the Red Devils.
As local talent blossomed, they were tested in rec centers that hosted games featuring blue-collar workers at Kinston’s many factories, warehouses and mills. There were as many as 17 Industrial League teams at one time, many loaded with local ex-college or high school players who couldn’t wait to ball after a day on the assembly line. At Holloway, adults played on one half of the gym and kids on the other, but at some point, if the kids were good enough, they’d graduate to the opposite end and face men 10, 15, 20 years older. Cedric Maxwell made the transition at 12, and the adults knocked him down on every play, testing his toughness, all but daring him to call a foul. They make you hard,” Maxwell says. That was our proving ground,” says ex-NBA star Jerry Stackhouse, another Kinston product, who as a teenager faced a much older sharpshooter named Donald Ingram. And just as Donald roughed up Stackhouse, Stackhouse later did the same with Donald’s son, a kid named Brandon.
This decadeslong cycle of the old guard training the new created a reputation that continues today. Talent fueled Rochelle Middle School, which lost just four games in a 14-year stretch under Skeet Davis, then fueled Kinston High, which, entering this season, has posted a 76. 21 state title games and winning 11, including six in an eight-year span from 2007 to 2015. In the past five decades, seven players from KHS — Ingram, Reggie Bullock, Stackhouse, Maxwell, forwards Charles Shackleford and Tony Dawson, and 2007 second-round pick Herbert Hill — have been drafted or reached an NBA roster. In the past six years alone, 10 Kinston Vikings have gone on to play collegiately, and local coaches say there are many more who didn’t make varsity here who still played college ball somewhere.
Even Maxwell didn’t make the varsity until his senior year. As North Carolina Tar Heels coach Roy Williams once told a local news station: “If I hear there’s a player in Kinston, I am going to go there quicker than I would go to New York City. I love coaching basketball, and to be honest — and this is not what my county office would want to hear — if I couldn’t coach basketball, I don’t know if I would stay,” KHS boys basketball coach Perry Tyndall says. 1990s, back when Stackhouse starred for Kinston High, more than 2,000 people packed a gym with a capacity of about 1,750 — and a bit above that mark constitutes a fire-code violation, so the fire marshal attended most of Stackhouse’s games too. KHS operated in Class 4A, reserved for the state’s biggest high schools. But around that same time, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the local economy began to wither.
Jobs shifted overseas, factories downsized or shuttered outright. In all, Kinston would lose close to 8,000 jobs. As the town’s population dwindled, the school dropped to Class 3A, then 2A. Even when Brandon Ingram’s teams won four consecutive state titles, the stands had plenty of empty seats. We haven’t had any fire marshal issues in a while, not the way it was,” says Perry Tyndall, the KHS boys basketball coach. 6, double the price when Stackhouse played.
For a family of four,” Tyndall says, “that’s expensive. Back when I was growing up, we had all these factories,” says Ronnie Ingram, the sheriff. On a late summer day, Whitfield walks along an empty sidewalk past a parade of empty storefronts, tombstones to a glorious past that grows ever more distant. This is the only store that’s left from when I was a boy,” he says, walking into H. Stadiem, a 20,000-square-foot men’s clothing store along Queen Street that’s been open since 1903.
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Whitfield looks around, the area so quiet you can hear the cicadas sing. This breaks my heart,” he says. 110 percent higher than the national average, and its unemployment rate is 70 percent higher than the national average. Its Vernon Park Mall has 61 retail spaces, but Mark Pope, Lenoir County’s economic development executive director, reports that, as of this summer, only one is occupied: Belk, a North Carolina-based department store. Ronnie Ingram recalls the turning point. 100 cash in hand during increasingly desperate times.
There ain’t no jobs,” says Bullock, who starred for KHS, then UNC, was drafted in the NBA’s first round in 2013 and is now a Detroit Pistons guard. People ain’t got nothing to do. I don’t know what the solution is,” says Brandon Ingram’s uncle Ronnie. Brandon Ingram’s uncle Ronnie is lingering in a conference room at the Woodmen Community Center, another one of Kinston’s recreation centers. An event to honor Whitfield just ended.
Half an hour earlier, a former local star athlete, Vernon “Poo” Rochelle, stood at the lectern, praised Whitfield, his childhood friend, then went off topic. This town,” Rochelle told the room with a hard stare, “is worth saving. Ronnie attended the event, along with 100-plus others, many of them community leaders. Ronnie is well-built, a few inches above 6 feet, with more salt than pepper in his close-cropped hair and goatee. He’s 57 and has been sheriff for a year and a half after 30 years with the Kinston police, working in just about every division there is. Still, the rise in local crime baffles him. I don’t know what the solution is,” Ronnie says.
He shares story after story about what was and what is. Then he tells a story about his 30-year-old son, Brandon Ingram’s cousin Jamie, a police officer in Kinston. He was telling me, they had a weekend and they had a vehicle chase and the guy they were chasing, he ends up going down the wrong way on Highway 70 into oncoming traffic,” Ronnie Ingram says. He jumps out and he runs onto the overpass, and my son says he’s yelling, ‘I’m going to jump! He gets right there and throws his leg over. My son was able to get there and grab him before he was able to jump. And my son, he tells me, he says, ‘I told , “Not on my watch.
But see, my son, he’s only been in it now for four months. It’s like I told him, ‘Son, you have to understand. You did the right thing, but you can’t blame yourself if that person would’ve jumped. Because, unfortunately, you can’t save everybody.
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Lakers introduce Ingram, and police in his hometown respond to a shots-fired call. It’s a frequent occurrence in a town where, according to the FBI, the violent crime rate in 2016 was 213 percent higher than the national average. That itself is a sharp turn, given that the National Civic League in 2009 declared Kinston to be an “All-America City,” an honor it annually grants to just 10 U. Road signs touting that award greet visitors on Kinston’s outskirts, a tempting invite for someone aiming for something better, which is exactly what Kinston resident Stephanie White had sought for her five children back when she was living in Washington, D. An aunt had first mentioned Kinston to Stephanie, and it seemed nice, safe, with strong athletics and other programs perfect for her three sons and two daughters. She settled in East Kinston in 2010, keeping her children active in gymnastics, football and basketball, which her oldest son, Antonio Hines, played in the many local recreation centers and playgrounds. He grew to 6-1, and, like the residents of Kinston, he was not immune to the game’s many charms.
That boy just loved basketball,” Stephanie says of Antonio, who at 3 years old would bounce the ball all over their D. As he grew, he joined friends and his brothers on the playground courts, playing before school, after school, into the evenings — and he took that routine to Kinston. Starting at 4 years old, he would also bang drumsticks on anything he could — the floor, the table, books — and went on to play drums for Kinston High School’s marching band. He played piano and electric keyboard too.
After graduating, Hines aspired to be an engineer, to join the Marines. He also wanted to help his family leave Kinston, because in their short time there, it had changed. Stephanie first saw the signs in 2012: more sirens, shootings, killings. Still, she trusted her kids, and especially Antonio.
She was a single mother, unable to work since 2007 because of multiple sclerosis, with her spine leaking fluid, blurring her vision, causing headaches, leaving her unable to balance. Still, Antonio supported her, helping raise his two younger brothers and two younger sisters. And then, on a warm, sticky Sunday afternoon in late June 2016, during the kiln of a Southern summer, Antonio walked out the door and climbed into a car with people he believed were his friends. He whiled away many summer afternoons in similar fashion, playing music or basketball with friends, and he believed this day to be like all those that came before it. About two hours later, police found Hines between a church and Bill Fay Park, where he’d often play, felled by six gunshots-one gang’s message to a rival, authorities allege.
They took him to the church and executed him,” says Ronnie Ingram, the county sheriff. They shot him in the back of the head right there in a church parking lot on a Sunday evening. Today, Stephanie grieves with her children at night, telling them that they’ll get through the loss of their brother, her son, somehow, but then she lies down and sleep comes harder and later than it ever has. When she closes her eyes, she swears she can still see Antonio, can still hear his music. She believes he is with his grandmother and cousin now, and that provides some comfort but not enough. She has no faith the town will change.
She says she wants to leave. As for her son, he lies 14 miles north, where the owner of a cemetery offered to bury him for free because Stephanie couldn’t afford a headstone. Antonio Hines rests in an unmarked grave. Trophies fill Kinston High, where decades of basketball supremacy has lifted the town from near-constant struggle. School’s gym, a local police officer keeps watch from his parked cruiser while the high school football team practices on a nearby field.
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Ronnie never thought he’d see the day when they’d need to place police officers at not only the high school but even the middle school. Unfamiliar faces are stopped, questioned about their business. Today he’s 38, with a kind smile and a patient ear, born and raised here, an unspectacular point guard for the Vikings in the late 1990s, a coach at the nearby middle school, then a junior varsity coach, then varsity assistant, now the head coach. Tyndall pauses at one of the tall trophy cases nearby, full of shimmering gold and silver. Tyndall continues down the hall, through the double doors, and now, nearly a month after Antonio Hines’ murder, the coach stands near midcourt in Kinston High’s well-lit but empty gym, a decades-old bunkerlike concrete box. Banners swarm the ceiling and walls.
There’s a lot of kids that are great players that don’t make the team here,” he says. But Hines’ story isn’t new to Ingram. It’s something that kind of happens a lot in my hometown,” Brandon says. The city just got crazier and crazier year by year.
For his part, Tyndall admits, he worries about them all. He monitors the people his players associate with, including with whom they walk home at night, warning them, offering rides. He tells players to be wary of anyone who might target them as meal tickets. The white coach of a historically black team, Tyndall is the school’s athletic director and teaches from about 7 a.
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I love coaching basketball, and to be honest — and this is not what my county office would want to hear — if I couldn’t coach basketball, I don’t know if I would stay,” Tyndall says. He knows a lot of this might sound harsh. Trust me, I look and I wrestle and I say, what is the answer here? And there are so many answers because there’s so many problems. And so Tyndall asks his players, “What’s your plan? At the end of the day, like I tell our kids, ‘I want you to grow old because you deserve to live a productive life of not being wrapped up in substance abuse and not being incarcerated and not losing your life at a age.
He tells his players, “You deserve to grow old. He repeats the message, almost in disbelief that it has reached the point that anyone would ever think to tell anyone such a thing. Ingram, like so many in Kinston, grew to view basketball as a ticket to college and perhaps a better life. Lakers’ 2017-18 season-opening blowout loss to the Clippers at Staples Center, measuring Kinston’s progress in small steps. There are new restaurants, he says, thinking of his last visit in late August, and he financed a new gym floor at the recreation center where his father, Donald, still mentors kids. The floor bears Brandon’s name in block text.
The Texas Rangers moved their Class A team to Kinston last year. Farmer, with its walls featuring laudatory clips from The New York Times, The Washington Post and other national publications, is packed almost every night. A vodka distillery opened this past summer. But some things haven’t changed in the two years since he’s been gone. There’s a lot of violence there,” Brandon says. Brandon saw plenty growing up, when his family lived in an area that was devastated after 1999’s Hurricane Floyd swelled the banks of the Neuse River, which flows through Kinston’s heart.
It destroyed hundreds of homes, forcing neighborhoods to merge, changing their very identities. We were exposed to more violence, more gunshots that you’d hear at night,” Donald says. Brandon was definitely looking for an opportunity to get us out of there. He was tired of hearing about his peers getting in trouble and getting killed.
He went through a lot of that. When Brandon returns, he tells Kinston students to stay in school, even if, as he says, some teachers tell those same kids that their future is limited. I always try to be the blueprint for them,” he says. But each time he visits Kinston, Brandon struggles to believe he ever escaped. He thinks of the people he surrounded himself with, how grounded they made him, how fortunate he is. They’ve gathered to discuss the latest force that will, as it always has, try to bring them harm, perhaps destroy them for good. They’re not talking about Hurricane Matthew, which just passed through, but what will follow it as certainly as it followed Hurricane Floyd in 1999 and Hurricane Fran in 1996: a flood.