Ray of Hope

Raymond Felton Bides His Time
As a Hometown Hero Until He Gets to UNC

from Carolina Blue magazine, Feb. 9, 2002

By Evan Markfield

In a gas station convenience store, one of the 1,554 residents of Latta, S.C., is pretending that she doesn’t have any interest in what Raymond Felton is doing that night.

A few hundred yards down the road, people line up outside Latta High School’s gym for a chance to see Felton, the nation’s top-rated senior point guard and North Carolina signee, play basketball.

At the convenience store cash register, the customer plays it cool.

“It’s just a little basketball,” she says with a smile.

A moment later, she tells the cashier that she’s actually on her way home to pick up the kids and tote them down to the gym.

“You better get down there if you want a seat,” the cashier chides. “Hurry! You’re gonna be standing up!”

Standing up, sitting Indian style behind the baseline, craning your neck out of the hallway or lobby-- there are a lot of ways to catch a look at Felton once the 600 riser seats in Latta High’s gymnasium fill up.

The cashier is right. While she converses with her customer, the gym is already more than half full, and it’s only 5 p.m. That’s an hour before the start of the Latta girls’ game, which precedes Felton and company.

In this tiny town tucked just over the South Carolina border down U.S. 501, Felton is the only show in town.

And if you don’t get there early, you simply don’t get in.

“Everybody just loves him,” the customer says. “Everybody loves Raymond – like that TV show!”

About 160 miles north of Latta lies Chapel Hill, where Felton will pack in crowds next season.

Instead of 600 plus some stragglers, a sold-out crowd in his new home arena will measure 21,750 bodies.

And with the North Carolina basketball team struggling to win games in 2001-02, lots of fans can’t help but look ahead to the highly touted point guard’s arrival in Chapel Hill.

Coming out of Latta, it’s going to be quite a transition for the 6-foot-2, 190-pound point guard. Everyone south of the border might love Raymond, but come next year, he’ll have to go from small-town hero to big-time savior.

For now Felton isn’t worried about what kind of pressure will be heaped on him or how he will react to it. More importantly, he’s not planning any water-walking or parting of seas once he gets on the floor at the Smith Center.

“I’m just going to come in and play my game,” Felton says. “I can’t work any miracles.”

That doesn’t mean he won’t be expected to, a possibility that worries the star player’s father, Raymond Felton, Sr.

“It’s always in the back of my mind,” says the elder Felton, who works the graveyard shift at a local box factory. “I just tell him, ‘You ain’t no savior. Just do your part to help the team win.’ I try to tell him, but there’s no telling what will happen when he gets there. I hope they don’t put too much pressure on him.”

In the fishbowl atmosphere of Latta, it would be easy for Felton to get uncomfortable with all the attention.

It’s one thing when a customer and a cashier chat about Felton’s game that night while he is nowhere in sight, getting ready to head to the gym.

But it’s another thing when he walks into that convenience store, or when he walks the halls of Latta High or walks the streets of the small town he has caused to go hoops crazy.

“I feel eyes everywhere I go,” Felton says. “I just keep walking.”

The tens of thousands of eyes that await at Carolina can only hope Felton handles next year’s attention the same way he handles it now at home – by just going about his business and focusing on basketball.

Latta High, with its 400 students, is on the large side as far as Class 1-A schools go in South Carolina. So when Latta picks on someone its own size, the Vikings really do pick on the opponent. They won a state championship last year behind Felton’s play.

On this night, when the convenience store customer will retrieve her children and try to get in the door of the gym before its too late, Felton drops 30 points on Lake View High School, and he does it in three-quarters of a game.

He’s on cruise control, obviously relaxed out on the court, at times just standing back and watching his teammates essentially go four-on-five on offense. It’s not laziness – he likes when his teammates can be the stars, too.

In addition to the 30 points, he dishes out eight assists, grabs eight rebounds and has five steals as Latta stomps Lake View, 97-32.

Typical night for Felton at the 1-A level. A few weeks earlier, he scored a career-high 48 points in his first game back from a fractured hand. It’s almost too easy, and Felton knows it.

“I’ve got to play hard every night,” Felton says. “But sometimes my teammates and I fool around when we’re blowing a team out, which we shouldn’t do.”

While some players’ high school schedules wear them out with tough competition, Felton usually ends up adding to his hoops fix by getting into pickup games with his family.

Cousins, uncles, and even Raymond, Sr., get into the act on some courts three miles down the road from Latta in a town called Sellers, where Felton lived until third grade.

Sometimes, Raymond, Sr., is able to do the one thing no one else in Latta’s league has figured out – beat his young superstar son. The younger Felton readily admits that dad can put the ball in the basket, even if he doesn’t have the legs to keep up with a 17-year-old on the court.

“If you leave him open, he can still shoot,” Felton says of his father. “I don’t think I can outshoot him. But I don’t think he could beat me in a game of H-O-R-S-E – he can’t dunk. I’ll just dunk all the time.”

The fun and games of pickup ball and easy league wins aside, there are times when Felton really has to show his stuff for his squad to win.

It’s against national high-school powerhouses in holiday tournaments – plus his AAU ball in the summer – where Felton proves he can play with the best no matter how many overmatched smaller schools he racks up against in South Carolina.

Like when Latta took on big-time Durham prep school Mt. Zion Christian Academy in the final of the Dell Curry Classic in Charlotte in December, some of the Mt. Zion players began to taunt the Vikings before the tip, calling them “soccer players” and “middle schoolers.”

“That stuff just pumped Raymond up,” Latta coach Steven Smith says. “He let his scoring do the talking.”

What it said was 42 points, including seven consecutive three-pointers in the second quarter, and an upset win for Latta.

And after something like that, the small schools left on Latta’s schedule never had a chance.

If there is any ironic twist in the Raymond Felton story, it’s sitting in a pile of bricks out behind Latta High’s gymnasium.

The day before Felton would effortlessly lay waste to Lake View, the first bricks were laid for what will be Latta’s new gym. It won’t be a mammoth venue, but it would have helped accommodate all the Raymond-watchers this season had it been built just a little bit sooner.

Instead, new players will fill the new gym, most likely with less zealous and less sizeable crowds on hand to watch.

“I’ve been coaching here eight years,” Smith says. “I remember when I began, and the gym was never like that. I’ve been following basketball all my life, and you see this type of situation from afar. But to have a player come through your program is great. It’s put Latta on the map.”

Soon Felton will move on to a place that has been on the basketball map for generations, often as a rest stop for greatness.

He knows the NBA looms out there at some point – “When people are talking about it, you can’t help but think about it,” he says – but that’s an even bigger adjustment that’s even farther down the road.

For now, he watches North Carolina on television and wishes he could be out on the court helping the Tar Heels win some games. He looks forward to the start of summer school at Carolina, so he can begin working out and getting ready for his freshman year in college.

Felton is not worried that a campus population of more than 24,000 students – not to mention North Carolina fans and media all around the country – will all have their eyes on him they way the population of Latta has since he started high school.

“I’m just going to go there, get my head together, and do what I have to do in life,” Felton says. “I want to be out there so bad, but I know I can’t be there until next year.”