In A Small Town, Girls' Basketball Team Is 'Another Definition For Family'

Dec 7, 2020
Originally published on December 5, 2020 6:00 am

Photographer Madeline Gray moved to Kinston, N.C., in early 2018. As a teenager, Gray played on her high school's basketball team in rural Ohio. In Kinston, she found a chance to revisit that formative experience.

Gray spent over a year getting to know the girls basketball team at Kinston High School, following them to games, practices and through rites of passage that were interrupted this spring when Kinston High closed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Gray's photographs paint an intimate portrait of high school life. With emotional moments and thoughtful frames, the viewer is invited to connect with the players through wins, losses and the challenges of high school.

The Kinston High School girls basketball team players listen to Head Coach Chris Bradshaw after practice. Many of the girls have known each other since preschool and have been playing basketball together since elementary school. Zykia Andrews, who graduated in the spring, says the team's bond goes beyond the court: "It's like a sisterhood."
Madeline Gray

In Kinston, N.C., basketball is king — or queen, as the case may be.

The town has a reputation for producing more NBA players than anywhere else in the country and the boy's team is often in the spotlight. Yet the girls team wins just as often as the boys. The girls often receive top grades — in the spring, two players graduated at the top of their class — and after graduating, many stay in the community, sometimes serving as assistant coaches for the team.

Top: Lesley Sutton fixes her hair along with teammates Taliyah Jones (left), and Anzaryia Cobb following a game. Left: Quiaira Powell's homecoming queen crown sits on the dashboard of her car. Right: Powell watches her friends get ready to have their photos taken wearing caps and gowns a few months before graduation.
Madeline Gray

But this year the team saw its share of disappointments. They came up just short of making it to the State Championships, and spring graduation rituals were disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. Still, players like Alena Rivers, 18, who graduated in the spring, managed to stay positive.

"I feel like we've all gained something by the loss of our senior year," she says.

"I think we learned how to adapt to different situations," says graduate Lesley Sutton, 18. "And we learned how to create like a new sense of normalcy."

Top: After their game, Kinston players Kahlia Hargett (left to right), Lesley Sutton, Quiaira Powell and Alena Rivers sit in the stands with a friend's son to watch Kinston's boys team play. Left: Michyla Dove, who graduated in the spring, hugs her mom Lori Carmon before heading to a day of games. Right: Carmon, who travels to all of Dove's games, holds her "basketball mom" necklace.
Madeline Gray
Taliyah Jones works on online coursework through Kinston-based Lenoir Community College this spring. She started college at Winston-Salem State University this fall. Left: Sheriece Jones, recognized as one of the best players in the state, was recruited to play for Saint Augustine's University in Raleigh. Right: Winter Lane (left) leans on teammate Anzaryia Cobb during pre-season training in 2019.
Madeline Gray

Growing up in Kinston isn't always easy. In the 2017-18 school year, more than half the students at Kinston High were economically disadvantaged, according to the most recent state report card — and that was before the pandemic hit. The school also rates below the state average in math and English language arts.

Head Coach Chris Bradshaw understands that basketball can only take the girls so far. "The most important thing is academics," Bradshaw explains. "Athletics come and go, but what you learn in academics you can take with you for your whole life."

Top: Taliyah Jones warms up with the rest of her team before a game. Left: Kinston High School cheerleaders support the girls team during a game against South Lenoir High School. Right: Coach Bradshaw talks with the team during a game. Bradshaw has been head coach since 2013. "God has blessed me to mentor these kids," he says.
Madeline Gray
Seniors on the girls basketball team volunteer at the concession stand during a football game. The girls spend as much time together off the court as they do playing together. Their team chant, which echoes throughout the locker room before games and after every practice, is "Family on three! One, two, three, family!"
Madeline Gray
Lori Carmon, left, whose daughter Michyla Dove plays on the team, and team assistant KJay Johnson, right, serve food during the jamboree games hosted by Kinston High School. Carmon woke up at 1 a.m. to start cooking all of the food. She is a constant fixture at every game and says that, "I have one child but I've gained many... There's nothing like being a team mom."
Madeline Gray

Seven of the eight 2020 graduates on the team started college in the fall. Self-described team mom Lori Carmon says Coach Bradshaw was with the seniors until the end. "He was there at graduation sitting over there just like a dad would do."

For those graduates, including Zykia Andrews, 18, it was a fitting end to their time at Kinston High. Andrews says the team has always been about much more than basketball.

Top: Zykia Andrews celebrates her 18th birthday with friends and teammates. When thinking about her last year in high school, Andrews says, "I don't want to cry about it, but it's hard to believe." Left: Michyla Dove rests her head on a friend's shoulder before the celebration. Right: Kinston High School basketball players and their friends sit together before the celebration.
Madeline Gray
Clockwise from top left: Anzaryia Cobb's brother, Ervin Jones, wears a shirt with a photo of his sister during senior night celebrations; Cobb, center, holds her niece while she and Winter Lane, left, prepare to leave the locker room; balloons for Zykia Andrews (No. 30) float on the ceiling during Kinston High School senior night celebrations; the team prays after a game.
Madeline Gray

"The Kinston High women's basketball program ... it's another definition for family. A lot of the girls, a majority of the team, we grew up together. ... We could go through a lot of adversity, but we still got each other."

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Alena Rivers, Zykia Andrews, Lesley Sutton and Taliyah Jones (clockwise from top left) wear their caps and gowns during graduation week. Sutton graduated as valedictorian and now attends the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Rivers graduated at salutatorian and now attends High Point University. Seven of the eight 2020 graduates on the team started college in the fall.
Madeline Gray for NPR
Michyla Dove and her teammates practice at a community gym. Dove says, "I wouldn't be who I am today had I not met these girls."
Madeline Gray
This fall, now-senior Kenya Forbes became one of the few players with varsity experience. Despite the challenges and the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic, Coach Bradshaw still emphasizes resilience. He mentions a common local sentiment. "If you're from Kinston, you can adjust to anything," he says as his sights are already set on the 2020-2021 season.
Madeline Gray