Joyner carries on a rich family legacy

They were 11, a pair of basketball-crazed kids living next door to Clarence "Big House" Gaines when they made the pinky-swear promise that would change not only their own lives, but carry into the next generation as well.

Today, Ed Joyner Sr. is the head coach at Saint Paul's College in Virginia and Steve Joyner is the head coach at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte.

And as of April 7, Ed Joyner Jr. is the head coach at Hampton University.

All because two brothers not only made a vow -- they kept it.

Well, OK, one brother sort of cornered the other one into keeping it, but why ruin the fairy tale?

It started in Winston-Salem, N.C., where Ed and Steve were born and where Gaines was a living legend at Winston-Salem State. The Hall of Fame coach would offer tips and advice and instill in the boys a life-long affinity for HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities).

Enthralled by the game and even more by Gaines, Ed and Steve vowed to become head coaches, swearing to one another that whenever one of them got a head gig, the other would immediately sign on as his assistant.

That happened in 1988, when Steve Joyner took over at Johnson C. Smith. His first call went to his older brother, Ed (whom everyone calls Buck after the Chubby Checker song "Hucklebuck"). He reminded him of their childhood promise and Ed, naturally said:

"No way," Ed Sr. remembered, with a laugh. "I was living in St. Croix, in paradise. I told him no way I was I coming home for some kiddie promise."

Steve offered him a plane ticket if he would just visit and offer some advice, so Ed obliged.

"He bought me a one-way ticket," Ed Sr. said, laughing uproariously. "He knew I never could afford to go back and I never did. I still have clothes and a pool table there."

Twenty-one years later, no one is mad at Steve anymore, not even Ed. The two brothers who take out their good-natured rivalry in head-to-head games between Johnson C. Smith and St. Paul's, have found a common cheering ground now -- Hampton basketball.

Contentedly toiling in the Division II ranks their entire careers, father and uncle are swelling with pride now that Ed Jr. has taken over the Pirates.

"If you think I'm excited, you should talk to them," Ed Jr. said. "We get on three-way calls maybe four or five times a week. It's been unbelievable."

Joyner family functions have always doubled as coaching clinics. Everyone down to the littlest grandchild gets into the hoops conversation and battles for bragging rights (awarded to Ed this year after St. Paul's took two from Johnson C. Smith), and so it surprised no one when Ed's son -- Little Buck to the family -- followed in the familial footsteps.

Ed Jr. played for his uncle at Johnson C. Smith and coached under him as well. Mixed in with his own genetic predisposition for the coaching bug and the rich history woven from Gaines' involvement, Ed Jr. needed nothing more than an opportunity to extend his family's coaching tree.

He got it last month, when he was tabbed to replace Kevin Nickelberry, who resigned after three seasons.

"This is his accomplishment and we're excited for him," Steve said. "But I guess if you're able to reflect, sit down and look back, we're also excited about the path we were able to show him and expose him to."

Father and uncle would have been thrilled if Ed Jr. got a chance anywhere. That he has one at Hampton, an HBCU with a rich history, means all the more. There was a time that HBCUs were the only places offering opportunities for African-American athletes and the schools' strength came out of their solidarity.

But the tradition has skipped a few generations as opportunities have opened and most athletes, as well as most young coaches, don't want the struggles and challenges that come with an HBCU. With budgets not even in the stratosphere of their BCS counterparts and interest waning, it is a true labor of love.

"Being an HBCU product, a CIAA product, I always understood and admired the tradition," Ed Jr. said. "To me, Hampton was always the top of the line. If you're not an HBCU guy, you want to be at Duke or Carolina. That was the dream. I want to be at Hampton. That's my dream."

A charter member of the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA), Hampton counts Rick Mahorn among its alumni and soared to 21-8 and 19-7 finishes in the two seasons before jumping to Division I.

"You hear people say they want to be a mid-major power. We want to be a major mid-major, someone on the plane with Gonzaga," said Hampton AD Lonza Hardy. "And we think with the backing of our administration, our resources and our facilities, we have a unique opportunity compared to other HBCUs to elevate ourselves that way.''

The program has seen its share of success. In 2001, just six years into its Division I membership, 15th-seeded Hampton stunned Iowa State in the first round of the NCAA tournament, still the last 15-seed to win a tourney game.

The Pirates returned as a 15 the next year and gave UConn a run for its money, and then went back to the Dance in 2006 as an upstart MEAC tournament winner. But that year's dream was stymied in what's often called the "play-in game," where many HBCU schools have found themselves this decade. With the exception of the first year, either the MEAC or SWAC champion has appeared in the opening-round game every season since it was introduced to the bracket in 2001.

But Hampton has also clogged its own situation with a wildly spinning coaching carousel. Joyner, still just the "interim" coach, will be the fourth to lead the Pirates in the past eight years at a school that is craving success and impatient to get it.

"Basically we've done that with coaches we hired in the past on short notice," said Hardy of the interim moniker. "Because we wanted to get someone in here before the signing period ended, we thought it would be best to promote from within. But if everything goes according to plan, as we expect it will, that interim tag will be removed.''

The struggle for HBCU coaches, however, is that the simplest route to success is through recruiting talented players -- and with each passing year, it's become a harder and harder sell.

"For most ballplayers, HBCUs are an afterthought because they know they'll always be there," Ed Jr. said. "We've made it an afterthought. We need to change that. I tell kids this is a place that is special, that makes you special. Hampton has been to the NCAA tournament. We can get there again. The job now is to get further.

"I'm not promising the Final Four but I am promising to make this school the strongest HBCU, a strong mid-major program, that will offer an experience like no other. It's all right here. We just need to sell it."

Looks like maybe they've found the perfect pitchman.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.