America's Basketball Heaven

The tiny hometown of Brandon Ingram and other NBA stars has faced biblical floods, economic devastation, gang violence, even wayward nuclear bombs, yet has become the NBA capital of the world. 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. 24, 1961. An American B-52 bomber's right wing has snapped off, undone by a fuel leak, sending the aircraft into a barrel roll. As the plane disintegrates midair, two 11-foot-long, 6,750-pound hydrogen bombs escape its belly and plummet toward the eastern North Carolina countryside, each armed with a destructive power 250 times greater than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

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. And by daybreak, a 25-year-old Air Force weapons disposal officer named Jack ReVelle arrives from Ohio, leading a 10-man team to find and disarm the bombs. They find a parachute suspending one of them in a trio of gum trees, its arm/safe switch in the safe position.

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. After four days of painstaking excavation, that bomb's vital arm/safe switch is also found -- set to arm. Carefully, ReVelle recovers the volleyball-sized pit of plutonium and uranium, known as the Demon Core. 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.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara would later write in a memo.

The morning after the mission is complete, ReVelle returns to his small apartment in Ohio, aiming to write a letter to his parents, explaining why they hadn't heard from him recently. But before he puts pen to paper, his hand begins to shake.

My god, he wonders. What could have happened ... ?

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. As ReVelle, now 82, says from his home in Orange, California: "We could've ended up with a Bay of North Carolina."

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 3.8-megaton nukes crashed in 1961. Stacy Kranitz for ESPN

CEDRIC MAXWELL IDLES in his car in the drive-through at 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. Today, Maxwell is asked for one fact about his hometown that most wouldn't know -- and he doesn't hesitate, replying with a tale that's such a metaphor for Kinston that it's too unbelievable to be false.

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. This does not make Kinston unique in a nation whose small towns have been battered for decades by economic dislocation. What does make Kinston unique is that this town of some 21,000 residents is most surely, per capita, the greatest producer of NBA players in America.

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."

BRANDON INGRAM RAISES a crisp Lakers jersey with his name emblazoned across the back. He smiles. Cameras flash. It's July 2016. 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. It will be two stories, brick, situated near Kinston High School, where he won four consecutive state championships.

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. His older brother, Bo, always looked over him; so did an uncle, Ronnie Ingram, a longtime police officer and now the local county sheriff. He grew up in a stable, two-parent household, with a doting father who was once a police officer and went on to run a recreation center where Brandon spent countless hours. "That kept me out of trouble a lot, because if it wasn't basketball," Brandon says, "I don't know what else I would do." Ingram, like so many in Kinston, grew to view basketball as a ticket to college and perhaps a better life. And indeed, in Kinston, it often is.

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. Some don't quit until they flatline right there on the court; it has happened often enough to form something of a tradition.

Two-time NBA champion Cedric Maxwell is Kinston's first favored son. Dick Raphael/NBAE/Getty Images

HOLLOWAY RECREATION CENTER rises from 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. He figures he has seen about 10,000 players pass through Holloway's doors, and if they kept them open until 3 a.m., he says, there'd still be action on the court. The same holds true at Kinston's five other recreation centers. And as Davis sits in that metal chair, pondering the question of which player might be the best he's seen, suddenly, from a back room, emerges Maxwell, the longtime Celtics forward and 1981 NBA Finals MVP.

"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. You got all these other bigger towns around here, bigger cities ... and they couldn't touch Kinston!"

"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."

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. Patrons lined up five deep outside store windows along Queen, perusing its many businesses: high-end men's and women's clothing stores, department stores, shoe stores, jewelry stores, salons, banks, family-owned groceries, eateries, a movie theater, a pool hall.

"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. In time, textile mills, shirt factories and a DuPont manufacturing plant employed thousands. And along the way, Kinston kept churning out another high-quality export: basketball players.

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. "If you look at the history of players from Kinston, all these guys are tough," says Duke assistant coach Jeff Capel, who recruited Brandon and says of the rail-thin forward, "He's tougher than he looks ... because he's from Kinston."

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 76.4 winning percentage since 1945 (1,444-444), reaching 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. Stacy Kranitz for ESPN

LEGEND HOLDS THAT in the early 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. Lines snaked around the gym hours before tipoff; tickets sold as if the Beatles were in town.

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. DuPont shrank from 3,600 jobs to 13 at one point. In all, Kinston would lose close to 8,000 jobs. As the town's population dwindled, the school dropped to Class 3A, then 2A. And in a small way, the fallout revealed itself in what became Kinston's last great source of civic pride: KHS basketball games.

Even when Brandon Ingram's teams won four consecutive state titles, the stands had plenty of empty seats. Sellouts were rare. "We haven't had any fire marshal issues in a while, not the way it was," says Perry Tyndall, the KHS boys basketball coach.

The problem, he and many others say: Tickets today are $6, double the price when Stackhouse played. "For a family of four," Tyndall says, "that's expensive." Indeed, for as much tragedy that has visited Kinston in myriad forms, including hurricane-fueled floods in 1996 and 1999 that swelled the Neuse River and destroyed hundreds of homes, and the West Pharmaceutical Services Plant explosion in 2003 that killed six and injured more than a dozen, perhaps the greatest blow came when the middle class that once drove Kinston bottomed out.

"Back when I was growing up, we had all these factories," says Ronnie Ingram, the sheriff. "Everything was booming. All that is gone."

Also gone: the Magic Mile. 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. Whitfield looks around, the area so quiet you can hear the cicadas sing. "This breaks my heart," he says.

According to data from the Census Bureau, Kinston's poverty level (32.8 percent) is 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. Working narcotics for the Kinston Police Department from 1988 to 1992, he saw older drug dealers recruiting 12-, 13- and 14-year-olds by giving them $100 -- and no matter what the police officers told those kids about doing what's right, their words were no match for $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. "I really don't." Stacy Kranitz for ESPN

IT'S LATE AUGUST, and 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. "I really don't."

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 [on the edge] 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 [the man], "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."

IT'S LESS THAN a week before the 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.S. communities. 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.C.

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.C. apartment, then at the basketball court out back and at neighborhood parks where his mother brought him, even though he wasn't yet big enough to shoot. 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. "He would play whenever he had a chance," Stephanie says.

It wasn't his only love. 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. "Incredibly talented, musically," Tyndall says. 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. Gangs prevailed.

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 regrets ever moving here. 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. Stacy Kranitz for ESPN

OUTSIDE KINSTON HIGH School's gym, a local police officer keeps watch from his parked cruiser while the high school football team practices on a nearby field. 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. Yet here they are. Unfamiliar faces are stopped, questioned about their business. Without hassle, Coach Tyndall parks on the grass in front of the gym and walks in, past the team photos of recent state finalists and state champions gracing one wall along a hallway.

Tyndall had hair once. The photos prove it. 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. There's a photo of Paul Jones, who coached Kinston from 1957 to 1995, retiring as the winningest high school basketball coach in state history.

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. "For some, it's something else." Suddenly, he pauses, turns and points to a spot on the court, where, just yesterday it seems, a player tried out, didn't make it, then somehow fell into a life that soon swallowed his own. Basketball wasn't, for him, a ticket out. Tyndall falls silent. A beat passes. That player was Antonio Hines.

You can't save everybody.

Brandon Ingram knew Antonio Hines. They saw each other around. 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.m. to 3 p.m., but the court is his refuge. "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 it sounds harsh. 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?" because he wants them to know that basketball isn't forever.

"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 [young] 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.

"You deserve to grow old."

Ingram, like so many in Kinston, grew to view basketball as a ticket to college and perhaps a better life. Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

BRANDON INGRAM STANDS at his locker after the 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. The O'Neil, a seven-room luxury boutique hotel, and formerly an old bank, reopened in 2015 along Queen Street. Next door, award-winning Mother Earth beer is brewed.

Down the block, Chef & the 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. "We were tired of it. 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.

Even now, as he enters his second NBA season, rapidly rising as one of the Lakers' most promising talents -- posting a career-high 32 points in a narrow loss to Golden State in late November, sinking the game winner at Philly in early December, scoring a game-high 26 in an early-January win over the Spurs -- his points, rebounds, assists and shooting percentages all improving, his role as a leader solidifying, he thinks about the path that led here, versus the paths that he avoided -- and how a razor's edge of difference separates the two. He says he thinks about that difference every day.

IT'S A MIDAUTUMN morning just over a year ago, and residents, business owners, community leaders, law enforcement and clergy have gathered beneath clear blue skies at a park along the banks of the Neuse River. 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. The banks of the Neuse are rising, and computer models forecast them to reach historic highs the next night. So hundreds have gathered here, where disaster will unfold again. They hold hands. They pray.

Later that same night, a world away, Brandon Ingram plays a preseason game in Las Vegas against the Kings, but his mind is back home in Kinston. His family is safe, as are many friends, but he knows that the town is being evacuated, that the forecast has called for its worst flood ever. "I think it's going to be really bad," he says, shaking his head in the T-Mobile Arena locker room as his teammates file out.

And indeed, as he fears, the very next night the Neuse crests at 28.31 feet, surpassing the record of 27.71 feet set by Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

It is the 20th time since 1936 that the Neuse has flooded. In all, five townspeople will die. Approximately 800 homes and 170 businesses will be affected. About $125 million in damage will be inflicted. The town's officials will estimate that it will take years to recover.

But through it all, one constant will remain.

In 1947, when the town of Kinston built a structure that would also serve as a town shelter, it was constructed on higher ground, blocks from the floodplain. Over the years, the town would build more just like it, on the same type of protected grounds: one near a park in East Kinston, another south of a country club in northwest Kinston, another near the intersection of Marcella Drive and Cecilia Avenue. With every flood, as Kinston was swallowed, block by block, these buildings would remain.

And so, in the days after the flood, Ronnie Ingram patrols the streets in a Humvee, surveying the damage. He sees huge sections of paved road -- 25 feet wide, 20 feet deep -- washed away. He thinks to himself that he's never seen devastation like this. But then he sees those buildings. Some sit empty, like barrier islands, perched just feet above the pooling water. Others are being used as evacuation centers and hubs for emergency responders. But four of them remain open for the same reason they're open every other day -- including the one in which Brandon Ingram grew up playing.

Immediately after the flood, hundreds of kids stream through their doors, maybe 200, 250 even, playing basketball every day for hours, their squeaking sneakers echoing off walls that separate them from the horror outside.

Kinston's 10 gymnasiums remain unharmed.

As usual, the game survives.

Baxter HolmesHolmes is a staff writer for ESPN.

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