SALISBURY – Ramel Belfield knew he still had it.
Even though he was older and facing an uphill battle, Belfield patiently waited for the day he could return to the basketball court. That wait took three and a half years, but came to an end Wednesday night at the basketball mecca of the South, of all places.
But before Belfield was able to put on a basketball uniform again there were a few detours. His original college, Saint Paul’s College in Lawrenceville, Va., shut its doors after Belfield played one season for the Tigers. There were also problems getting his transcripts released, not allowing him to enroll at other schools.
There was also the race against father time. Belfield, 24, by no means is an old man, but he is human, and being away from competitive hoops for three years, unable to play any real games, well, that would be a tough hill to climb for even the best conditioned athlete.
Let’s start from the beginning.
Ramel ‘Pee Wee’ Belfield was a human highlight film coming out of Northampton County West in 2009. He could handle the ball, shoot and play above the rim. Belfield was going places, and basketball was his ticket. That ticket was punched at Saint Paul’s, the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) school located in Southern Virginia, a short drive from Belfield’s hometown of Gaston, N.C. It was perfect. Close to home, a chance to play and a chance to compete in the CIAA. Belfield saw the court as a freshman, coming off the bench and showing the same all-around game that made him a superstar at NCHS-West.
It was all going so well. Then in the summer of 2013, SPC closed its doors for good because of financial difficulties. Hundreds of students were suddenly without a school. Belfield and the rest of the Tigers, without a team.
His first thought was a simple one – transfer immediately and resume his promising hoops career. But it wouldn’t be so easy. SPC wouldn’t release his transcripts. No transcripts means no transfer. So it was time for a detour, a three year detour, but a detour either way.
It’s not unheard of to hear about athletes, especially Division II athletes, taking strange paths to arrive at their schools. Many take the road less travelled, and have interesting stories that bounce them from school to school, some even thrown into the real world first. Belfield is no different. The quick hands he once had on the court to get steals and make assists, now had a different role – coffee maker at Starbucks
“I didn’t like it for one bit. Everyday I went in, I hated it,” Belfield said. “I was the laziest barista ever. My favorite drink to make was a cup of water because it was the easiest drink to make.”
Having great coworkers made life a little easier. Having a daughter, Kaci, who is now 2, made it necessary. It wasn’t ideal, but it was what Belfield needed to do. But everyday he thought about basketball. He even talked about basketball to his coworkers, telling them about his past success, even if they didn’t want to hear it, or believe him.
“If they didn’t believe me, they didn’t believe me,” he said. “But everyday was a basketball conversation.”
When Belfield left Saint Paul’s, his former coach, Ed Joyner, Sr., promised he would look out for him. Joyner landed at Livingstone College as an assistant, and told current head coach James Stinson about Belfield. Years went by and Belfield waited and waited.
He would only play basketball once or twice a month. Pickup games around Raleigh, where he was living and working at the time. Not even any kind of organized Pro-Am games. Belfield was getting run on outdoor courts with guys not even close to his talent level. But Joyner, true to his word, remained in Stinson’s ear about Belfield. Without seeing him play at all, Stinson took a chance.
“Every since then, we’ve been on the money,” Belfield said. “Once Saint Paul’s released the transcripts, it was a go from then.”
Not completely. Belfield had almost given up on playing again, so he wasn’t working out at all. He was still a young man, who still had his thin frame, but basketball shape, he was far from it. In fact, he didn’t even know he would be enrolling at Livingstone until one week before school started. Once he got on campus he went all out, trying to make up for the years he missed.
“I tried to do everything harder than the freshmen and harder than the returners,” Belfield said. “I was out of shape. The first day of open gym I played like crap. I played so bad that I didn’t even think I could play ball anymore.”
After playing consistently, Belfield got his legs back and could feel himself slowly, but surely, returning to regular form. With the physical part, came the mental confidence. Once he locked in – not rushing, just working – the game came easy to him again. He put in extra work – running bleachers at the football stadium, additional workouts in the gym – away from everyone else, simply because he had a longer way to go.
“Everyday I did something little,” Belfield said, “Just to get better for the next step.”
His return was bigger than he could have imagined.
Welcome to Cameron
Belfield’s return wasn’t just a regular game against some lowly opponent. No, his first official game in three years was up against the best … literally.
Livingstone played an exhibition against the defending national champion Duke Blue Devils in famous Cameron Indoor Stadium. After three years away, to come back and play on that grand stage, was something Belfield and his family couldn’t image.
“I was overjoyed,” his father, Michael said. “To come back in Cameron, that was big.”
The elder Belfield is a lifelong Duke fan, who had never been inside Cameron. That was one of the many treats of the night. Not only did Belfield play, he played well. He came off the bench to lead the Blue Bears with 14 points, going 4-9 from the field and 3-8 from three, in 18 minutes of play. Not bad for an old man.
Belfield said he didn’t have time to get caught up in all the glitz and glamour of Cameron Indoor Stadium and playing Duke. For him it was just about being back and playing.
“When you dream about it, you don’t have to do anything but put everything to action,” he said. “To be under those lights, and if you have it in your heart, and you know you are ready for it, that this is your last chance and you might not get another chance … you have to go all or nothing.”
It helped that he didn’t mentally take himself out of the game before hitting the floor. He didn’t overthink it, he just let things happen naturally. Forget they were playing one of the best college programs off all time, with arguably the greatest coach ever, Mike Krzyzewski. That didn’t phase Belfield at all. Well, maybe a little.
“I was starstruck to see Coach K and all that,” Belfield finally admitted. “I’ve never shook someone’s hand who has that much money.”
A long way to go
The following morning, Belfield still hadn’t looked at his stats from the game against Duke. He admitted that he still has a ways to go, on and off the court. Getting readjusted to basketball was one thing, having to move back into a dorm and take classes again after being on his own for three years, is also quite the adjustment.
“At first it was hard,” Belfield said. “I’m still adjusting to that part.”
But it’s where Belfield wants to be, back on the court, exactly where he always envisioned he would be, not serving coffee. Belfield never took his eyes off the big prize.
“I hated it because I knew it wasn’t the place I wanted to be,” he said. “Those years I was away I stayed mentally ready. As long as I was mentally ready I knew I could put myself in a position to get physically ready. I just stayed ready because of just what if something was to happen and I (came) back.”