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‘Overlooked My Whole Life’: H.B.C.U. Set Stage for an N.B.A. Career

At the time, Dana Ford was an assistant at Chipola College, a two-year school in Marianna, Fla. But he was also a candidate to join the staff at Tennessee State, a Division I university in Nashville, when he first saw Covington and was captivated by his potential.

“He was like, ‘I’m applying for this job, but until I get it I’m allowed to call you every day,’” Covington recalled Ford telling him. “So he called every day. I thought he was crazy at first.”

Ford soon landed the job as an assistant coach at Tennessee State — and curbed his phone calls — but not before he persuaded John Cooper, the team’s new head coach, to join him on a trip to Chicago to see Covington in a showcase for unsigned seniors. It did not go as planned: Fewer than 10 prospects participated, and Cooper could understand why coaches had concerns about Covington. (What position would he play?) But Cooper had scholarships available.

“The one thing you could tell is that he could shoot the ball,” Cooper, now an assistant at Southern Methodist University, said in a telephone interview. “So I told Dana, ‘Well, you know, the one thing for sure is that at his height, he’s a guy who if teams zone us, he can possibly make some shots.’”

For his part, Covington said he was sold on Tennessee State as soon as he arrived for his official visit.

“I called my parents before the first day was even over and said, ‘I found my school,’” he said. “It just felt right.”

When he enrolled, the N.B.A. was a distant fantasy. The more realistic goal, he said, was to eventually get paid to play basketball — somewhere, anywhere. Cooper said he was struck by Covington’s toughness. He was unafraid of contact, and even seemed to seek it. “He just needed some strength and size,” Cooper said.

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