In the summers, when unforgiving eastern North Carolina temperatures climb into the 90s, just breathing can become a chore inside the aging yellow shelter tucked behind a brick house off Pactolus Highway.
Keith McLawhorn keeps the doors open. Fans don’t really help — they just stir the suffocating air.
Flaps of torn insulation hang from the A-frame roof, and occasionally a dingy yellow piece drops to the splotched, smooth concrete floor with the faded black lines of a basketball court. Cracks throughout the white and beige walls reflect years of wear and neglect.
Orange cones, ropes and other workout equipment are scattered beside storage boxes that sit between benches just a few feet off the court. Spectators are welcome to sit and watch, but they can’t stretch out their legs for fear of interrupting play.
Brad Smith has been bringing his daughter, Zoe, here for nearly 18 months. He knows there are more-modern gyms throughout Pitt County, but there’s no where he would rather be than the place called The Dungeon.
“You might be playing and look up and see squirrels running on the rafters,” he said. “There.might be a leak on the floor. It’s raw, but I wouldn’t take nothing else for it.”
That’s because life at The Dungeon is more than just about developing better basketball players. It’s about molding successful people.
McLawhorn, a Pitt County native, started his program here in 2012 when he returned from Detroit and recently founded the nonprofit Outwork Performance Training. He requires only a few things from his players whether they are 5 or 18, but they are non-negotiable — a passion for the game, an unrelenting work ethic and, above all, taking education seriously.
“We’re just trying to teach the fundamentals of life, hard work, leadership skills,” McLawhorn said. “All that ties into it. When basketball stops, what are you going to do? We want to prepare them not only for sports but prepare them for life.
“A lot of people don’t understand the magnitude of this program. We had a homeless kid that was sleeping in this gym that I didn’t know nothing about until I came to this gym at 5 o’clock in the morning and I saw him laying down on the bench and wrapped up. I got him out of that situation. There’s kids talking about committing suicide because their fathers are not in their lives, so I go to their schools and check them out at school and talk to them. … It’s bigger than basketball, but basketball is the driving point. … We can’t save everybody, but the kids in our program, we’re trying to help them out as much as we can.”
Call it The Dungeon
Students at the former Community Christian Academy once used the aluminum shell building just a few yards away for recreation. Men from Community Christian Church also gathered there for pickup games of basketball.
Lawn mowers and other equipment soon infringed on their space, and activity ceased as time and nature took its toll.
McLawhorn, who grew up in the Pactolus area, remembered playing there in his youth and now was back home looking to train the next generation. He just needed a gym and approached Community Christian pastor James Corbett and facilities manager Urban Turnage.
“We wanted to do stuff to kind of help the kids at the church, and then we ran into Keith and he wanted the same thing,” Turnage said.
Before that could happen, much work needed to be done.
“It was a mess, man,” McLawhorn said. “I called it The Dungeon.”
The name stuck. Since then, new goals have been erected, and McLawhorn set up a small office and a weight room near the building’s entrance. Although the facility has been cleaned, much of its “charm” remains.
“The parents have a good vibe about it because they know their kids are going to work,” McLawhorn said.
Still, McLawhorn has looked for other options and informed Turnage a couple of years ago he had found an air-conditioned gym to use. The move never panned out.
“He called me back not quite a month later and said, ‘Don’t do anything with The Dungeon,’” Turnage said.
Turnage is glad McLawhorn stayed. He believes there’s great value in what players learn in The Dungeon environment.
“Sweat equity is a little bit more than just playing ball,” he said. “If you can get the kids to buy into that, then they’ll understand they haven’t done anything until they sweat it out, work out, work out, work out.
“Keith wants what’s good for you to be successful in life. He’s very good for those kids. I’ve seen him help a lot kids. He’s got something that they need.”
‘Like a family’
When Smith was looking for a program to help his daughter, who had a love for the game but not the skills, he put in a call to East Carolina University women’s coach Heather Macy. She had one suggestion — Keith McLawhorn, who had trained some of her players.
“Zoe always had a passion for basketball, and she wanted to really get better,” Smith said. “At that time she had a lot of social anxiety. She was a little bit scared and shy.”
Less than two years later, she is more confident on and off the court and is starting on the varsity as an eighth-grader at Greenville Christian Academy. The 14-year-old said she liked both the competition and camaraderie she found at in McLawhorn’s program.
“It feels more like a family, and you can tell that he really cares about us and that he really wants us to get better,” she said. “Physically, I have gotten a lot better at ball-handling. When I first came here, I could barely dribble with just my right hand. I’ve gotten better with both hands, and just recently been practicing a lot going behind my back.
“Mentally, I have gained a whole lot of confidence,” she said. “I feel a lot more comfortable around people. I’ve just broken out of my shell.”
Zoe began with individual workouts to develop specific skills then transitioned to group practices where she goes up against boys and girls in the middle school age group. Her dad said he is impressed in how far Zoe’s abilities have come in a short time but is even more grateful for how her personality has blossomed.
“In so many aspects it’s been good for her and good for me, too,” he said. “I’ve just seen her grow all around. I love to see her take pride in her skill, in basketball, and I love seeing her get around people she feels comfortable with like family. … This place here is family. The Dungeon is family.”
Smith credits McLawhorn’s genuine interest that doesn’t end when the players walk out of the door.
“Keith has a passion for it, but he looks at each individual like that’s his child,” he said. “He’ll come to their games and watch their games. I know I can call him up, text him anytime. … You can tell it’s a personal level with him.
“ … Keith makes sure that if you’re going to train here, your grades are going to be up. They look at their report cards and all the aspects of it. … Student-athlete first, that’s what it’s all about.”
More success stories
Two of McLawhorn’s biggest success stories are on Division I rosters this season.
Tyler Maye, who led Farmville Central to a state championship as a junior, is a freshman guard at Virginia Commonwealth. Kayla Jones, a two-time all-state player at Riverside High School in Williamston, is a freshman at NC State.
Maye started working out with McLawhorn when he was about 8 years old, enduring the sweltering heat in The Dungeon as they worked on developing his left hand, improving his footwork, refining his shooting stroke, and increasing his strength and conditioning.
By his junior year, he emerged as the area’s most dynamic offensive player, averaging 23.6 points on a senior-dominated team that finished 28-0. With little experience around him as a senior, he shouldered the scoring burden and averaged 32.4 points for a 14-9 team.
Scholarship offers didn’t pour in. The hometown Pirates were not interested. He visited Charlotte and Nebraska before accepting an offer from VCU.
McLawhorn said Maye’s journey shows what dedication and hard work can produce.
“I remember times when Tyler was crying, and people were telling him he wasn’t good enough,” McLawhorn said. “I told Tyler he needs to tell his story: ‘There are some kids right now looking up to you and feel the same way you felt and feel like giving up.’ He’s got to let people know about the process to get here.”
Maye said the environment of The Dungeon, with no distractions and the direction of McLawhorn, paved the way to an opportunity to play college ball.
“It’s a good place to get better,” he said. ““It’s somewhere to get away and concentrate. The conditions we play in is going to prepare you for the next level.
“A lot of local guys usually come here to work out because he’s the best trainer around here. He basically got me to where I am now. He pushed me to be the best that I can be.”
McLawhorn also pushed Jones, especially after she tore the ACL in one of her knees in a Raleigh Christmas tournament during her junior year at Riverside. She made the nearly 40-mile trip from Jamesville four times a week, working to regain her conditioning, strength and explosiveness.
“He helped me a lot,” said Jones, who began training with McLawhorn as a sixth-grader and became McDonald’s All-America nominee. “The summertime when it’s real hot, you know you get your work in. You’re about to pass out.”
Selecting a name for his nonprofit was easy — no one will outwork his players.
“We work hard,” McLawhorn said. “A lot of kids don’t know how to work hard. They think they’re already talented enough and don’t have to work, but we kind of provide that work ethic into our program.”
About 145 players come to The Dungeon each week, divided into elementary, middle school and high school groups. They come from throughout Pitt County as well as Ahoskie, Williamston and Wilson.
But it’s also a stop for college and NBA players — former Kinston High School and UNC guard Reggie Bullock, now with the Detroit Pistons, and former Bertie and Old Dominion forward Kent Bazemore, now with the Atlanta Hawks, are among a handful of pros to spend their offseason working out in The Dungeon sauna.
Pitt County, a hotbed for basketball through 1980s and early 1990s, has fallen behind in producing college-level talent, and McLawhorn aims to change that.
“I think basketball in this area is at an all-time low,” he said. “We need more programs like this that are year-around. If you look at the last eight years, we had three players to come out of this area that went ot the NBA, but none of them are from Pitt County. The last 10 years we had about 15 Division I players, but one of them from Pitt County.”
McLawhorn evaluates every player that enters his program but makes no promises about where the basketball journey eventually will end. He does guarantee no goal will be reached without focusing on the details and putting in the work.
“I look at your form, I look at your footwork, I look at your mechanics,” he said. “If we can fix those things, get that addressed, you may not be a great player, but you can be a decent player.
“I want the kids to understand how to play instead of just going out and just playing, and I want them to be successful people. That’s what motivates me. You can train a kid, and the kid can score 30 points, but if the kid is not doing good in the classroom, it kind of defeats the purpose.”
For more information on The Dungeon, call 252-548-9224.